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Hate Crimes

Abstract and Keywords

Hate crimes and their traumatic repercussions are an important area for social worker intervention. This entry will examine how hate crimes are defined and handled, and the difficulties inherent in categorizing and responding to them. Collection of hate crime statistics and hate crime–related legislation are reviewed. The entry will also examine how social workers can help victims and perpetrators and influence how society conceptualizes and prevents hate crimes and their consequences.

Keywords: hate crime, bias crimes, social work interventions, policy, victims

Violence motivated by hate has been part of the fabric of human culture since the beginning of time (Jenness & Grattet, 2001). The modern conceptualization of hate crimes is traceable to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and war protest movements of the late 20th century (Jenness & Grattet, 2001). Since 1993, a few overwhelmingly tragic cases of hate-motivated violence have captured the public's attention so much that the 1990s have been referred to as the “decade of hate—or at least of hate crimes” (Rovella, 1994, p. A1). Hate crimes and their traumatic repercussions are an important area for social worker intervention. Work with the individuals, communities, and societies affected by hate crimes is an integral part of the profession's ethical responsibility to work for social justice and to prevent domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against persons and groups based on “race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, or mental or physical disability” (NASW, 1999, p. 27).

This entry will first examine how hate crimes are defined and handled, and the difficulties inherent in categorizing and responding to them. It will also examine how social workers can help victims and perpetrators and influence how society conceptualizes and prevents hate crimes and their consequences.

Hate crime effects extend far beyond their direct victims. Through the widespread creation of fear, these crimes make everyone feel vulnerable, particularly those with similar demographic characteristics as the victims. In their most extreme form, hate crimes attempt to exterminate a segment of the population (Powers, 2002). Beyond the devastating psychological impact, hate crimes and crimes committed en masse or in the extreme can lead to mass violence. Most 20th-century genocides or ethnic cleansings against groups such as Armenians, Jews, and Bosnians began with individuals or small groups taking actions against populations that began small and grew exponentially (Powers, 2002). This may lead to retaliation, counter-retaliation, social unrest, and potentially civil war. These dangers to individuals, families, groups, communities, and society led to increased penalties assigned for hate-related crimes in the United States (ADL, 1999).

Under federal law, a crime motivated, in whole or in part, by the victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation is a “hate crime” (Krouse & Beaver, 2006). Investigation, prosecution, and adjudication of hate crimes mostly rest at the state level. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have specific hate crime statutes. These statutes generally follow the Anti-Defamation League penalty enhancement strategy, which allows for a more serious sentence to be prescribed to those who chose the victims of their crimes based on the race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender of the victim, or on the offender's perception of such (Wallace, 2006).

All states have legislation that allows some prosecution of hate crimes (Wallace, 2006). The federal government's involvement is limited to jurisdiction over hate crimes affecting federally protected rights such as voting, nationwide hate crime reporting, regulating inter-agency cooperation in hate crime investigations, and funding hate crimes prevention among populations such as juveniles and members of the armed services. Despite efforts in recent years by members such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) to expand the federal government's jurisdiction over hate crimes with legislation such as the Local Law Enforcement Act of 2005 and other similar bills, legislation has not been enacted to expand the federal government's jurisdiction in this area. This legislation's opponents argue that hate crimes are best handled at the state and local levels, that the constitutional rationale for such federal legislation is weak, and that such legislation would be more symbolic than effective (Krouse & Beaver, 2006).

The U.S. Department of Justice records hate crime statistics using two distinct methods. The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program publishes hate crimes as reported by state and local law enforcement agencies. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) gathers data about crime victims through the National Crime Victimization Survey. Less than half of the crimes described to the BJS by victims as hate-related have been reported to law enforcement agencies. The BJS annual numbers are nine times higher than the FBI's statistics. This significant discrepancy suggests that the UCR seriously underreports incidents of hate crimes (Krouse & Beaver, 2006). Reasons for the FBI's underreporting of hate crimes include victims' fear of retribution against themselves, their family, or other group members; disagreements about whether violent crimes against women should be considered hate crimes (Gross, 1999; McPhail & DeNitto, 2005); difficulty in defining how much hate must be present for an act to be classified as a hate crime (McPhail, 2000); and victims' unwillingness to “out” themselves as a member of a stigmatized group (Swigonski, Mama, & Ward, 2006).

Social workers are in a key position to educate, help prevent, and ameliorate the devastating consequences of hate crimes from a variety of positions. They interact with those directly affected by hate crimes: victims, perpetrators, and family members. They also assist communities to prevent or handle instances of hate crimes and advocate for stronger hate crime–related public policies.

Many hate crime victims experience a series of attacks rather than a single episode (Barnes & Ephross, 1994). They feel overwhelmed, angry, fearful, and sad, and may make significant life changes in the wake of the hate crime. Some may suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS). Effective services to these individuals include intensive, short-term interventions best suited to their intense emotional reactions (Barnes & Ephross, 1994). Group services provide a supportive and therapeutic environment with others who have had similar experiences. As compared to victims of similar attacks not motivated by hate, hate crime victims are less likely to experience reduced self-esteem or to blame themselves for the crime and wonder if they should or could have behaved differently (Barnes & Ephross, 1994). In addition to helping individuals, social workers also intervene in systems: schools, communities, and organizations that have experienced instances of hate crimes.

Although victims understandably receive the most attention, hate crime perpetrators also require sustained interventions to control hateful actions. Research on the perpetrators of these crimes suggests they may be thrill-seekers, or they may be responding to a triggering incident, a delusion, or a hate group (Levin & McDevitt, 2002). While few hate crimes are directly linked to hate groups, such groups do create an atmosphere conducive to hate crimes (Jacobs & Potter, 1998). In this realm, counseling and violence prevention programs can be effective alternatives to prison environments, which can magnify feelings of hate and bias. As schools have experienced escalating violence, they have been receptive to innovative programs in violence reduction and prevention. In fact, many schools have a violence reduction or prevention program in place, focusing on skill building and sometimes individual counseling (Astor et al., 1998). School social workers working in concert with community groups could provide a natural linkage to effectively prevent, reduce, or manage violence.

Social workers also play important roles in helping communities deal with violence and hate crimes. Social workers can combine direct service with community mobilization to help communities deal with the consequences of hate. Community members can work to act, unite, support victims, obtain accurate information, refrain from responding to hate with hate, lobby community leaders, and teach and practice tolerance (SPLC, 1999), all actions congruent with social work values and skills.


Anti-Defamation League. (1999). Hate crimes laws introduction. Retrieved November 15, 2007, from

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                            Swigonski, M. E., Mama, R. S., & Ward, K. (Eds.). (2006). From hate crimes to human rights: A tribute to Matthew Shepard. New York: Haworth Press.Find this resource:

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                                Further Reading

                                Anti-Defamation League

                                FBI Uniform Crime Reporting

                                Matthew Shepard Foundation

                                National Coalition for the Homeless

                                Southern Poverty Law Center