Reported hate crimes are on the rise in the United States, and African Americans continue to be victims of such acts more often than any other group, experts said today.

A review of federal crime records indicates that from 1991 to 1997, 40 percent of hate crimes were committed against African Americans, 15 to 20 percent involved religious targets, 9 to 14 percent gays, 5 percent Asians or Latinos, and less than 1 percent Native Americans or the disabled.

Hate crimes against Latinos, however, appear to be on the rise, said Valerie Jenness of the University of California at Irvine, one of several experts who briefed reporters on the situation at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

"We've had a documented, reported rise [in hate crime statistics], but we don't know if that's an actual rise or one caused by increased reporting," Jenness said.

However, it would be "absolutely fair" to assume that more such crime occurs than is recorded in the federal government's official crime reports, because not all acts are reported by victims, she said. Experts also have long criticized some law enforcement agencies for not properly documenting hate crimes.

Hate crimes account for only a fraction of 1 percent of all offenses reported in the United States.

Most of those committing such crimes, Jenness said, "are not members of any organized hate groups" but tend to be young white men, acting in informal groups where the victims are usually outnumbered.

Abby Ferber of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs reported that white supremacist groups are increasingly turning to the Internet to recruit members, though it appears that many more young white men read the literature found there and elsewhere than actually join such groups.

Last year there were 537 active white supremacist groups identified in the United States, with a membership of up to 200,000 in all, she said.

Benjamin Smith, 21, who grew up in a prosperous suburb of Chicago, had ties to the World Church of the Creator, a white racist group based in East Peoria, Ill. Smith's two-day shooting rampage last month targeted blacks, Jews and Asians in Illinois and Indiana and left two men dead and nine others wounded.

Benjamin Matthew Williams, 31, and James Tyler Williams, 29, two brothers from Northern California who were charged with murder last month in the deaths of a gay couple and are suspects in arsons at three Sacramento area synagogues, also had links to the World Church of the Creator, authorities said. Investigators also found hate literature published by other white racist groups in the brothers' home.

The appeal of groups such as the World Church of the Creator, Ferber said, is to young white men who fear they will never do as well as their parents did economically and for whom "the American dream seems like an impossibility."

As a result, some young white men face a "crisis of masculinity" and are attracted to hate groups by the promise of regaining power, she said.