Interviewer: On everything from fair housing, to affirmative action, to a belief in the existence of systemic racism, white Americans have shown a steep decline in racially biased attitudes over recent decades, yet hate crimes are rising. In 2021, the FBI reported the highest number of hate crimes since 2008, and Black Americans are most affected with 56% of all hate crimes being perpetrated against African-Americans. If there is less racial bias as a whole, why are there more racially motivated hate crimes? What moves some people from holding racist views to acting on them in lethal ways?
To get some answers I spoke with Jack McDevitt, Professor of the Practice in Criminology and Criminal Justice and Director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University. McDevitt's research on perpetrators of hate crimes is used by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in training, identifying, and assessing threats. I asked McDevitt if there are key profile characteristics like gender or age that are similar among those who commit these crimes.
Jack McDevitt: It's almost always young men, young males between the ages of 12 and 22 often in a group but occasionally by themselves. Women are sometimes involved, but mostly as accomplishes. It's generally a case of white males and younger white males who perceive that this person is member of a group that they don't want to be part of their community.
Interviewer: When you say to me, young white men, there's a part of me that thinks, "Well aren't young white men, presumably those operating with cradle privilege and access and opportunity?"
Jack McDevitt: They absolutely are and you're right, but that's not the ideology that some young white folks are. We're seeing an alienation of certain groups in our society. We've seen that in the recent national elections and state elections where certain groups of folks, including white folks, feel that the society has left them behind and that they're as marginalized as some other groups are now.
This whole notion of replacement ideology, which is foolishness, but is this idea that there's going to be a replacement of whites in our society by other groups, and that they have a lot to be afraid of. If you go on white supremacist websites, which I don't recommend anyone do, but if you look at them, that's the theme that's running through, "Our country is being taken over by other people and the non-white groups are going to take over."
Interviewer: Many people hold hateful and racist ideologies, very few commit direct acts of deadly violence as a result. I asked McDevitt, what it is that flips the switch? When does someone who is racist become willing to enact racist violence?
Jack McDevitt: I think that what we find is that, for some individuals, they see themselves as heroes. They believe that everyone else shares their feelings, but that everyone's afraid to act, and that they're the ones that are going to act, and it's going to start a revolution. If you think about Timothy McVeigh, who was the person who bombed the Oklahoma City bombing, you see that he was trying to start what he called the racial holy war, and believed that by bombing the federal building, he would start that. We've seen lots of different individuals over the years who feel that that's their mission is to be the one that acts out.
We don't know exactly what the switch is on any given individual, but what we're starting to see now is lone wolves. Individuals like apparently the case in Buffalo or the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, where an individual feels that they have to go out and take care of this problem as they see it because no one else will. The fact of having access to guns makes that person much more lethal than they ever could be by themselves.
Interviewer: McDevitt says the use of guns represents a similar shift in the behavior of violent perpetrators.
Jack McDevitt: We started collecting data on hate crimes in 1990 in the United States. Since then, it's been less than 1% of hate crimes a year ever have a gun involved. What we're seeing now is a shift and a shift towards guns being available. Originally, psychologists who worked with hate crime offenders said that they didn't use guns because they wanted to see their victims suffer, they wanted to have their hands on the victim.
Now we're seeing that they just want to damage or kill the victims, they can just fire in a church, or fire in a synagogue, or fire into a park. I think that that really changes the nature of hate crimes from all of our communities because if guns are going to become the weapon of choice, hate crimes are going to be so much more lethal than they have been up to this point.
Interviewer: Given that there is this desire to spark more violence, how can media be responsible about telling the story without participating in sparking more violence?
Jack McDevitt: The media does have a role in this in terms of glorifying offenders. What we have to understand is that in this case in Buffalo, the offender studied prior offenders. There is a copycat nature to some mass shootings, to some hate crimes. Now we cannot cover them, but whether or not we publish this diatribe by a person who self-identifies as racist, anti-Semitic, and a white supremacist, I think really is something that we can really think about.
More news is better than limiting news, but in some cases, we're sending messages out there that this person who follows the next person considering a shooting, are they going to be famous? Are they going to have their words put into large newspapers or national public radio or any place like that?
Interviewer: Are there ways that you have seen communities respond after these kinds of acts of hate and violence that have actually led to the opposite of what the perpetrator hopes and not towards war, and violence, and grief, but towards healing,
Jack McDevitt: When we interview victims of hate incidents, they tell us three things that are incredibly important to them towards their healing. The first is that there's a public declaration, "This is wrong." I think you've seen that in Buffalo saying, "This won't be tolerated in our community." The second thing the victims tell us is that the police have to take it seriously. The police have to offer protection. The police have to try to investigate to find out who did this.
Then the third and what victims tell us is the most important thing is that their neighbors come to them and embrace them and say, "We need you to be part of our community. Our community's better with you here." The victims say that knowing that they're friends, their neighbors, people they didn't even know are valuing the trouble they've been through, and want them to be part of the community means so much as they move towards healing.
Interviewer: Jack McDevitt is Professor of the Practice in Criminology and Criminal Justice and Director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University.
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