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‘An orchestrated attack against truth’: How the clash over hate crimes has become one more 'culture war’

A woman prays before a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh in October. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Tucker Carlson of Fox News began a segment on “hate crime hoaxes.” He called the case of Jussie Smollett “exceptional, but only to the extent that it has received much more publicity than most hate hoaxes — and there are many of them."

Then on Thursday, radio host Rush Limbaugh said the “left is nothing but phony hate crimes, phony alleged hate crimes, phony charges, made-up stories.”

Hate crime is increasingly becoming a political weapon, with some conservatives seizing on the recent arrest of Smollett, who is accused of concocting a racist and homophobic attack, to spread the belief that hoaxes are fueling the rise in hate crimes in America. Conservative news outlets are now routinely publishing pieces that list chronologies of “hate hoaxes.” Websites, bearing names like “,” are categorizing every perceived incident. A Republican lawmaker in Minnesota said this week he planned to introduce legislation to crack down on false reports of hate crimes, lamenting on Twitter “the recent rise in fake victimization.” And a conservative publishing house will publish a book next week based on the notion that “we’re not experiencing an epidemic of hate crimes … but we might be experiencing an unprecedented epidemic of hate crime hoaxes.”

The nascent culture war over hate crime obfuscates what researchers call the empirical truth of hate crimes: They are rising in America. And exceptionally few are hoaxes.

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“What’s been disturbing in the sciences is that we’ve gone from fair-minded professional critiques to downright conspiracy theories,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. “The American public has a right to know [hate crime facts] but there is an orchestrated campaign by political pundits not to only point out limitations in the data — which is appropriate — but to obscure the real information that is out there.”

The number of hate-crime incidents rose 17 percent in 2017, according to the FBI, which doesn’t track the rate of false allegations. Hate crimes have grown in major American cities in each of the last five years, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. The trend has been particularly pronounced in places like Washington, D.C., where the number of hate crimes has nearly doubled since 2016. Since then, according to the center’s preliminary figures, there have been fewer than 50 false reports of a hate crime across America, out of an estimated 21,000 reported hate crimes over that time period — a rate of 0.3 percent.

The FBI categorizes hate crimes as being “motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

“I’ve been doing this since the 1980s, and we don’t have any indication where lying about this is a widespread phenomenon,” said Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

The tendency to dispute claims of hate crimes — that victims are making it up for attention — has historical roots. There were allegations during the mid-1990s that some burnings of black churches — carried out by young white male racists — were made up, said James Nolan, a hate crime expert with West Virginia University. White supremacist groups have for years called hate crimes faked or described whites as their true victims. But such allegations have accelerated in a media environment where news stations and websites have clear political leanings, social media amplifies every political difference, and accusations of “fake news” and “media hoaxes” are regular and pervasive.

That perception has deepened when high-profile liberals and Democrats have seized on allegations of hate crimes — sometimes to show solidarity with minority communities — which turned out to be untrue or more complicated than originally presented. Before Jussie Smollett, there was a Long Island woman who recanted claims she made to police that teens yelled “Trump 2016,″ told her she “didn’t belong here,” then slashed her tires. And before her, there was an 18-year-old Muslim woman who was charged with filing a false report after she claimed three men attacked her, tried to pull off her hijab and yelled “Donald Trump!”

Charges brought against actor Jussie Smollett have ignited debate about bigoted conspiracy theories, power and the country's handling of race relations. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

Those incidents — and the way they reinforce a conservative media narrative of fake hate crimes — could lead large swaths of Americans to doubt hate crime research, experts worry. Such denial is “morphing and becoming more mainstream,” said Peter Simi, a professor at Chapman University who has extensively studied hate in America.

Rising hate crime in the country has, to a certain degree, become a referendum on President Trump, whose election coincided with a spike in hate crimes, research shows. “It is another element in a very profound and pervasive culture war,” said Jack Levin, co-director of Northeastern University’s Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict. “Those who voice their concerns about the growing number of hate crimes against a variety of vulnerable groups are seen as anti-Trump. … And some of the pro-Trump detest the idea of hate crimes and refuse to acknowledge the idea that there are certain victimized groups in America who deserve our attention.”

Wilfred Reilly, an associate professor at Kentucky State University and author of a book that will be released next week, “Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War,” said the left was just as guilty for the polarized debate. “It’s politicization to say there’s a massive surge of hate under our president.” He said liberals often characterize all hate crimes as “attacks on innocent people of color,” when “you don’t know what happened.”

The divisiveness has made political targets out of some researchers charting the rise of hate crime in the country. Brian Levin says he has been accused of being funded by George Soros, the billionaire investor and liberal donor, or Nicolás Maduro, the embattled socialist Venezuelan president. He said he often gets phone calls from people angry about what his work has shown — the product, he said, of an “orchestrated attack against truth.” He played one of them for a Washington Post reporter.

“You liberal lib,” the voice mail said. “There are not as many white supremacists or whatever as there are this piece of trash on the left who has been paid to create more hate. … It’s horrible how you left has created so much hate in America.”