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.
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.
"We're not seeing that kind of anti-Semitism or anger based on race, but really anger directed at government, and that concerns us," says Ms. Mayo. "Rage can be based on a belief that the government is illegitimate or it's controlled by Jews."
Hate-crime data are famously inaccurate, experts warn. This year, for example, Mississippi reported no hate crimes while Tennessee reported more than 300 – a discrepancy so wide it can only be attributed to flawed reporting.
That doesn't mean the data are useless, but it does make it hard to tell if the results are indicative of a trend or if they're illusory, says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and author of the hate crimes report. But the report's findings nonethless give some insight into the state of prejudice in America:
•California saw overall reports of hate crimes drop 4 percent. Hated-filled attacks on Hispanics and black declined steeply, but that was offset by a 37 percent increase in anti-Jewish attacks and a 16 percent increase in attacks on gays.
•The state of New York saw reported hate crimes decrease from 647 to 596 between 2007 and 2008, with intimidation, property damage, and assault each making up a third of the incidents.
•Texas saw a slight 1.2 percent uptick, with the most common crime being vandalism.
•Virginia, in the heart of the South, saw 9.2 percent fewer hate crimes in 2008 than in 2007. Washington State, meanwhile, registered a 17 percent increase over the same period. What about Idaho, a sometime redoubt for extremists? Down from 38 to 30 incidents, a 21 percent decrease.
A tougher societal and legal view of bigotry in recent years may be an effective deterrent, Mr. Levin says. That's true especially for young people – the major perpetrators of hate crimes – who tend to be less ideologically committed to prejudices than "hard-core hate-mongers," he says.
Meanwhile, Americans have a way of overturning conventional wisdom about prejudice in the country. For example, a widely predicted backlash against Muslims after the Fort Hood attack, in which a Muslim Army major has been charged, has yet to materialize.
Still, Levin warns, "a catalytic event has the ability to spark a significant cycle of retaliatory violence that can immediately, though temporarily, change the trajectory of previous trends."
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