Unquantified Prejudice: The Challenges Of Tracking Hate Crimes

Lack of reporting and coordination between federal and local law enforcement are just some of the challenges with tracking hate crimes like anti-Semitism.

The damaged door of a synagogue is seen in Halle, Germany October 10, 2019, after two people were killed in a shooting. (Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch)

The Halle synagogue shooting in Germany, which occurred on October 9th, 2019, during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, serves as a tragic reminder that anti-Semitism among the radical right often directly reflects its eliminationist aims. Following this event, a number of genuinely astute Insight posts, including from Dr. Andreas Önnerfors and Mr. Maik Fielitz, comparatively examined the tactics utilized by the Halle shooting perpetrator to extrapolate broader trends and patterns among attacks of the radical right.

Although these posts are valuable in their own right, I contend that the considerable shortcomings in the recording and reporting of incidents targeting racial, ethnic, and religious minorities across the globe not only limits our ability to analyze perpetrator approaches systematically, it leaves us in the dark when it comes to the most fundamental questions facing scholars examining behavioral manifestations of prejudice: i.e., how often is a minority group the target of a hate-motivated event.

I posit that there are two primary (and interrelated) factors that limit the ability of scholars to accurately study the targeting of minority groups and its variation across time and space: 1) the inability of organizations tasked with recording and aggregating these events to do so accurately, and 2) the large disparities in definitions of what constitutes a hate-motivated event and the dissimilarities in how they are reported.

I utilize anti-Semitism, specifically available data from reported anti-Semitic events and hate crimes, to briefly examine the factors above in greater detail. It is my hope that elucidating some of the issues which significantly limit our ability to understand baseline trends in the prejudicial targeting of minority groups can serve as an important launching pad for discussions on how to improve data collection necessary to more accurately study hate and hate crimes.

Reporting Accuracy

Inaccurate counts of events targeting minority groups, especially the undercounting of these incidents, are commonplace. Data from two different surveys produced by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) with well over 6,000 respondents published in 2013 and 2018 confirm this concern.

According to the 2013 FRA survey, 76% of Jewish respondents across the European Union did not report the most serious incident of anti-Semitic harassment they experienced over the preceding five years to any organization, including the police. While slightly lower, the figures for non-reporting of physical violence and vandalism at 64% and 53%, respectively, are still alarming.

Worse still, 2018 FRA data confirm that, at best, this trend has not improved five years after the initial survey. 79% of respondents, a slight increase of 3%, still report that they do not report the most serious incident of anti-Semitic harassment they experienced. These responses suggest that data aggregating reported anti-Semitic events might grossly undercount the number of experienced incidents, including both physical violence and vandalism, which are of serious interest to scholars and practitioners alike.

It is also important to note that the underreporting of incidents is neither specific to Europe or Jewish targets. The National Crime Victimization Survey frequently shows a tremendous difference between the perception of crime, which targets racial minority groups and reported crime according to the Uniform Crime Reporting by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.

Definitions and Reports

The scope of agencies and organizations tasked with aggregating and reporting incidents targeting minority groups usually focuses on data creation at one of three levels: global, country-level, or regional/state/metropolitan-level.

Global data on anti-Semitic incidents comes from both international organizations (e.g., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)), national governments (e.g., United States State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018), and research organizations (e.g., The Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry). While certainly not an exhaustive list, this level of analysis suffers from two significant concerns I will examine below.

First, the definition of what constitutes an anti-Semitic event is not universal across countries, and international organizations often utilize the reports of country-level organizations to build their reports. For example, while numerous countries in Europe have criminalized denial of the holocaust such as Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, other countries such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have not. By utilizing country-level reports to build their aggregate reports, these international organizations may not consistently count the same type of event (e.g., public Holocaust denial). This problem exists for both the OSCE and U.S. State Department data.

Second, while a research organization like the Kantor Center utilizes a single criterion to define anti-Semitic manifestations across time and space, which is exceptionally valuable for a systematic study of prejudice, its reports often lack the descriptions and details necessary for a systematic study. Specifically, while their total annual event counts are recorded at both a global and country-specific level, information regarding the incident type and incident targets are only shared as a yearly global measure.

Country-level data, on average valued for its greater detail, still require considerable scrutiny for scholars seeking to utilize this information to understand variation in prejudicial events.

One such concern is that many countries have multiple organizations tasked with systematically reporting hate, such as anti-Semitic events. Their counts can vary dramatically based on definition, scope, and resources. For example, in Austria, there are currently three major organizations that report anti-Semitic event counts annually, one considered official and two that are unofficial according to the OSCE. In 2014, for example, Austria’s official report noted 58 incidents of anti-Semitism while the two unofficial organizations reported 31 and 255 incidents, respectively. That same year, the Kantor center reported only nine events occurring in Austria. Utilizing these datasets without considerable knowledge of their differences and shortcoming can lead to reasonable apprehension about the quality and generalizability of the anti-Semitism research.

Regional/state/metropolitan-level data, often the most descriptive, can also suffer from systematic bias that can make empirical comparisons wholly inaccurate.

For example, the UCR Hate Crimes data provided by the FBI is coded with geographic detail down to the county and city levels (although it is publically shared in yearly reports at the state-level). However, this database, widely seen as the most important and accurate record of hate-motivated incidents in the United States, suffers from the fact that law enforcement agency participation in reporting relevant events and investigations to the FBI is entirely voluntary at the local and state level. Furthermore, why a law enforcement agency chooses not to share its data varies considerably and can lead to many empirical shortcomings, especially for the unknowing or untrained scholar or practitioner.

Moving Forward

While concerns regarding data accuracy and functionality remain central to the systematic empirical study of prejudice, we must not let these apprehensions prevent us from pursuing related analysis, especially large-N quantitative work aimed at better understanding the most fundamental questions of this enterprise.

Scholars utilizing prejudice-motivated event count data must take serious efforts to understand differences associated with possible sources and be sure to accurately describe potential comparisons across states and countries.

Practitioners should take a more active role in encouraging better data event-count data collection. Such efforts should include cultivating a sense of trust between the target community and police that their reporting of incidents will result in tangible actions. Hopefully, this can begin to reverse the dangerous trend where the majority of those experiencing anti-Semitic incidents across the EU are choosing not to report these incidents to police.

This post does not even represent the tip of the iceberg for prejudice-motivated event data and analysis concerns. Although a rather shameless plug, I would like to encourage those interested in this topic to attend my upcoming lecture at Yale University.

Dr Ayal Feinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University-Commerce. See his profile here.

© Ayal Feinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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