Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The Face of Hatred in America

Hate crimes have increased greatly in the last decade. But there's evidence that this spike in activity is meeting resistance. And often these periods lead to improvements in social tolerance

HATE crimes are on the rise in America.They have reached such a level that they can no longer be ignored. The figures from 1990 are startling: * Twenty murders were motivated by bias or linked to white supremacists. That number was nearly three times the level of 1989 and the highest yearly total since Klanwatch began monitoring such activity 10 years ago. * Anti-Semitic incidents rose to a record 1,685. Incidents on college campuses alone rose 36 percent. * Anti-gay violence climbed 42 percent in a survey of eight major US cities. Reports from local groups confirm the national trend. North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence documented a record 78 incidents. Los Angeles County recorded 550 hate crimes last year, half of them race-related and the rest split between those based on religion and those based on sexual preference. "All the experts generally agree that hate crimes have reached epidemic levels and that they are still continuing to increase," says Daniel Levitas, executive director of the Center for Democratic Renewal. The center is a national clearinghouse for information on hate crime and responses to it. These figures do not reflect the true number of such incidents in the US. "It's a tip of an iceberg, reflecting a lot of hate and bigotry," says Eugene Mornell, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. He expects that 1991 will show a slight increase in hate crimes over 1990. This year certainly had its share of dramatic incidents. The nation witnessed a videotape of Rodney King, a black motorist, being beaten by several white policemen in Los Angeles. (Unsure how to categorize the incident, the county's human relations commission created a new category: police hate crime.) In a New York neighborhood, the death in a car accident of a young black boy sharpened tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews. Several incidents of cross-burnings shocked Dubuque, Iowa. And, of course, the Louisiana gubernatorial campaign of former Klansman David Duke has focused attention on hate groups. Why the increase? Better monitoring and reporting accounts for some. But observers also point to tough economic times, a vacuum of moral leadership, a declining standard of civility, and a greater willingness to express prejudice openly. It appears that America is entering another in a long string of volatile periods in its history where hate-crime activity has spiked. "We do make progress. Nevertheless there is always underneath that progress a reservoir of bad feelings," says Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University. Today, "We see a bubbling to the surface of a lot of pent-up anger and emotion," he says.

Random violence While all hate crimes are loosely related, they represent two separate strands of bigotry. The vast majority are not organized or planned in advance. They are random, spur-of-the-moment episodes where individuals or groups come into hostile contact. Although there are no national statistics to prove it, many experts believe that the increase in overall hate crimes stems from the rise in these random incidents. It appears that young people commit most of these crimes. For example: In the 20 murders documented by Klanwatch last year, more than half of the suspects were age 21 or younger. In five of those cases, all the victims and suspects were under 21. "We have a crisis in this country in terms of our young people and I think it gets played out in hate crimes," says Gail Gans, associate research director of the Anti-Defamation League. "We're dealing with a population of youngsters who are feeling very alienated." Sometimes this leads to episodes, such as New York's Howard Beach and Bensonhurst killings, where one group spontaneously attacks. Sometimes it leads to membership in organized hate groups, such as the skinheads. "We do have a lot of disenfranchised, restless young people in this country who join up with whatever will accept them," says Adele Terrell, program director of the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, which is affiliated with the University of Maryland. Some young people who join the skinheads aren't full of hate, she adds. That indoctrination comes later. While most skinhead groups are prone to violence, not all of them are racist, anti-Semitic, or neo-Nazi. Of those that are, their growth appears to be leveling off after five years of increase. The Anti-Defamation League estimates there were some 3,000 neo-Nazi skinheads last year, unchanged from 1989. If the number of skinheads is stabilizing, the traditional Ku Klux Klan is in decline. Current estimates suggest these groups have about 5,000 members, down from 11,000 in 1981. Those numbers look good or bad depending on the time frame. In 1974, Klan groups reached an all-time low of 1,500. But in 1965, there were some 42,000; in 1925, an estimated 5 million.

About these ads

Other groups on the rise But the decline in the traditional Klan has been offset by the growth of other white supremacist groups, such as Aryan Nations and the Christian Identity movement. "We don't see a spectacular increase, but it's definitely holding steady," says Danny Welch, director of Klanwatch, which is a special project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. In all, he estimates there are some 22,000 to 25,000 members of white-supremacist groups. That's about the same as 10 years ago (although the mix between Klan and non-Klan has changed considerably). The arrival of dynamic Klan leaders, such as Mr. Duke and others, fueled the rise in Klan numbers between 1974 and the early '80s. Duke, imperial wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, left the organization in 1980 to set up his own group, the National Association for the Advancement of White People. His campaign for Louisiana governor this year provided a focal point for groups that monitor hate-crime activity. Duke claims he has renounced the Klan's racist ideas and become a born-again Christian.

Duke copycats? Monitoring groups do not believe him. Nor did they cheer loudly when he was handily defeated in a runoff election earlier this month. These groups worry his political tactics will be picked up by other white supremacists. "What is truly frightening is not David Duke as an individual," says Ms. Terrell. "It's the white supremacists who follow him and won't have the kind of obvious past of bigotry and links to organized groups," she adds. "It will be much more difficult to convince the public that they're dangerous." "We're waiting for a lot of candidates to emerge with this same kind of message," says Daniel Assael, research director for North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence. "I don't think supremacist activity is on the wane. It's just being repackaged." According to the Anti-Defamation League, even traditional Klan groups are Brepackaging their message in light of Duke's success. The imperial wizards of the two largest Klan organizations in the US, the Invisible Empire and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, are asking members to renounce violent acts. The Center for Democratic Renewal quotes Klan leader Thom Robb saying he will "train 1,000 David Dukes."

Hard times beget hatred Historically, this kind of activity has spiked during periods of economic difficulty in the United States, says Professor Kraut. The first spike occurred in the 1830s and 1840s, fueled by the economic panic of 1837 and the depression that followed. Many Americans blamed their woes on the Irish and German immigrants who were coming to the US in droves. Anti-Roman Catholicism was rampant. Similar spikes of intolerance occurred after the Civil War (the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South); in the economic difficulties of the early 1920s (the reincarnation of the Klan in the North); and, of course, during the Great Depression of the 1930s (radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin, and others). Kraut counts the McCarthy era of the 1950s as another spike of intolerance. "Neo-Nazis and Klansmen: They feed on other people's fear, fear of losing their jobs, fear of losing their homes," says Joanne Shaffer, assistant director of member and field services in the Texas office of the National Victim Center. In the past, such periods of rising intolerance have presaged progress for minority groups. The Klan backlash against the civil-rights marches in the 1960s did not stop, and perhaps helped push through, civil-rights legislation. Kevin Berrill, director of the antiviolence project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, believes the current spike of intolerance is much the same kind of backlash. "We clearly have made some important gains in recent years," he says. This year Hawaii and Connecticut passed lesbian-and-gay-rights laws, joining Massachusetts and Connecticut. "But the same visibility that allows us to organize and educate ... also makes us a target for more violence," he says. Gay-bashing already is unacceptably high, he adds. In a survey of eight US cities in 1984, the Task Force found that 19 percent of lesbians and gay men reported being punched, hit, kicked, or beaten at least once in their lives because of their sexual orientation. Forty-four percent were threatened with physical violence and 94 percent suffered some form of abuse because of their sexual orientation. "Maybe this is a transition we have to go through," says Ms. Gans of the Anti-Defamation League. "But even if it is a transition, we have to speak up about it.... We're at a very important nexis." There are recent precedents for optimism. When the downturn in the farm economy caused a surge in rural hate groups, Jewish and other organizations countered with a publicity campaign. Ultimately, it helped drive those groups underground. Boston organized a bias-crime group and used a new state law to crack down on hate crimes during the 1980s. Incidents declined 75 percent. The number of incidents did rise in 1989 and 1990, because of increased competition for, and integration of, public housing, says Sgt. Brian Flynn, day supervisor of the bias unit, who believes this year will show a small decrease. Successful civil suits have also helped. A $7 million judgment against leaders of the oldest US Klan group, United Klans of America, has put that organization out of business. A $12.5 million judgment this year against White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger appears to have dimmed skinhead recruitment prospects. Both suits were related to race-related deaths.

Not inevitable "The main lesson is that if you don't ignore the problem and if you devote resources to it, you can counter racism and bigotry," says Leonard Zeskind, research director of the Center for Democratic Renewal. "There's nothing inevitable about it." In the long run, education is the only way to eliminate bigotry, these experts say. "We talk a lot about passing laws, about affirmative action, which is important," Gans says. "But we also need to talk about the bottom line: How do we treat people? ... It takes David Duke to shake people up and talk once again about how to treat people."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.