In August 1998, I met a white supremacist named Benjamin Smith. A member of the World Church of the Creator, Smith told me of the group's plans to "rid America of the mud races"—all non-whites and non-Protestants—as if he were reading names from a phone book.
Less than a year later, Smith murdered two people and wounded 10 others—blacks, Jews and Asians—during a two-state shooting spree over Fourth of July weekend. On a Chicago street, he killed ex-Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong. On the lawn of a Korean Methodist Church in Indiana, he killed Won-Joon Yoon, who was on his way to Sunday services. Later that night, pursued by police, Smith apparently killed himself.
Those shootings were 11 of the 7,876 hate crime incidents in the United States reported to the FBI that year. Inconsistent reporting by police makes accurate yearly comparisons impossible; however, a recent FBI report showed that in 2006 the number of hate crimes—7,772—climbed at least 8 percent over the previous year. More than half the known offenders were white; most of the victims were black. (Read the FBI's 2006 Hate Crimes Report.)
In North Carolina, there were at least 100 hate crimes reported last year; most of the incidents were based on race.
More troubling, though, is that the true number of hate crimes in America is unknown, and likely to be much higher than reported. Some jurisdictions refuse to acknowledge hate crimes exist, arguing that designating them as such creates a special class of victims. Nineteen states don't include gays or lesbians in their hate crime laws.
And while an estimated 44 percent of hate crime victims don't report incidents for fear of further retaliation, even if they do, police may not forward that information to the FBI. There is no comprehensive reporting requirement for police; last year, one-quarter of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States didn't participate in the hate crime reporting program, which is voluntary. (Jena, La., is among them.)
America appears no more enlightened than in the 1950s. Instead, we've added more bogeymen—Muslims, Latinos, Middle Easterners—to the list of old standbys. We are a less tolerant nation and cloak ourselves in Sept. 11 to justify it. President George W. Bush bemoans that terrorists "hate us for our freedom" but doesn't address the loathing brewing inside America, the power of hatred to make us feel superior over those who are different. Nor does the president mention his promise to veto H.R. 1592, which would provide federal assistance to state and local police to prosecute hate crimes.
I wish America had changed since Smith murdered two people on Independence Day nine years ago. It did: unfortunately, for the worse.