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Fewer hate crimes in 2008, Obama's election year, data show

Reported hate crimes dropped 2 percent in 2008 from 2007 levels. Is rising 'atmosphere of rage' a threat to gains?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2009


Reported incidents of hate-related violence and vandalism declined in America in 2008 from the year before – a period that included both the election of Barack Obama as president and a burst of threats and hate-mongering as Election Day neared.

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Statistics show a 2 percent drop in reported hate crimes from 2007 levels, according to law-enforcement data from 15 states compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

The slight improvement – reports of hate crimes went from 5,011 in 2007 to 4,911 in 2008 – may seem a bit of a surprise at a time when the national discourse has included news about gun-buying sprees after Mr. Obama's election, militias and hate groups on the rise, and a "toxic atmosphere of rage in America," as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) puts it in a new report.

"People are unhappy; it's the downfall of civilization. I get it," says Valerie Jenness, a criminologist at the University of California at Irvine and author of "Hate Crimes: New Social Movements & the Politics of Violence." "But I don't think there's a lot of empirical evidence that we have a massive insurgence [of violence] going on. The level of discourse, after all, is different than the level of mobilizing and actual behavior."

Still, there have been some ugly, high-profile incidents this year, which are not included in the 2008 hate-crime count: the shooting of three Pittsburgh police officers in April allegedly by an enraged anti-Semite convinced the government was coming for his guns, and this summer's fatal shooting of a guard at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, allegedly by a white supremacist. (Some might classify the shooting rampage at Fort Hood this month as a hate crime, too, though prosecutors have not.)

Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the ADL's Center on Extremism in New York, says that anger directed at government and hate crimes don't neatly correlate. One is venting directed at government, she points out, the other is actual illegal action directed at individuals or property.