Hate Crimes: Is There a Trump Effect?

Note: This is a preliminary analysis.

We were warned that a Trump presidency would produce a climate of hate putting race and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and the LGBT community at risk for discrimination and violence. His demogoguery during the campaign and after, as well as policies as president, have targeted Mexicans and Muslims. And, while his rhetoric with respect to the LGBT community has been mixed, his policies towards transgendered persons has been exclusionary. More broadly, his presence as a long-standing cultural right-winger is believed to fuel resentment and identity-group antagonisms. For example, his outspokenness on the alleged perpetrators of a vicious crime against a white female jogger in Central Park, all of whom were black, as well as his doubts about the citizenship of US president Barack Obama, a black man whose father was a Nigerian citizen, are widely seen as evidence of anti-black prejudice.

One way of gauging the effect of Trump’s rhetoric is to examine hate crime statistics gathered and published annually by the FBI. While we wait for the 2018 statistics (the FBI does not update in real time), the 2017 statistics, which cover the first years of the Trump presidency, are available for analysis. These statistics are broken down in various ways, but I am interested in the figures that represent the proportions of victims across different types of hate crimes, as well as proportions within these types. The 2017 numbers show that violent hate was directed overwhelmingly at black, Jewish, and gay male persons. By far, victims of race or ethnic hatred are the largest proportion of hate crime victims, followed by religious minorities. However, one year does not indicate change over time. Fortunately, thanks to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (18 U.S.C. §249), the FBI has annual statistics from 2011.

In terms of overall numbers, there were 7,173 victims of hate crimes in 2015, 7,615 victims in 2016, and 8,828 victims in 2017. The evidence indicates that there has been an overall increase in hate crime victims. It should be noted that the number of hate crimes in both 2015 and 2016 were lower than the number recorded in 2012, which identified 7713 victims of hate crimes. Taking a longer view, hate crimes increased 14.5 percent between 2012 and 2017, declining in 2013-2015 and then increasing in 2016-2017. It should also be noted that population growth is not figured into the numbers presented. However, the US population grew by nearly 4 percent during this period; the percentage growth in hate crime victims is somewhat tempered by that increase. Crucially, by far, the large increase in proportion was for religious minorities, with Jewish victims of hate crimes comprising most of that increase. 

The following is a breakdown of data for victims of single-bias hate crime incidents for the most recent year, followed by the 2015 and 2016 data with commentary. 

  • In 2017, 59.6 percent of victims were targeted because of offenders’ bias against race, ethnicity, or ancestry. Of these, 48.6 percent were targets of anti-black bias, 10.9 percent were targets of anti-Hispanic or Latino bias, and 2.6% were victims of anti-Arab bias.
  • In 2017, 20.6 percent of persons were victimized on the basis of religion. Of this figure, 58.1 percent were targets of anti-Jewish bias, 18.6 percent for anti-Muslim bias, and 8 percent for anti-Christian. Christians are by far the largest religious group in the country. Within the Christian population, anti-Catholic bias crime was the most frequent.
  • In 2017, 15.8 percent of victims were targeted because of sexual orientation bias (homosexuality and bisexuality). Of these, 57.8 percent of victims were targeted for anti-gay (male) bias. 
  • In 2017, 1.6 percent of victims of hate crimes were targeted because of gender-identity bias (i.e. transphobic violence).

Using 2015 and 2016 figures for comparison, the Trump effect should predict significant changes the proportions of victims subjected to hate crimes consistent with his rhetoric, which was most often directed at Hispanic/Latino persons with respect to ethnicity and Muslims with respect to religion. The effect on Jews is difficult to assess. On the one hand, Trump’s praise of Jews and enthusiastic support for Israel could soften views among his supporters, who are presumed to contain a large proposition of rightwing types (the effect here would be Trump as influencer); on the other hand, his support for Jews and Israel could amplify resentment in this population. Both of these effects are plausible so it may be a wash. Trump’s rhetoric concerning sexual orientation and gender identity have been mixed, but his policies have not been supportive of these communities, so these effects should appear in 2017.

On the popular landscape, Trump as presidential candidate was only on the horizon for 2015, so that year should serve as a good baseline for comparison. We would expect lower numbers in 2015 than in 2017. Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 featured much of the same rhetoric in question, therefore we expect that the percentages whould also be substantially higher in 2016 than in 2015. 

In 2015, for bias crimes against race, ethnicity, and ancestry, the proportion of victims (59.2 percent) is roughly the same as it was in 2017. This is also the case for 2016 (58.9 percent). Over all, the race/ethnic-based Trump effect with respect to proportions is slight and, in some instances, runs counter to expectations. 

First, on the matter of victimization on the basis of race, ethnicity, and ancestry:

  • The proportion of victims of anti-black bias (52.2 percent) was considerably higher in 2015 than in 2017. Hate crimes against blacks thus declined under Trump by nearly four percent. The downward trend was notable in 2016 (50.2 percent). I do not have an explanation for the decline in the proportion of black American victims of hate crime in the short term. However, in the long term, racial discrimination and prejudice against blacks has been declining for decades. This is likely due to the gains of civil rights and the rising status of blacks in American culture. At the same time, black victims of hate cries continue to represent the largest proportion. At 12.1 percent of the US population, blacks suffer by far the worst overrepresentation among hate crimes victims. 
  • At 9.3 percent, the proportion of victims of anti-Hispanic or Latino bias was roughly a percentage point lower in 2015 than in 2017. The number for Hispanic/Latino victims is the same in 2016 as in 2015. Given the level of anti-Mexican rhetoric, one would have expected there to be significant difference in these numbers, yet there is not much evidence of a Trump effect here. Hispanics/Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the United States (18.1 percent); Hispanic/Latino representation in hate crimes is proportionately much lower than their proportional representation in the population. Although there has been considerable media attention on the plight of Hispanic/Latino people with respect to race/ethnic prejudice and discrimination, it pales in contrast to ant-black sentiment, both in frequency and in proportion.  
  • The victims of Anti-Arab bias constituted 1.1 percent in 2015, a figure considerably lower than the 2017 figure. Anti-Arab bias is a small proportion of hate crimes perpetrated on the basis of race, ethnicity, and ancestry; however, Arabs are a small proportion of the US population (around 1.1 percent according to the Arab American Institute Foundation). The number for Arab victims was nearly the same in 2016 as in 2015 (at 1.3 percent). In other words, for those years, there was no ethnic disproportionality in hate crime victims. Given that Trump did not target Arabs in his rhetoric per se, it might be the case that his anti-Muslim rhetoric carried over to the ethnicity most often associated with the Islamic faith. However, as we shall see, the evidence for this is contradictory.

Next, the matter of victimization on the basis of religion. For 2015, crimes of religious bias was 19.7 percent of the total number of victims of hate crime. This is less than a percentage point lower than in 2017. In 2016, 21.1 percent of hate crimes victims were targeted on the basis of religion. Again, that is less than a percentage point difference. Overall, there is little religion-based Trump effect in terms of proportion of type. However, the greatest increase in hate crime victims was for religious bias. One might expect that this increase involved Muslim victims of hate crimes, but this was not the case.

  • At 52.1 percent, attacks on Jews was considerably lower in 2015 than in 2017. For 2016, 54.4 percent of victims of religious violence were Jews. Again, given Trump’s positive rhetoric regarding Jews and Israel, if there is an effect here, it is by provoking antisemitic resentment among far-right supporters of Trump. It must be stressed that there is a rise in antisemitic hate crimes across the trans-Atlantic community, driven not only by rightwing populism, but also by the increase of Muslims in the West. Antisemitism is rampant in Muslim-majority countries, and migrants from those countries bring their antisemitism with them.
  • At 21.9 percent, the proportion of attacks on Muslims was higher in 2015 than in 2017, the opposite of expectation. The proportion was higher in 2016 at 24.5 percent. The sharp decline in the proportion of Muslim victims of hate crimes from 2016 and 2017 is curious in light of the increase in Arab victims of hate crimes. One would expect these to rise together. But in any case, despite Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, a sharp rise in the proportion of victims of anti-Muslim bias is not forthcoming in the data. In fact, we see the opposite.   
  • Attacks on Christians were much higher in 2015 (12.6 percent) compared to 2017. The downward trend in Christian hate crime victims was noticeable in 2016 (9.9 percent). 

Finally, bias crimes against sexual orientation fell almost two percent over the two-year frame (15.8 percent in 2017 from 17.7 percent in 2015), with 62.2 percent directed at gay males in 2015, a larger percentage than in 2017. The hate crime proportion of victims of gender-identity bias was relatively unchanged.

Perhaps the 2018 numbers will be more revealing, but based on the evidence, the claims of a Trump effect are exaggerated. What increase there is does not match expectations given Trump’s rhetoric.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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