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A two-minute Google search will turn up dozens of attempts—including initiatives by lawmakers, religious leaders, and others—to combat hate crimes. Nothing has worked. The Department of Justice and human-rights groups have written exhaustive white papers, and justice advocates have spent countless hours over the years discussing hate on panels. Hate crimes have increased in four of the past five years, with 2019 being the deadliest on record for hate crimes, according to FBI statistics. How, I asked Racine during a recent phone conversation, will this effort be any different? It starts at the root, he said: We simply do not have enough data to know the scope of the problem.
“It’s so porous that dozens of people were injured, and Heather Heyer was murdered, in Charlottesville, but if you go back and look at the hate reporting data for Virginia in that year, you won’t find any report of a hate-crime incident coming out of Charlottesville,” he said. “Talk about a gap? That’s a freaking gap.”
The FBI, through a voluntary-reporting system, records roughly 6,000 such crimes a year, but the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that the actual number is closer to 250,000. Shortly after the 2016 election, ProPublica launched an initiative to try to understand how many hate crimes occur in the United States, but its effort ended in 2019. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center still catalog some of these crimes, Racine said, but such important data collection should not fall to private organizations. Critics have used the incomplete statistics to suggest that hate crimes are not a problem worth devoting extra resources to, Racine said. If data collection were mandatory and the results reported to every NAAG member’s office, perhaps we would have a more complete picture of the problem. (Racine does not have a plan to do this yet.)
In the video launching Racine’s NAAG presidential initiative, two Republican attorneys general spoke about the pervasiveness of hate crimes. Racine stressed that his group’s hate-crimes project was “bipartisan,” and not about Donald Trump. Though Trump is the latest and perhaps most brash presidential manifestation of the undercurrents of hate in America, he said, hate crimes long predate his rise. Further, if he made the initiative about the outgoing president, “I’d lose half of the room.”
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He may have lost half of the room already, because a divided nation can’t agree even on the most basic question of what it means to adequately collect data. Our conversation was postponed for a week because hours before our originally scheduled call, 17 Republican state attorneys general had filed a brief in support of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s unsuccessful attempt to delay the certification of presidential electors in Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If it is this difficult to agree on as simple a question as who won an election, how can you possibly agree on the importance of something as complex as a solution to hate crimes? I asked.