The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hate crimes rise to highest level in 12 years amid increasing attacks on Black and Asian people, FBI says

Mary Altaffer/AP
Protest signs are displayed during a preview of “Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism” at New York’s Museum of Chinese in America.
Mary Altaffer/AP Protest signs are displayed during a preview of “Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism” at New York’s Museum of Chinese in America.

The number of hate crimes in the United States rose in 2020 to the highest level in 12 years, propelled by increasing assaults targeting Black and Asian people, the FBI reported Monday.

In all, the federal agency tallied 7,759 hate crimes last year, a tumultuous 12 months marked by a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election and upheaval in the economy. The total represented an increase of 6 percent from 2019 and the most since 2008, when 7,783 hate crimes were reported.

It is the sixth time in the past seven years that the number of attacks rose. The number of hate crimes reported has increased by nearly 42 percent since 2014, according to federal data.

Attacks targeting Black people rose from 1,930 to 2,755, and the number targeting Asian people jumped from 158 to 274, the data showed. Those figures come as civil rights groups have warned of increasing hostility toward minorities amid a rise in white nationalism and an increase in violent crime nationwide.

Attacks targeting White people rose to 773, an increase of about 16 percent.

“These hate crimes and other bias-related incidents instill fear across entire communities and undermine the principles upon which our democracy stands,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. He pointed to steps the Justice Department has taken to improve incident reporting and bolster law enforcement training.

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Congress mandates that the FBI collect hate-crime data annually based on reports from local law enforcement agencies. In 2020, the number of agencies that participated in that effort fell for at least the second consecutive year to 15,136, which is 422 fewer than in 2019. Of agencies that did participate, most reported no hate crimes.

Congressional Democrats and civil rights advocates have criticized what they describe as a large undercount in the number of hate crimes and other bias incidents, saying local police are poorly trained in how to identify and catalogue hate crimes and lack sufficient resources or interest in investigating them.

“While the numbers in this report are shocking, we know that they are not even close to the complete picture,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Chu cited “increasingly racist and xenophobic rhetoric from political leaders” as contributing to the increase in hate crimes and said the FBI’s report “must be a wake-up call to all who irresponsibly spread fear and anger in our communities that they are putting lives at risk.”

Civil rights advocates have cited President Donald Trump’s use of xenophobic language last year, including blaming China for the novel coronavirus, as contributing to a backlash against Asian people.

Stop AAPI Hate, a grass-roots group based in California, reported 6,603 hate incidents against Asian people from March 2020 — the start of the pandemic in the United States through March of this year. According to that data, which was collected through self-reporting portals online and was not thoroughly vetted, about 65 percent of incidents involved verbal harassment such as name-calling, while 12.6 percent involved physical assault.

John Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, said the FBI statistics were “woefully underreported.” He expressed guarded optimism that increased public attention on anti-Asian hate incidents, after several brazen attacks were captured on video, would help efforts to improve accounting of hate crimes.

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In May, Congress approved the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which requires the Justice Department to appoint an official to expedite investigations into hate crimes reported to federal authorities. The act also seeks to improve reporting among localities by bolstering online channels and offering resources in more languages to help immigrants.

“Although there is not a lot of dollars involved, hopefully some of the programs by the federal government will gain traction,” Yang said.

Attacks targeting Jewish people fell from 953 in 2019 to 676 last year, according to the FBI data. The Anti-Defamation League, using a broader definition of hate incidents, tallied 2,024 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews in the United States last year, representing a slight drop from 2019 but still the third-highest number on record.

The group’s chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt, called the FBI’s numbers “disturbing on their own,” but he emphasized that the federal data was probably an undercount, given the declining levels of reporting from local jurisdictions.

“The fact that so many law enforcement agencies did not participate is inexcusable, and the fact that 64 jurisdictions with populations over 100,000 affirmatively reported zero hate crimes is simply not credible,” Greenblatt said in a statement. “Data drives policy and without having a complete picture of the problem, we cannot even begin to resolve the issues driving this surge in hate and violence.”

The number of killings classified as hate crimes fell from a record 51 in 2019 to 22 last year. The 2019 figures included a mass shooting in El Paso in which a gunman killed 22 people, most of them Latino. (A 23rd victim died of his injuries in 2020).

The FBI report said 3,633 hate crimes were allegedly perpetrated by White assailants, while 1,309 allegedly were committed by Black assailants. The race of the perpetrators was not known in 1,080 cases, the report stated, and assailants who identified by more than one race are accused of committing 378 of the crimes.