Defenders of institutionalized white supremacy are always quick to play down hate crimes and domestic terrorism, because they reflect an underlying reality they hope to obscure. So it was not a surprise when the usual suspects—police officials and right-wing pundits like Andrew Sullivan—were eager to assure us that the serial killings in Atlanta last month targeting Asian women working at massage parlors really weren’t hate crimes at all.
The ensuing discussion, however, provided ample reminders that the arguments dismissing hate crimes coming from the right are dishonestly blinkered, using simplistic statistics to once again shift the blame to nonwhites and avoid the cold reality that hate crimes are and always have been primarily a problem emanating from the white population. Exhibit A: An error-riddled article in The Federalist this week that attacks both me and the Southern Poverty Law Center, claiming that both of us mislead the public about hate crimes—while doing precisely that itself.
The piece, by a private attorney named Brad Betters, claims that both the SPLC and I “hide crimes because of the perpetrators’ race” in our discussions of hate crimes and hate groups. Let’s examine these arguments.
Betters jumps into an exchange I had on Twitter with Sullivan, who used a set of highly dubious statistics to defend a piece he wrote on Substack contending that the Atlanta killings weren’t hate crimes. Sullivan noted both in the article and on Twitter that “It is simply a fact that the demographic disproportionately most likely to commit hate crimes is African-American.”
I responded that, in fact, “white people are by far the demographic most likely to commit hate crimes,” pointing to the basic numbers from the 2019 FBI hate-crime statistics that Sullivan cited: “Of the 6,406 known [hate crime offenders], 52.5% were white, 23.9% were black or African American,” and in 14.6% the race was unknown.
Sullivan probably meant to write “proportionately”—“disproportionate” describes large differences, which does describe the numerical gap between white and black hate crime percentages, but does not fit for the difference in numbers when weighted proportionately. In any event, he writes in the Substack piece: “At 13 percent of the population, African Americans commit 23.9 percent of hate crimes.” Since whites comprise over 60% of the population but commit 53%, they are charged with hate crimes at a lower per-capita rate than Blacks.
However, there is a reason the Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn’t run those per-capita numbers in its report on hate crimes: They are fundamentally useless, a red herring thrown out to suggest that Black people are more prone individually to committing hate crimes than white people, and perhaps to suggest that they actually commit more hate crimes. It’s the same logic behind racial profiling, and bogus for precisely the same reason: It suggests that we can predict criminality according to a person’s race, and implies that Black people are more inclined by nature to commit crimes.
As I pointed out to Sullivan, this same rationale is the one engendered by white nationalists when they argue for eradicating the presence of African Americans and creating an all-white ethnostate—and it’s been adopted by a number of white-supremacist killers, notably Dylann Roof, the 2015 Charleston church killer. So it comes with a big red flag.
More to the point, what does matter is the general source of threat from hate crime that any minority person faces in America. As I repeatedly explained: “Again, what I said was this: You are twice as likely to be the victim of a hate crime by a white person or people than by any other ethnic group.”
Sullivan replied: “Because there are so many more white people! I know the truth hurts—that the demographic vastly over-represented in hate crimes is African American. But it’s still true.”
“And what do you think is the reason for that, Andrew?” I asked in response. “Or perhaps more precisely: Can you explain the relevance of the proportional difference to us? What exactly does it tell us causally speaking?”
Sullivan did not deign to reply. Most likely he was not eager to acknowledge that the causal argument he was making by implication is that Black people are more inclined to commit hate crimes.
And the reason I asked it is that there is an even more important reason the per-capita numbers don’t convey anything useful: In order to make a valid comparison of this nature between demographic groups, the conditions under which the groups are enumerated need to be similar if not identical. In this case, we are actually talking about the numbers of people arrested and charged with hate crimes—and when it comes to that realm, the worlds of Black and white people could not be more different.
In the real world, Black people are five times more likely than whites to be arrested by American policemen. This is not because, as white nationalists like to imagine, African Americans have more innately criminal natures. Nearly every study to examine the problem has concluded that the difference reflects a racial bias in policing. (Of course, Sullivan is well-known for disputing this.)
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, argues that the Black community is treated differently by police: "For example, with drug use, that there's similar rates of drug use, marijuana use among white folks and black folks," she told ABC News. "White folks will get a slap on the wrist. And black folks will be the ones profiled, targeted and subject to arrest and prosecution."
In a world where Blacks are arrested at more than five times the rate of whites, being arrested for hate crimes at twice the rate of whites should surprise no one—especially given that an institutional racial bias would incline white police both to be eager to charge nonwhites with hate crimes, as well as to ignore or create excuses for white hate crimes against nonwhites. The tendency of American police not to “see” hate crimes committed by whites has been long studied and remarked.
So while the easy interpretation of the per-capita hate-crime rates when it comes to the races of the perpetrators—that Black people are more inclined to commit hate crimes—is in fact not present in the full context of the data. Instead, the question that arises is: Why are cops so much more inclined to charge Blacks with hate crimes than whites?
Unsurprisingly, my Twitter mentions were flooded with posts from Groypers and other right-wing bigots in response to these posts, particularly after the infamous white nationalist Steve Sailer chimed in with a tweet suggesting I am innumerate, which his less-than-enlightened followers enthusiastically seconded. It was an unpleasant day on Twitter.
All went silent for awhile after Sullivan’s non-response, but then the Federalist ripped the scab off by publishing Betters’ essay. However, Betters’ main purpose was not so much to relitigate hate-crimes statistics (though he tried), but rather to launch an attack on the SPLC, for whom I worked for six years prior to coming over to Daily Kos’ greener pastures.
I haven’t had any dealings with the SPLC (other than as sources for quotes in my stories) since leaving there, and it’s unfortunate that Betters tried to smear a fine organization by its association with me, especially because there have been major changes there since I left. However, he swings so wide of the mark—beginning with his identification of an SPLC piece written by senior analyst Cassie Miller (one I had nothing to do with) as being mine—that the piece self-immolates into a pile of clinkers.
Predictably, Betters tosses out the per-capita argument: “Of course, without acknowledging that whites are 60 percent of the population and blacks 12, this doesn’t illuminate a whole lot.” (As I demonstrated, that fact doesn’t illuminate much either.)
He applies it to other fields: “By failing to adjust for U.S. population differences, though (3.5 million versus 237 million), Neiwert kept from readers that, by his own count, Muslims were 38 times more likely than whites to commit a domestic terrorist act.”
He also presumes: “Neiwert … also knows that whites in America likely don’t commit 53 percent of all hate crimes.” Actually, I know that they commit well over 50% and probably a lot more. (I’ll explain momentarily.)
Betters notes that the Department of Justice’s statistics lump Hispanic offenders in with whites (but fails to mention that Hispanics are one of the main categories under ethnic crimes) and then wildly suggests that because “Hispanic general crime rates are higher than that of whites,” the number attributed to whites is “inflated in relation to whites”—a supposition he doesn’t even attempt to substantiate, because he can’t. It’s just more racial profiling and its false logic in principle.
Betters veers completely off the track, however, when he turns his attention to the SPLC, denouncing its “recent decision to stop labeling anti-white, black separatist organizations as ‘hate groups.’”
The chief problem with this complaint is that that’s not what they did. All you have to do is go read the SPLC article featured in the tweet he cites to realize that all of the organizations in question—designated “Black nationalist” in the SPLC’s old hate map—are in fact still on that map, fully labeled hate groups.
It’s just that now they are categorized according to the kind of hate they practice (usually anti-Semitism) rather than as “Black nationalist,” which is not an inherently bigoted concept but rather a defensive response to white supremacy; in real life, however, many groups that adopt Black nationalism practice harmful bigotry themselves. As the SPLC makes clear:
We will still monitor these groups, but we will be transferring them to hate ideologies, including antisemitism, that better describe the harm their rhetoric inflicts.
Black separatist groups land on the SPLC’s hate map because they propagate antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ and male supremacist views, not because they oppose a white supremacist power structure.
When I did work at SPLC (2013-18) I recall being part of discussions about how we coped with the burgeoning number of Black-nationalist groups on our list, mainly because the vast majority of them were tiny operations with only a few members—yet they grew so numerous that the hate map showed for many years that Black nationalists had become the largest single category of ideology on the map—not because it had the most members or groups, but because white supremacists were broken into distinct categories (Klan, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, alt-right) that spread their numbers around.
It presented an opportunity for white nationalists to make the claim that Black nationalists comprised the largest category of hate group—technically accurate mathematically speaking, but deeply misleading, very much like the people who want to use statistics to suggest Blacks are more likely to commit hate crimes. And I have little doubt that this conundrum led to the recent change. Sure enough, Betters even mentions this:
Before this, black nationalist groups on the SPLC’s hate-group list had been growing four-fold since 2000, outnumbering white ones on a 2-to-1 basis. Most would find this surprising, considering the attention devoted to ethno-nationalist groups from the mainstream media and the SPLC is nearly always on whites only.
This pretty much gives the game away: What Betters’ real beef is that the SPLC—along with this German/English dude from southern Idaho—is “anti-white.” He complains: “Twice its leaders have been forced to admit that, despite their general antiracism mandate, it really is only white people they’re after.” Then he caps it all by saying that people like me “pass over basic facts to pursue anti-white narratives can be summed up in one word: bigotry.”
The entire enterprise—both in The Federalist and at Sullivan’s Substack page, not to mention everywhere right-wing apologists can be found—is about absolving white people of culpability for the nation’s ongoing racial miseries, not the least of which is the ongoing surge in anti-Asian hate crimes that started this whole exercise in far-right gaslighting.
The FBI’s hate-crime statistics for 2019 show only 4.4% of all racially motivated hate crimes were directed at Asians, compared to 48.5% fueled by anti-Black bigotry and 14.1% by anti-Hispanic bias. However, hate-crime statistics have long been undermined by the reality that they are severely underreported: a federal study by the National Crime released in February found that more than 40% of hate crimes are never reported to authorities. This problem is particularly severe in the areas of anti-LGBTQ, anti-Latino-immigrant, and anti-Asian hate crimes, where victims often face powerful disincentives not to involve themselves further; and it is worsened by police forces that often fail to recognize, investigate, and properly prosecute hate crimes.
Are hate-crimes laws by their nature anti-white? Only if you consider accountability a form of animus. I happen to have been around at the birth of hate-crimes laws, which arose out of the victims’ rights movement of the 1970s and took shape in the form of laws passed by a handful of states in the early 1980s, primarily as a way of responding to the very real phenomenon of bias-motivated criminal acts, which current laws on the books had no tools for providing a tough enough response to combat the problem.
Idaho was one of those first states, and its hate-crime law was passed in 1983 with crucial support from Republican legislators who had had enough of the depredations inflicted on their once-peaceful state by the neo-Nazi bigots who had moved into the Panhandle in the late ’70s, calling themselves the Aryan Nations. (It didn’t hurt that one of the leading neo-Nazis publicly threatened to kill legislators who voted for the bill, which had the effect of enraging everyone else.)
No one who has dealt in hate crimes has ever had any delusions about its wellsprings—white supremacy—and how they can create other kinds of bigotry as reactionary echoes of people lashing out in retaliation, hate generating hate. The point of laws against them is to break the cycle at the source. And that source, year after year, wave after wave, has been white people.
The average hate criminal is a white man age 16-30, not a member of a hate group (only about 8% of all hate crimes are committed by members of hate groups, but over 70% of all hate crimes are committed by people who use hate-group rhetoric). It’s also worth remembering that the third-largest racial group committing hate crimes is “unidentified,” a portion of which are going to also be white. Then when we add in all those thousands of unreported hate crimes—which is distinctly not a problem when it comes to white victims of hate crimes, but all too often is a problem when the perpetrators are powerful or wealthy white people—the math becomes very simple: Hate crimes are overwhelmingly a white-people problem.
It’s not anti-white to say so. It’s pro-accountability.