A hate crime is bias-motivated crime that occurs because the perpetrator has a prejudice against the victim’s membership to a group. Hate crimes may be directed toward individuals because of their sex, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, language, physical appearance, or nationality.
What Constitutes a Hate Crime?
While the word “hate” is often used to describe rage, anger, or general dislike, in the legal sense, hate refers to the bias against people or groups of people with specific characteristics that are defined by law. Current federal hate crime laws in the United States cover crimes committed on the basis of a victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability. States may have their own laws that may not include the same categories as federal laws.
While it’s difficult to understand why anyone would commit a hate crime, extensive research has gone into trying to better understand the motivation behind hate crimes. Studies conducted by the FBI found four main motives for hate crimes:
Thrill-seeking: Perpetrators may be looking for excitement and drama. They pick on vulnerable populations as a way to gain attention. Quite often, thrill-seekers engage in physical attacks on individuals.
Defensive: Some perpetrators believe they are protecting their communities against a group by committing a hate crime. They sometimes think that society supports them but they believe other individuals don’t dare step forward and take action like they do.
Retaliatory: Perpetrators who commit hate crimes are sometimes looking for revenge. This may be in response to anything from a personal slight to an act of terrorism.
Mission offenders: Some perpetrators engage in hate crimes for ideological reasons. They consider themselves crusaders. They sometimes target symbolically important sites to try and maximize damage. This form sometimes overlaps with terrorism and the FBI considers the rarest and most dangerous kind of hate crime.
Hate Crime Laws
Hate crime laws are intended to deter bias-motivated crimes. They enhance penalties associated with crimes. They also help protect victims and those around them. Hate crimes don’t just impact individuals but they also affect other members of the group—from loved ones to entire communities. If an assault is determined to be a hate crime, for example, the perpetrator may face harsher legal consequences than if it were just an assault that didn’t involve a hate crime.
Hate crimes are divided into three main categories: crimes against persons, crimes against property, and crimes against society. Crimes against persons include crimes that involve a victim or multiple victims, such as an assault. These may also be directed toward organizations, such as a financial or religious institution.
Crimes against property may include things like vandalism or arson. And crimes against society which may include things like weapon law violations or animal cruelty. Each year the FBI releases national hate crime statistics, but the latest report is from 2020.
Single-Bias Crimes There were 8,052 single-bias incidents reported in the United States in 2020. Here’s a breakdown of those crimes:
5,227 were motivated by a race/ethnicity/ancestry bias
1,244 were prompted by religious bias
1,110 resulted from sexual-orientation bias
75 were motivated by gender-identity bias
130 were prompted by disability bias
266 were motivated by gender bias
Race/Ethnicity/Ancestry Bias Crimes in 2020 Law enforcement reported 5,227 single-bias hate crime offenses were motivated by race/ethnicity/ancestry. Here’s a breakdown of those crimes:
2,871 were motivated by anti-Black or African American bias
869 stemmed from anti-White bias
517 were classified as anti-Hispanic or Latinx bias
279 resulted from anti-Asian bias
211 were a result of bias against groups of individuals consisting of more than one race (anti-multiple races, group)
96 were motivated by anti-American Indian or Alaska Native bias
71 were classified as anti-Arab bias
298 were the result of an anti-Other Race/Ethnicity/Ancestry bias
Religious Bias Crimes Law enforcement reported 1,244 hate crimes motivated by religious bias in 2020. Here’s a breakdown of those crimes:
6683 were anti-Jewish
110 were anti-Islamic (Muslim)
73 were anti-Catholic40 were anti-multiple religions, group
50 were anti-Other Christian89 were anti-Sikh
30 were anti-Protestant
43 were anti-Eastern Orthodox (Russian, Greek, Other)
7 were anti-Mormon
11 were anti-Hindu
9 were anti-Jehovah’s Witness
15 were anti-Buddhist
Sexual-Orientation Bias in 2020 Law enforcement agencies reported 1,110 hate crime offenses based on sexual-orientation bias. Of these offenses:
673 were classified as anti-gay (male) bias
306 were prompted by an anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (mixed group) bias
103 were classified as anti-lesbian bias
17 were classified as anti-bisexual bias
11 were the result of an anti-heterosexual bias
Gender Identity Bias Crimes Of the single-bias incidents, law enforcement reported 266 offenses were a result of gender identity bias. Of these offenses:
6213 were anti-transgender
53 were anti-gender non-conforming
Disability Bias There were 130 reported hate crime offenses committed based on disability bias. Here’s the breakdown of those crimes:
77 offenses were classified as anti-mental disability
53 offenses were reported as anti-physical disability
Gender Bias There were 75 offenses of gender bias reported in 2020. Of these:
650 were anti-female
25 were anti-male
Preventing Hate Crimes
According to the FBI’s 2020 hate crime statistics, just over 4% of hate incidents occurred at schools or colleges.6Strong partnerships with anti-bullying campaigns may prevent hate crimes. Of course, not all bullying constitutes a hate crime, but addressing bullying behaviors early on may be a good step in preventing hate crimes later in life. Increasing public awareness can also help. When community members understand what’s going on and how they can help other groups who may be targeted, they can become allies. Law enforcement presence and partnerships can also help. It’s likely that many hate crimes go unreported. Support from law enforcement may encourage people to report crimes when they witness them or experience them.
U.S. Department of Justice. Learn about hate crimes.
Levy BL, Levy DL. When love meets hate: The relationship between state policies on gay and lesbian rights and hate crime incidence. Soc Sci Res. 2017;61:142-159. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2016.06.008
Southern Poverty Law Center. Hate crimes, explained.
U.S. Department of Justice. Hate crime laws.
U.S. Department of Justice. Hate crime statistics.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). FBI Crime Data Explorer.