10 July 1998

Hate Crimes Not Linked To Economic Downturns

As the economy declines, instances of racial, religious, ethnic or homophobic hate crimes go up. That is the conventional wisdom being challenged by an analysis of hate crime in New York City from 1987 to 1995, published in the July issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

According to the study's authors, in no cases was there a statistical link between economic fluctuations and rates of hate crime, defined as "unlawful acts of violence, vandalism, harassment, and intimidation directed against victims on account of their putative race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation". Nor were such links found when they analyzed historical statistics relating cotton prices to the lynching of blacks in the south prior to World War II.

A number of explanations are offered for the findings, including the observation that lynching and contemporary hate crimes tend to be group activities that require more co-ordination and persistence than individual acts such as domestic violence. Economic declines have been shown to coincide with increases in child abuse, for example, where frustrations and aggressive impulses find an immediate target.

Another possible reason is historical in nature. The authors point out that political elites and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan play a mediating role by attributing blame and eliciting public resentment towards minority groups in times of financial decline. In other words, the relationship between economic discontent and hate crime may boil down to the way political leaders and organizations frame and mobilize economic grievances and accompanying societal discontent.