The People vs. Hate

Karl Racine and a bipartisan group of state attorneys general want to curb hate crimes. Can they succeed where others have failed?

A hand holds up a sign that reads "Enough Is Enough!"
Bryan R. Smith / AFP / Getty

William Lamar, the pastor of Metropolitan AME Church, in Washington, D.C., was making final preparations for virtual Sunday service on December 13 when he received a text from a friend. “I’m sorry about what happened at Metropolitan,” Karen Brown, the pastor of another local church, wrote. He was confused. “Karen, what are you talking about?”

Brown sent Lamar a link to a video. The night before, a group of white men had stepped over the partition near the steps of the church and ripped down a sign that read Black Lives Matter. They hoisted the sign over their heads and tossed it toward a crowd of celebrating bystanders before stomping on it, yanking at it, and folding it over on itself; a crunch accompanied every flip. “Burn it!” a disembodied male voice yells.

Lamar recounted the story a week later during a conversation with Karl Racine, Washington, D.C.’s attorney general. He felt rage, he told Racine, before finding joy in the people, like Pastor Brown who reached out in the hours and days that followed. The discussion, part of Racine’s regular interview series on Zoom, centered on what it takes to unify in the aftermath of hate. Racine has had this question top of mind in his role as the district’s chief legal official, and as only the second Black person to head the nonpartisan National Association of Attorneys General. When Racine was elected as the organization’s leader earlier this month, he immediately announced what would be his signature presidential initiative: “The People v. Hate.”

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.”

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.

“We’re in a hurricane,” he said. Just as it would be foolish to try to fly a kite or sail during a storm, it would be foolish to rush this initiative. “We think this is the time,” he said, before clarifying, “maybe not, for example, between now and the Georgia election.”

Though he seemed to know that I might be wary of the answer in such a polarized American moment, he told me that the initiative’s success was about waging a “hearts and minds” campaign; it is not going to be a quick fix. When the government can finally collect better data, he believes people will “begin to understand the full scale, scope, and duration of the problem and all of its enduring consequences.” Although those who perpetrate hate crimes ought to be arrested and prosecuted, he said, the nation must understand that these are not all isolated incidents.

“We’re going to focus on the victims of hate,” who rarely receive the support that they should, he said. He ran down the list of prominent attacks in recent years: Charleston, El Paso, Pittsburgh. By better cataloging hate crimes, the AGs might be able to more effectively direct resources to victims, Racine said.

“It’s often said that slavery was the original sin,” he told me. “We know that there were Native Americans before there were slaves. We also know that immigrants throughout history at different points were dehumanized—we know that women were, we know that other groups, such as the LGBTQ community, have been.” The AGs want to “go deep on the record without inviting people to leave the room.” It starts with getting the data right.