Authorities have stopped shy of classifying the Atlanta-area killings of eight people, including six Asian women, as a hate crime.
It’s drawn nationwide condemnation from many who believe the crime fits into a pattern of increased attacks against Asian Americans across the country.
Since the 1980s, 47 states — including Georgia — and the federal government have passed hate crime laws.
Hate crimes can be defined as violence “motivated by bias on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity,” says Jeannine Bell, a law professor at Indiana University who has studied hate crimes for more than 20 years.
But there’s a caveat: The actual categories vary by statute, she says, meaning the language can differ state to state or by local jurisdictions.
In the case of the Atlanta shootings, the suspect told authorities he had a sex addiction, which investigators are saying suggests that this rampage was not racially motivated.
However there is a long, documented history of sexualizing, objectifying and fetishizing Asian women in the U.S., which many activists and experts say has fostered a culture of violence.
Bell says understanding the history and seeing how authorities have responded so far shows the gaps within the implementation of these hate crime laws and lack of police training on identifying such acts.
“The history … suggests that race was part of it. Gender was part of it,” she says.
To charge someone with a hate crime, police need to complete a full investigation to determine "why the defendant selected and targeted his victims," she says.
In a study from the late 1990s, Bell discovered police departments with units that specialize in hate crimes were better at identifying them. But a lot of police departments don't have dedicated hate crime units.
Without that training or a specific unit, officers are more hesitant to investigate something as a hate crime, she says.
“Officers who don't have or are not part of a hate crime unit may be investigating their very first hate crime,” she says.
Georgia’s hate crime law is still new. The Atlanta authorities investigating the shooting likely aren’t “experienced in identifying bias motivations,” leaving officers scrambling to figure out if the motive constitutes a hate crime, Bell says.
Hate crimes often go unreported. For instance, it's often up to the victim to prove the crime committed against them was racist. But with nuanced conversations happening around what racism and other forms of hate look like, Bell says it’s time to look at how authorities treat hate crime laws.
In her study, she looked at a police department with a hate crime unit and found the unit was able to protect the First Amendment while also watching out for victims, she says.
“Critics of hate crime legislation don't like it because they believe that individuals are going to be arrested for a crime just for using slurs,” she explains. “And I found that the detectives in the unit — because they've been properly schooled on the First Amendment — were able to protect the First Amendment and also adequately serve victims of hate crime.”
Some state laws require data collection on motivations, victims and perpetrators of hate crimes, while others don’t. The best data available on hate crimes in the U.S. comes from the FBI, Bell says.
Yet the agency’s data suggests officers aren’t noting hate crimes in their reports. The data finds “86% of law enforcement agencies reported that no hate crimes had occurred in their jurisdiction in 2019,” the last year in which figures were available, she says. “That absolutely does not sound right.”
It’s in direct conflict with victims’ reports of hate crimes in the U.S., she says.
“Victim surveys of hate crimes,” she says, “are drastically different from the FBI data.”
This segment aired on March 23, 2021.