Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
"Whites only" scrawled on the wall of a Minnesota high school bathroom. A woman's hijab yanked by a white man in California. An African-American homeless man killed with a sword in New York. These are just a few examples of the surge in hate crimes following the 2016 presidential election. Many of us saw this uptick documented on social media, as white supremacists became further emboldened after President Trump's victory. However, much of this evidence remained anecdotal, and while it is crucial we tell the stories of hate crime victims, anecdotes alone will not suffice. The months following the election have been a reminder that we need reliable and comprehensive national data on hate crimes.
Our government has huge gaps in its hate crime data. What little information it does possess is often unreliable. Even FBI director James Comey admitted a problem, saying, "We need to do a better job of tracking and reporting hate crimes to fully understand what is happening in our communities and how to stop it." The responsibility must fall on federal agencies that, at a minimum, should demand that local and state law enforcement provide data. Currently, more than 3,000 state and local agencies don't report hate crimes to the FBI at all, and little is being done to fix that. Other agencies will report data, but provide information that is clearly inaccurate. For example, in 2015, Mississippi reported zero hate crimes, and no further investigations took place.
Some make the argument that hate crimes are inherently difficult to track. The FBI defines a hate crime as a traditional crime motivated by bias "against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity." The hatred itself is not a crime, but it is crucial that we understand when crimes are motivated by hate to effectively prevent them and keep vulnerable communities safe. Though the question of motivation has the potential to make classification challenging, there is nothing ambiguous about the actions of a man in Colorado who smashed the windows of a mosque and threw a Bible inside, or about a man in Florida who tried to set fire to a store he thought was Muslim-owned to "do his part for America." These hate crimes need federal attention and are not difficult to define. The white supremacists committing hate crimes in the age of Trump are clear about their reasoning and proud of their behavior. The FBI and all law enforcement agencies have a duty to protect marginalized populations who are now at an even greater risk. The first step to doing that is gathering better data.
ProPublica, a nonprofit organization focused on investigative journalism, has launched a program called "Documenting Hate" to tackle this issue. They are leading a critical movement with a wide range of partners to create a hate crime database. In addition to investigative journalists, they are looking for "volunteers, including journalism students throughout the country" to contribute. They are stepping up where our nation's law enforcement has failed, and it's up to all of us to join the effort. We must continue to demand more of our government, while also eliminating the expectation they alone can solve the problem. We must be vigilant in our own communities to monitor and report hate crimes so the data will reflect the truth. In doing so, we can draw law enforcement's attention and resources to hate crimes. We must make stopping these offenses a political, financial and moral necessity for our government.
We cannot be sidetracked by those who would try to dismiss the threat of hate crimes and seek comfort in their ignorance. These offenses are not just individual incidents. They are not limited to certain communities. They cannot be ignored. Hatred toward marginalized groups has always been normalized in America, and a focus on preventing hate crimes is long overdue. Today we have the resources to more accurately gauge the reality of crime in America and take steps to address it. That begins with better data, and better data begins with conscious citizens.