By Evan Stewart, Jack Delehanty, Ryan Larson, and Stephen Suh

The shooting of three young adults in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, raises a number of questions about hate crimes in the United States. All three victims were Muslim, and interviews with their family members about previous conflicts indicate the killings may have been motivated by anti-Islamic sentiment. On the other hand, police released a statement that the killings were motivated by a parking dispute, and the regional U.S. attorney called them “an isolated incident.” Research shows the social context of a crime matters, even when it isn’t officially labeled a “hate crime.”

Hate crimes are retaliatory and respond to particular social events and contexts. Racialized talk of hate crime, especially when discussed over the Internet, is provoked by anxieties over close social ties to minorities—such as interracial marriage or integrated neighborhoods—more than economic competition. Time, neighborhood, and labeling factors all point to social context as a necessary tool to understand hate crimes.
Social context is often ignored in hate crime data. Government offices and watchdog organizations often define hate crimes differently than others, and their data focus on the number of attacks rather than contextual risk factors. This makes it difficult to study hate crimes, especially when witness reports or police records show a parking dispute.
Anti-Islamic attitudes are also central to the UNC case. Emerging research indicates these attitudes are unique in the U.S. context as well, where racial bias interacts with cultural bias against public religious practice in a particular political climate.