Rise in Hate Crimes Looms Behind Church Burnings

Even if the spate of church arsons tapers off, greater national action is needed to curb the rise in hate crimes, experts warn

A mosque in Springfield, Ill., set ablaze. Synagogues around the country defaced by swastikas. White soldiers arrested in the alleged race-motivated slayings of two African-Americans in Fayetteville, N.C.

While much of the nation has focused on the burnings of about 40 black churches in the South, experts say the acts are just the most prominent example of a growing trend of race- and religion-motivated violence in America. Many who study the phenomenon believe the problem - including a rise in attacks on people, not just property - is far more widespread than most Americans are aware.

These experts warn that even if an 18-month-long spate of church burnings tapers off, such hate crimes could worsen without nationwide action. The problem, they assert, requires greater attention from political leaders, news media, and educators, more vigorous investigations and prosecutions by law-enforcement agencies, and improved cooperation among the different communities of America's multicultural tapestry.

"There is a growing tolerance for intolerance," says Jess Hordes of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitic incidents. "We need to do a lot more as a society to come to terms with intolerance."

Howard Ehrlich, research director at Towson State University's Center for the Applied Study of Ethnoviolence, agrees: "People are not aware [of the problem] because there is this massive denial in society. We don't need commissions to collect data. We need commissions that make policy decisions."

But while prejudice is the root of hate crimes, other factors exacerbate the situation, says Milton Kleg, director of the Colorado-based Center for the Study of Ethnic and Racial Violence. Suspects charged in several of the church arsons, for instance, are not white supremacists.

"There is a lot of alienation in this country, a distrust of government, and more and more of the violence that is depicted on television has no bounds," says Professor Kleg. "A society that is well-fed on violence and an attitude of anything goes makes for some violent and destructive folk."

Studies show that while attacks on property are dropping, attacks against people are rising.

"There is a shift in property crimes to personal crimes," says Mr. Ehrlich, who has been studying such violence since 1986. "When we first started looking at it, spraypainting, defacement, graffiti, those outnumbered the personal assaults. Now it is the other way around."

Furthermore, Ehrlich says, physical attacks are becoming more serious. "If you take more or less the same incidents or crimes where prejudice was and was not the main motivation, if violence was employed, the victim of the prejudice-motivated incident is more likely to have been more severely beaten," he explains.

Though incomplete, national hate-crime statistics provide some measure of the problem, most significantly by highlighting that all religious and racial groups are affected.

According to the latest FBI survey of hate crimes, 5,932 incidents involving 7,498 victims were reported in 43 states and the District of Columbia in 1994. Of the total, 60 percent were motivated by racial bias, 18 percent by religious bias, and 12 percent by sexual-orientation bias. The rest were based on ethnic or national background. Of the 6,265 known offenders, more than half were white.

Intimidation was the most frequently reported crime, accounting for 39 percent of the total. It was followed by property damage and vandalism, at 24 percent; simple assault, 18 percent, and aggravated assault, 14 percent. Thirteen people were murdered in hate crimes: four black, one white, three Hispanics, and five homosexuals.

The statistics, however, provide a very limited picture. Only 7,400 law-enforcement agencies - or less than half the 16,000 law-enforcement agencies that regularly provide crime statistics to the bureau - submitted hate-crime data to the FBI. The omissions include data from 14 of the 50 largest US cities.

The proportion of hate crimes prosecuted on the federal level is also relatively low. The FBI receives an average of 8,400 complaints annually. Of the 3,200 that are investigated, some 2,000 are recommended for prosecution and only about 60 actually go to court.

Furthermore, many victims are loath to report hate crimes to authorities. Either they have little confidence that their complaints will be acted on or they are afraid of retaliation.

"Most ethnoviolent incidents are not reported," asserts Ehrlich. He says that in surveys he has conducted, as many as 90 percent of people who confirm being victims of hate crimes did not inform local authorities.

Mohamad Nimer, director of the Washington-based American-Muslim Research Center, blames "the atmosphere of intolerance" on a "lack of national leadership in terms of acknowledging certain types of intolerance, especially when they don't hit a hot political button."

Mr. Nimer points out that there have been some 300 anti-Muslim incidents since the April 19, 1995, federal building bombing in Oklahoma City, which was at first believed by many to have been the work of Islamic terrorists. He says those incidents have persisted because politicians have done little to respond to the widespread bias that led people to blame Muslims for the bombing.

Says Nimer: "There is a general ignorance of Islam and that leads to prejudice. Prejudice and bias thrive on ignorance."

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