Someone left a noose in the gallery on segregation in the Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History in Washington, D.C., Wednesday — one of several high-profile racially targeted incidents that occurred this week.
Four days earlier, another noose — an ugly vestige of America’s brutal past in which black people were targeted and lynched — was discovered hanging from a tree on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.
Weeks earlier, a noose was also discovered at a frat house at the University of Maryland. Around that time, the FBI began investigating a separate incident where bananas were tied to nooses and racially incendiary messages were left on the campus of American University in Washington.
In Los Angeles, the N-word was spray-painted on the gate to basketball star LeBron James’ property Wednesday. “Racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America,” James said at a news conference later that day, ahead of the NBA Finals. “And hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day.”
And last month, just days before his graduation, Richard Collins III, a black student and Army lieutenant at Bowie State University in Maryland, was stabbed to death in what the FBI is investigating as a possible hate crime. Sean Urbanski, a white student at the nearby University of Maryland who belonged to a Facebook group called “Alt-Reich:Nation”, has been charged with murder.
Heidi Beirich, who heads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, described these recent events (including Friday’s racially motivated attack in Portland, Oregon, that left two dead) as “extraordinary,” but said she isn’t surprised that black Americans are being targeted.
“This country was founded on exploiting and abusing black people,” said Beirich, “Until the mid-1960s, by law you could oppress people. It’s the oldest hatred in this country, and it continues.”
Civil rights groups have expressed alarm over what they say is an uptick in hate crimes across the board beginning last November.
Racially motivated hate crimes on the whole have declined since 1996, when the federal government began collecting voluntary hate crime reports from local law enforcement agencies across the country. But anti-black hate crimes are the exception: They spiked in 2008, the same year that Barack Obama, America’s first black president, won the presidency. They dropped slightly and then rose again in 2015 amid simmering tensions between law enforcement and minority communities — the same year that self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire on a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine. In 2015, there were 1,745 anti-black hate crimes reported to the FBI, an 8 percent uptick from 2014, far outpacing the 613 anti-white incidents and 299 anti-Hispanic or Latino incidents.
But monitoring hate crimes is a difficult undertaking and an imperfect science. Because many hate crimes rely on self-reporting by the victims, a recorded spike in hate crimes or incidents could also indicate that more people are feeling empowered to come forward and report incidents.
And even official FBI hate crime data isn’t a reliable reflection of the number of hate crimes taking place across the U.S — a shortcoming acknowledged by former FBI Director James Comey. More than 3,000 state and local agencies don’t report hate crimes to the FBI at all.
In 2015, neither Alabama nor Mississippi — states that are historically hotbeds of racial discrimination— reported having any hate crimes at all, contrary to informal records kept by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“To look at that data, it doesn’t even tell a tenth of the story,” said Beirich.