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What lies behind the rising tide of prejudice, hate speech, hate threats, and hate crimes across America? Is it fear, ignorance, a power grab — or something else?

Danielle Nanni holds up a sign while listening to speakers during a rally against hate in Berkeley, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

Just in the past few weeks, following the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group, the FBI has tracked 17,000 anti-semitic slurs, with direct connection to Nazi hate messaging and images, on social media.

In-person and verbal attacks on Black, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, LGBTQ, and many other minority groups have been on the rise since 2017.

According to a new survey by anti-hate group in 2021 some 17 percent of Asian Americans reported sexual harassment, stalking, physical threats, and other incidents, up from 11 percent in 2019. Half of them said the harassment appeared motivated by their race or ethnicity, according to the survey. Some 21 percent — or one in five of Asian-American respondents said they were harassed online.

Just this past weekend, a group described as “thug-like” attacKers (who may or may not have been Palestinian supporters) beat a Jewish man on the streets of New York. Other unknown vandals attacked the synagogue in Arizona where former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords worships.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are reporting the biggest increase in serious incidents of online hate and harassment including racist and xenophobic slurs, blaming people of Asian descent for the coronavirus pandemic. Elderly Asian residents of several California cities are now afraid of taking a walk on their neighborhood streets for fear of being beaten.

Hate Speech and the First Amendment

Poster by Jon Tyson, for Unsplash

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt says the survey’s findings show that efforts to curb surging anti-Asian sentiment by social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube appear to have fallen short.

It appears to be a barrage that just keeps coming, even in the face of concerted efforts to reduce the rhetoric. Forty-one percent of Americans who responded to the recent survey said they had experienced online harassment, compared to the 44 percent reported in ADL’s 2020 “Online Hate and Harassment” report.

Anti-Asian physical and verbal attacks have risen all across the U.S. fueled initially by the former president’s insistence upon calling the pandemic by Asian slur names.  The blame game may have empowered many of his supporters, many of whom are white nationalists and white supremacists.

These grievance-filled hate groups don’t just pick on those of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. African-American respondents have reported a sharp rise in race-based harassment, from 42 percent last year to 59 percent in 2021.

While in office, former President Donald Trump has been an equal-opportunity hater. His insistence on calling those of Hispanic descent “rapists and murders” made them targets. Journalists were targets. Women were targets. In fact, it became clear as his presidency progressed that Trump and his supporters were increasingly willing to blame anything they didn’t like about society, or things that they may have caused or allowed to happen as someone else’s fault.

This hasn’t ended with his presidency. People who told the truth about the 2020 election — that it was the most secure in American history and there was no voter fraud —  are targets now. Politicians who don’t follow his line of lies are targets. People who want to get to the bottom of the Jan. 6 assault on the United States Capitol are targets.

The CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank found in a recent survey that 79 percent of American respondents believe hate speech is morally unacceptable. But that same survey found that 59 percent of those respondents thought hate speech ought to be allowed under the guise of free speech.

Many of Trump’s supporters, those still believing in his big lie that the election was rigged, have been known to jeer those who they deem not to be suitably American (often translated as white, Evangelical, and a Trump supporter). Those deemed “not like them”  have been harassed on public streets, public transport, at sporting events, in stores and elevators telling them to “go back where you came from.”

Grievance-filled hate groups appear to be the beneficiaries of what has long been broad and expansive First Amendment rights in this country. Right-wing groups may try to claim they have the freedom to say what they want, condoning the grievance-hate-intolerance words on the grounds that it is protected speech. But in doing so, they fail to realize that hate speech while considered protected, when coupled with threats is specifically excluded from First Amendment protection.

Hate crimes are rising

The FBI’s annual report defines hate crimes as those crimes motivated by bias based on a person’s race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, all defined by the law.

The term “hate” can be misleading. When used in a hate crime law, the word “hate” does not mean rage, anger, or general dislike. In this context “hate” means bias against people or groups with specific characteristics that are defined by the law.

While signs of hate speech are one thing — the hate crimes they inspire are rising too.  According to an FBI report released in Nov. 2020 for the previous year, federal officials also recorded the highest number of hate-motivated killings since the FBI began collecting that data in the early 1990’s.

The U.S. Dept. of Justice has for years been specifically prioritizing hate crime prosecutions. According to the Dept. of Justice, “The ‘crime’ in hate crime is often a violent crime, such as assault, murder, arson, vandalism, or threats to commit such crimes.

The Associated Press reported that the FBI data on hate crimes reached the highest level in a decade. There were 7,314 hate crimes in 2019, up from 7,120 the year before — and approaching the 7,783 of 2008.

There were 51 hate crime murders in 2019, not all of them garnering attention such as the shooting that targeted Mexicans at a Walmart in the border city of El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people. The suspect in that August 2019 shooting, which left two dozen other people injured, was charged with both state and federal crimes in what authorities said was an attempt to scare Hispanics into leaving the United States.

Some of the 2019 increases may be the result of better reporting by police departments, but law enforcement officials and advocacy groups don’t doubt that hate crimes are on the rise. The data also shows there was a nearly seven percent increase in religion-based hate crimes, with 953 reports of crimes targeting Jews and Jewish institutions last year, up from 835 the year before. The FBI said the number of hate crimes against African Americans dropped slightly to 1,930, from 1,943.

Anti-Hispanic hate crimes, however, rose to 527 in 2019, from 485 in 2018. And the total number of hate crimes based on a person’s sexual orientation stayed relatively stable, with one fewer crime reported last year, compared with the year before, though there were 20 more hate crimes against gay men reported.

The trend toward hate, when mixed with the proliferation of guns, with right-wing extremism, with grievance-based rhetoric that appears to be motivating the leadership of a particular political party, does not bode well for civil society. There is nothing civil about hate and rural communities are not immune.

Featured image: Danielle Nanni holds up a sign while listening to speakers during a rally against hate in Berkeley, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)