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Hate Crimes Are More Common Than You Think

Recent data suggests 3 in 5 young people experience bias-motivated attacks.

The recent shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, are yet more incidents of hate-motivated crime—shot by a perfect stranger because of their identity. Hate is having a moment, and we need to do more to stop it.

The first step is better surveillance. Recent research by my colleagues and I suggests that more than 3 in 5 young people (63 percent) had experienced at least one type of bias-motivated victimization (physical assault, threats, vandalism, robbery, or bullying because of a personal characteristic). If that number holds up nationwide, that translates to more than 46 million young people who are victims of hate-motivated attacks. Even more are affected when their family, friends, and neighbors are attacked. Hate crimes also contribute to anxiety, hypervigilance, and other trauma symptoms. If we want our communities to be safe places for our children, we must do more to stop the hate.

To make a problem better, you must understand it. Unfortunately, the United States does a terrible job of collecting data on the true prevalence of hate crimes in this country. The only national surveillance comes from FBI reports of cases that are reported to the Federal government—a tiny sliver of the true burden of hate.

Almost 20 years ago, my colleagues and I added a single question on bias victimization to a nationally representative survey of youth and collected the first nationally representative statistics on assaults motivated by racism or other bigotry. That single question was an important advance in the science of interpersonal violence, which up until then had almost completely ignored violence motivated by hate or bias. However, it was still insufficient, because we tried to get people to think back to any victimization that was motivated by bias, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability status. It was too much for one question.

In our most recent nationally representative survey, the lifetime rate of bias-motivated victimization among youth (up to age 17) was 3.1 percent. That’s still a lot of kids—far too many. That still translates to more than 2.2 million child victims of hate.

Nonetheless, even that sad number is probably a gross under-representation of the true burden. My colleagues and I recently surveyed more than 800 adolescents and emerging adults (ages 13 to 21) in three regions of the United States: Boston, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a more rural region from southern Appalachia. By asking more detailed questions about many types of attacks and many different bias motives, our findings show that experiences of bias-motivated attacks are common, even the norm, for many groups of young people.

Attacks due to sexual orientation or gender identity

People who identified as LGBTQ+ or transgender reported the highest rates of bias-motivated attacks. Eight in 10 gay and lesbian youth reported being victimized due to their sexual orientation, and almost 3 in 4 transgender youth (73 percent) reported being a victim of a bias-motivated incident due to their gender identity.

Perhaps surprisingly, even young people with more privileged identities reported bias-motivated victimization too. Hate affects everyone. Although the rates were much lower than for gay, lesbian, or transgender youth, straight and cisgender people experience bias too. About 1 in 5 females reported they were victims of misogynist attacks, and 1 in 7 males said they had been victims of gender-related attacks.

About 1 in 8 people who identified as heterosexual also reported getting attacked because of their sexual orientation. We know from other research that a lot of that is likely homophobic attacks on men by other men—even straight, cisgender men, who are often attacked for any perceived deviations from traditional gender and sexual norms. Hate crime perpetrators aren’t geniuses—they often misperceive other people or are so paranoid and insecure about their own status that they lash out indiscriminately.

Attacks based on race, ethnicity, country of origin, or religion

More than half of Black youth (52 percent) and almost half of Latino youth (48 percent) reported being a victim of a race-motivated incident. In this sample, the most vulnerable ethnic or religious identity was Jewish, with more than half (56 percent) of Jewish youth reporting being assault, bullying, or vandalism due to their religion. Young people who identified as Muslim also reported high rates of bias victimization: More than 2 in 5 reported attacks because of their religion, and more than 1 in 3 because of their country of origin.

Again, more privileged groups also reported experiences of bias, but at much lower rates. Jewish young people were more than three times as likely to be victimized because of their religion than Christian young people or people with no religion, but there were a few instances of both. Similarly, although people who identified as white were much less likely to experience race-motivated attacks, there were some instances. There is less research on these patterns than there is on homophobic bullying, so it is less clear what these instances might involve. In my own work talking to youth (and some research), people in interracial relationships or who are dating someone from a different religion are often a target and no longer fully protected by their privileged status. It is probably many factors, but these findings show, again, that the effects of societal bias can even touch the most privileged.

Attacks based on disability

Another vulnerable group is people with physical and/or learning disabilities. About 1 in 3 people with a disability reported being attacked because of their disability.

Intersectionality and vulnerability to victimization

Of course, some people have more than one marginalized characteristic. You can be Black and transgender or Jewish and disabled, for example. Almost 2 in 5 youth (38.7 percent) reported being attacked for two or more personal characteristics. Some forms of attack were related—for example, people attacked because of their race or ethnicity were highly likely to also be attacked for their perceived country-of-origin (whether they were actually immigrants or not). Transgender youth were the most vulnerable group in the study, with more than 9 in 10 experiencing bias victimization, including not only victimization due to gender identity but also because of their perceived sexual orientation, race, disability status, or another factor.

Not surprisingly, young people who had experienced a bias-motivated attack had higher trauma symptoms than those who didn’t. Consistent with our other work on the dose of adversity, people who experienced multiple forms of bias victimization have higher symptom levels than other youth, and this dose-response effect was stronger than the effect for any particular type.

The 21st century has seen important progress in psychology, as we have shifted to trauma-informed care and started to understand the profound psychological, biological, and social impacts of adverse childhood experiences. However, this important work has neglected the impact of hate crime. Hate crime adds substantially to the true burden of trauma. Emerging data suggests it affects most young people in the United States. This is an eminently psychological problem, and the psychological community needs to do more to address it.

© 2020 Sherry Hamby. All rights reserved.


Mitchell, K., Jones, L., Turner, H., Farrell, A., Cuevas, C., Hamby, S., & Daly, B. (online first). Exposure to multiple forms of bias victimization on youth and young adults: Relationships with trauma symptomatology and social support. Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

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