"Was it a hate crime?" A new study finds that a crucial factor divides people

Scientists found that a person perceives a hate crime differently if they are shown to hold racist views about the victims.

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All violent crimes are tragic, but some are elevated beyond interpersonal tragedy into gaining a larger focus by the world at large. Sometimes this is the deliberate planning of an attacker, hoping to see their manifesto spread through mainstream media, other times an incident goes viral when the attacker was hoping to keep the violence a secret.

Even though people learn about the same violent acts, a new study published today from the Netherlands suggests that people perceive them differently. Although these differences are “small and subtle,” the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says, they fall along a crucial line: whether a highly publicized incident is judged as a hate crime.

A person is less likely to view a violent crime as a hate crime, the study found, “societal grievances and prejudice against minority groups may bias perceptions of hate crimes.” In other words, if a person already harbors racist sentiments, it can be harder for them to recognize hate crimes as such.

The study, led by N. Pontus Leander, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Groningen, looked at four recent violent acts: the 2018 mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the 2019 mass shooting in Walmart parking lot in El Paso, Texas, and finally the 2019 Utrecht tram shooting and the 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting. All of these attacks were tragic, and each attacker had a strong ideological background: anti-Semitism, anti-Hispanic racism, Islamic extremism, and Islamophobia mixed with white nationalism (which factored into Pittsburgh and El Paso as well), respectively.

A memorial service following the El Paso shooting, a hate crime in which 23 were killed and 22 were injured.

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The study directly compares reactions to the Utrecht shooting, in which a man named Gokmen Tanis killed four people and was convicted in March 2020, and the Christchurch shooting, where Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people. This was achieved by holding focus groups in each of the local areas, asking local adults about the attacker’s motivations, and then the person’s own personal beliefs.

For the Christchurch shooting, for example, participants were asked if Tarrant’s actions were based on “hatred of others,” their own feelings about Islam, how empowered they felt in society, and finally their own feeling about ethnic nationalism. “Islamoprejudice directly predicted hate crime perceptions,” the authors write, noting similarities with the reactions to the anti-Semitic shootings in Pittsburgh.

"We often see that different prejudices correlate with each other."

Notably, the effect was essentially reversed in the case of the Utrecht shooting. In that case, where a Muslim immigrant was the attacker, “Islamoprejudice had a positive (rather than negative) direct effect on hate crime perceptions.”

Leander tells Inverse over email that one prejudice, be it against Islam, Jews, Hispanics, or anyone else, rarely exists as an island.

"In our research, we often see that different prejudices correlate with each other — and such overlap suggests a general prejudicial tendency. For instance, the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh tragedy expressed an array of prejudices, including anti-Semitic as well as anti-Hispanic prejudice, along with various conspiracy beliefs. This suggests a broader thinking pattern and perhaps a common underlying motive," he says.

While each prejudice has its own unique history and cleavages, Leander says that on a person-to-person basis they often share similar origins.

"Part of this research tested whether different prejudices share common antecedents, such as an aggrieved sense of disempowerment in society. If the psychological function of prejudice relates back to the symbolic power of one’s group, then someone who endorses anti-Semitic sentiments in one situation may also endorse anti-Hispanic prejudice in another, because derogating both groups may serve to empower oneself and one’s group."

Emergency services responding to the Utrecht shooting, which occurred in the city's public transit. Four people were killed in the hate crime.


As noted by the intergovernmental security organization Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the “impact of hate crimes can be far greater than that of crimes without a bias motive, particularly in their impact on individual victims, those immediately associated with them and wider society. This greater impact is one of the key reasons why hate crimes should be treated differently than the same crimes committed without a bias motivation.”

The American Psychological Association says that “people victimized by violent hate crimes are more likely to experience more psychological distress than victims of other violent crimes. Specifically, victims of crimes that are bias-motivated are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress, safety concerns, depression, anxiety and anger than victims of crimes that are not motivated by bias.”

Leander and his co-authors state that “this research suggests there are sympathizers among the public who are reluctant to recognize hate crimes (unless the perpetrator is a member of a despised minority), in part because they want recognition for their own sense of victimization that lends them value and significance.”

Failure to acknowledge violent hate crimes as such means failing to acknowledge the long-lasting damage they can have on communities. And, as Leander’s study shows, failure to acknowledge violent hate crimes can actually start a “small and subtle” resentment towards the group that has been attacked.

Leander tells Inverse that "small and subtle patterns can become meaningful when scaled up to the population level, especially when they occur repeatedly over time and across situations. Small effects can also be insidious: for example, systemic racism could be the result of countless small effects adding up to form a general pattern."

Abstract: People may be sympathetic to violent extremism when it serves their own interests. Such support may manifest itself via biased recognition of hate crimes. Psychological surveys were conducted in the wakes of mass shootings in the United States, New Zealand, and the Netherlands (total n = 2,332), to test whether factors that typically predict endorsement of violent extremism also predict biased hate crime perceptions. Path analyses indicated a consistent pattern of motivated judgment: hate crime perceptions were directly biased by prejudicial attitudes and indirectly biased by an aggrieved sense of disempowerment and White/Christian nationalism. After the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, disempowerment-fueled anti-Semitism predicted lower perceptions that the gunman was motivated by hatred and prejudice (study 1). After the shootings that occurred at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, disempowerment-fueled Islamoprejudice similarly predicted lower hate crime perceptions (study 2a). Conversely, after the tram shooting in Utrecht, Netherlands (which was perpetrated by a Turkish-born immigrant), disempowerment-fueled Islamoprejudice predicted higher hate crime perceptions (study 2b). Finally, after the Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas, hate crime perceptions were specifically biased by an ethnonationalist view of Hispanic immigrants as a symbolic (rather than realistic) threat to America; that is, disempowered individuals deemphasized likely hate crimes due to symbolic concerns about cultural supremacy rather than material concerns about jobs or crime (study 3). Altogether, biased hate crime perceptions can be purposive and reveal supremacist sympathies.
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