Mississippi church burning: Not a hate crime, but an angry parishioner?

Researchers argue that political rhetoric can drive a rise in aggression toward minorities, but national data on the topic is incomplete.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP/File
'Vote Trump' is spray painted on the side of the fire-damaged Hopewell M.B. Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., Nov. 2, 2016.

Police in Greenville, Miss., have charged a man with arson in connection with the November torching of a black church that was also graffitied with the words “Vote Trump,” in an incident that made national headlines and caused the FBI to open a civil-rights investigation in the days leading up to the election.

Now comes the twist: the suspect, Andrew McClinton, is an African-American member of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church’s congregation. Authorities haven’t ascribed a motive yet.

“We do not believe it was politically motivated,” said Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, in an interview with the Associated Press. “There may have been some efforts to make it appear politically motivated.” 

The revelation may refocus attention on how political rhetoric that often casts minority groups in a critical light might be linked to aggressions against members of those groups – and how incomplete reporting of hate crimes might create fertile terrain for skepticism. Anecdotal evidence of those linkages can sometimes fuel skepticism.

The church’s burning produced an outpouring of grief and support, in various manifestations: a GoFundMe page created to help the church rebuild, for example, raised $200,000 in just two days. The page’s mission statement referred to the “potent racial history of burning black churches” – a past that seemed not entirely past, following several incidents in 2015, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson reported that summer:

But despite what investigators say so far is a lack of evidence of a pattern or racial hatred in the recent church fires, the timing of the blazes – especially when added to the historic role of the black church as a fount of power and moral authority – has fueled widespread concerns. Complicating the issue is that arson can be a particularly hard crime to solve, and motivations are often not obvious.

The concerns have deep roots: Black churches have been targets for more than 200 years. The Greeleyville church was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan in 1995, at a peak of church burnings that led to the creation of a task force that arrested hundreds of people. And the fires come at a time when the African-American church, writ large, is feeling deeply vulnerable, after one of the deadliest church attacks in modern history when Dylann Roof opened fire at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church.

Some local officials in Mississippi had expressed doubt over the assumptions being made about potential motives, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Gretel Kauffman reported:

In the police news conference, [Greenville Police Chief Delando] Wilson said it was unclear whether the crime was racially motivated. As of Wednesday, a "person of interest" was being interviewed by the authorities. 

There appeared to be some disagreement as to whether the arson was politically motivated as well, as Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said Wednesday that "the initial work here indicates this is not of a political nature, even though there may be something that says 'Vote Trump' on the side of the church. So everybody needs to calm down here until we get to the bottom of this." 

Local authorities said Mr. Hosemann and his staff had not been in touch with them or involved in the investigation. 

But the election of President-elect Donald Trump gave the Greenville arson a special symbolic charge, to which neither much of the national press nor civil-rights groups were oblivious. The Southern Poverty Law Center opened with a mention of it in a November report on what it described as a deluge of post-election hate incidents.

That report took stock only of media reports and submissions to the center’s web page, while the organization did not seek to verify individual incidents. And as Quartz noted upon its release, counting hate crimes on the national scale can be tricky, since FBI statistics rely on local police departments to report statistics. Many departments don’t. There’s also no uniform, federal definition of a hate crime, leading some researchers to argue that numbers for individual states might not be entirely on point.

That’s not to say that there isn’t clarity on some matters, like who tends to be the victim: In 2015, as in past FBI surveys, African-Americans made up the overwhelming majority. And researchers on the topic tend to conclude that political rhetoric can be a factor in hate crimes, even if precise, short-term links to particular candidates and events remain hard to track.

“There’s very compelling evidence that political rhetoric may well play a role in directing behavior in the aftermath of a terrorist attack,” Brian Levin, director of the California State University-San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, told the Atlantic in November, following the release of an SPLC report on anti-Muslim hate crimes since 9/11.

“I don’t think we can dismiss contentions that rhetoric is one of the significant variables that can contribute to hate crimes.”

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