Over the past few weeks, at least two major news stories have vied for our attention because they seemingly revealed the deep truth that not only has America always been a racist nation but that things are getting objectively worse because of Donald Trump.
The hate-crime attack on Jussie Smollet, we're told, somehow reveals a cancer on the American soul even if the actor engineered it as a bizarre contract-negotiation ploy. So too does the arrest of the Coast Guard's Lt. Christopher P. Hasson, who according to court documents called himself "a long time White Nationalist" and had drawn up a kill list of "traitors" that included CNN and MSNBC personalities along with politicians ranging from Sen. Dick Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Hasson has amassed many weapons and had, prosecutors say, planned on committing "focused violence" that would help to "establish a white homeland."
"In the aftermath of Jussie Smollett's arrest for allegedly orchestrating his own supposedly racist and homophobic attack, I don't want you to focus on Smollett himself," writes educator and activist Erica Smith at The Huffington Post. "I'd like you to remember this: Hate crimes against black people and LGBTQ+ people happen regularly and have been on the rise in recent years. Do not let one celebrity's allegedly false report lead you to believe otherwise." Writing in The New York Times, Thomas T. Cullen, the United States attorney for the Western District of Virginia, observes the arrest of Hasson and argues
This frightening case is just one of several recent reminders that white supremacy and far-right extremism are among the greatest domestic-security threats facing the United States….At both the federal and state levels, immediate steps are required to curtail the alarming rise of hate crimes and extremist violence in this country.
In fact, it's not clear that hate crimes and extremist violence are on the rise. As Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which tracks hate crimes, found
"the rate of violent hate crime victimization" in 2015 "was not significantly different from the rate in 2004," BJS reports. And this absence of a statistically significant change "held true for violent hate crimes both reported and unreported to police."
But that study, which found increases in gender and sexual-orientation hate crimes and declines in race-based assaults, covered America before Donald Trump became president. Perhaps he has "normalized" bias, as his critics might charge? The data are far from clear on this. After last fall's mass shooting at a Pittsburgh-area synagogue, many media accounts talked about a Jewish Anti-Defamation League report that supposedly showed a 57 percent spike in "anti-Semitic hate crimes" between 2016 and 2017. However, as Reason's Robby Soave, relying on an analysis by George Mason University law professor and Volokh Conspiracy blogger David Bernstein, noted, there are ample grounds to doubt that anti-Semitism is spiking.
The ADL report came up with three subcategories of anti-Semitic incidents: vandalism, harassment, and assault. An increase in vandalism accounts for much of the overall increase, but Bernstein doubts that all of the included incidents were actually examples of anti-Semitism. The harassment category also saw an increase, largely due to a series of bomb threats against Jewish institutions in the U.S. made by a disturbed Israeli teen. It's not at all clear that these threats were motivated by anti-Semitism.
Finally, the assault category saw a 47 percent decrease.
More recently, Soave has critiqued the idea that hate crimes overall increased significantly between 2016 and 2017 due to what the Southern Poverty Law Center and others have dubbed "the Trump effect." Last fall, the FBI did release a report whose topline takeaway was that hate crimes rose 17 percent during Trump's first year in office. But as Soave cautions:
Any talk of hate crime increases must be considered in light of a very critical detail: The overall number of law enforcement agencies reporting hate crime data also increased greatly—approximately 1,000 additional agencies contributed figures in 2017 than in 2016. This means it's not obviously the case that hate crimes are more prevalent in 2017. Maybe the government just did a better job of counting them.
This seems even more plausible when the raw totals are considered. The FBI counted 7,175 hate crimes in 2017, compared with 6,121 in 2016. That's a difference of about 1,000. If every agency reporting data for the first time in 2017 reported just one hate crime, this would account for the entire 17 percent increase.
Jussie Smollett's alleged behavior is so self-destructive and narcissistic that it's hard to understand even as it's easy to see why the people who believed in him want to focus on a higher truth they think is illuminated by his masquerade. Christopher P. Hasson's belief system is beyond grotesque and all the more disturbing coming from someone serving in a branch of the armed services. It's not clear yet how long he was under surveillance or why authorities arrested him now, though he appears to have been activated at least partly by reading materials from eco-terrorists such as the Unabomber and the far-right Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik.
But here is a thought that is both true and comforting: Neither Smollett nor Hasson is representative of anything beyond their own pathologies. The rush to make them stand for something bigger than themselves is an understandable, human urge. But it gives them too much credit. Hate crimes exist and are all the worse for being motivated by the crudest elements of our humanity—racism, sexism, fear of the other. We can deal with that without ignoring the progress we have made as a society toward treating all individuals as equal under the law and deserving of respect. Using outliers to characterize our country will lead only to more fire and less light on the path to a better world.