Ever since the Jussie Smollett fake-hate-crime fiasco, it’s become fashionable among conservatives to pretend that his case is representative of the reality of hate crimes in America. This week, a Wall Street Journal op-ed expanded on that case by arguing that as many as a third of all hate-crime reports are hoaxes.
This claim is not only the inverse of the reality—namely, that fewer than 1% of all hate crimes reported and prosecuted by authorities turn out to be hoaxes—but it’s also profoundly irresponsible, because the most serious problem the nation actually has with hate crimes is the high levels of underreporting and underenforcement associated with them. This kind of “journalism,” as it were, deepens and widens that problem exponentially.
The Wall Street Journal’s Jason L. Riley obtained a book by a Kentucky State University political scientist named Wilfred Reilly called Hate Crime Hoaxes, about the supposed problem of faked reports. It’s immediately apparent to anyone familiar with the realities of hate crimes and the statistics around them that there’s a serious problem with Reilly’s methodology, as Riley describes it:
Mr. Reilly eventually compiled a database of 346 hate-crime allegations and determined that less than a third were genuine. Turning his attention to the hoaxes, he put together a data set of more than 400 confirmed cases of fake allegations that were reported to authorities between 2010 and 2017. He allows that the exact number of false reports is probably unknowable, but what can be said “with absolute confidence is that the actual number of hate crime hoaxes is indisputably large,” he writes. “We are not speaking here of just a few bad apples.”
So let’s just put this in perspective. According to the statistics reported annually by the FBI, during the period in question, 2010-2017, there were some 60,670 hate crimes in the United States.
- The 346 cases Reilly examined constitute 0.57% of that number, and the hoaxes he identifies are a third of that.
- The 400 cases of fake allegations he allegedly identifies constitute 0.66% of total hate crimes over the same time period.
In other words, the problem of hoaxes in the context of the larger picture of hate crimes in the United States is vanishingly tiny, despite the ability of a handful of incidents such as the Smollett case to attract sensational headlines.
Brian Levin of Cal State, San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism obtained a copy of Reilly’s list so he could examine his methodology. Levin set his team to work going through it case by case and comparing it to their own compilation of hate-crime statistics.
“We found that there were a few that we missed,” Levin told Daily Kos. “But there were a lot of cases on his list that are problematic. Let me give you an example: Number 68 on one of the lists he sent us: A menorah was twisted into a swastika. Four black teens were caught. He called that a hoax, presumably because people thought it was right-wingers or something. It’s not a hoax, it’s a hate crime.”
There were many other problems, Levin said: “He includes incidents where people made up an accusation of an interracial crime, but that’s not the same as a hate crime. He includes incidents that occurred out of the country. And he includes what he says are ‘non-criminal’ incidents.
“We found redundancies, incidents that weren’t crimes, incidents that were in fact hate crimes, and incidents where someone accused someone of another race, but not in a hate crime.”
As Levin notes, the methodology is particularly sloppy in light of the incendiary nature of Reilly’s accusations—namely, that the people reporting these incidents are liars. “When I hear the word ‘hoax,’ that seems to me to be an intentional fabrication,” he said. “But he includes cases such as one where a piece of wire was mistaken for a noose, but it wasn’t. So I think there are problems with the definitions, as well as the scope.”
Any way you slice it, you are talking about 1% or less, generally. Yet Reilly has the audacity to characterize this as “a huge percentage of the horrific hate crimes cited as evidence of contemporary bigotry.”
We’ve been hearing this refrain from right-wing apologists increasingly in recent months, even as the evidence of a tide of racist violence embodied in hate crimes rises around us. Last month, a self-styled gadfly Portland journalist named Andy Ngo published a similar piece in the New York Post, also drawing its primary sustenance from Reilly’s book and accompanying list. Ngo also examined several cases in which alleged victims actually chose not to file complaints with police (and refused to respond to his inquiries) and concluded that those cases were likely hoaxes on the basis of the lack of information.
Again, not only does this methodology crudely ignore the real numbers we have of hate crimes in order to elevate the real but decidedly secondary (at best) problem of hoax attempts, but it also flies in the face of what we know about the very real and substantive—if not overwhelming—problems of underreportage and underenforcement of hate crimes.
A ProPublica report last year explained in great detail why and how America fails at accurately gathering complete information about hate crimes in this country. It begins with a police culture that is skeptical of the laws and the need to enforce them and continues through the cold realities that vulnerable minorities—particularly immigrants, LGBTQ folk, and most people of color—fear reporting these crimes because they fear becoming victims all over again. They fear retaliation from the perpetrators, they fear the police and how their cases will be handled, they fear broader social and legal repercussions simply for being drawn into the world of law enforcement (especially LGBTQ people and immigrants), and they fear being accused of faking the crimes—fears that journalists like Andy Ngo prove are very much based in reality.
Indeed, while enterprises such as Reilly’s may shed light on an interesting phenomenon that offers easy lessons for hate-crime skeptics to spout, they’re actually deeply damaging to the efforts to try to reel in these terroristic crimes that rip apart the national fabric, not just by pretending they don’t really represent a problem, but by worsening the social repercussions facing people who do work up the courage to report them.
Levin notes that he’s intimately familiar with this problem, having once represented a woman who was accused of faking a hate crime. Hoaxes do detract from the real problem, Levin agrees, though he also points out that “the public has a right to know that they exist. My issue is that when something is presented outside its full context, whether it’s large commercial airplane crashes in the United States or other relatively rare but impactful phenomena, it is often taken so far out of context as to be deceptive.”