Man in a suit speaks into several microphones. Image by, CC BY 2.0

Since the 2016 presidential election violent hate crimes have risen by over 12% in America’s largest cities. It is not unusual for hate crimes to rise during election years, but they typically decrease quickly in the following year. For the first time in American history, however, hate crimes continued to rise after the last election. Hate crimes, or violent crimes committed against someone due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or national origin, are not simply individual acts. They are also symptomatic of racial power dynamics and are employed to reestablish a group’s dominance.

Using federal violent hate crime statistics and data on US federal government actions from 1992 to 2012, Laura Dugan & Erica Chenoweth examine this phenomenon. They ask how the federal government’s expressions of support or opposition to racial and ethnic minorities, such as affirmative action policies or hostile rhetoric towards immigrants, affect hate crimes rates.  

The authors find that when political gains are made by Black Americans, they are more likely to be targets of hate crimes. For example, when the government supports civil rights protections, hate crimes against Blacks people increase. Conversely, when politicians engage in hate speech against immigrant populations, demonizing and degrading these groups, hate crimes against Latinx folks increased.

These findings suggest that hate crimes that target Black people are used to reestablish White dominance because they occur when Black people have made political progress and are consequently seen as a political threat. This differs for Latinx persons. Hate crimes are more likely to target Latinx persons when politicians support anti-immigration policies or use hate speech.

These findings show how political actions aimed at minorities (such as protection measures and hate speech) may result in hate crimes, but these actions affect Black people and Latinx communities differently. The authors suggest this may be because Whites view Black people as “insiders,” and therefore, as a greater political threat. Alternatively, while Latinx persons may be seen as less politically threatening “outsiders,” the racist and exclusionary language of officials can encourage violence against Latinx targets.

This article cautions us that government actions and hate speech among elites have serious consequences and may in fact motivate Americans to commit hate crimes. In this election season, this research demonstrates the important role of government actions in driving violence against racial and ethnic minority groups.