Hate Crime History

Hate Crime. A phrase so upsetting it might just be easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. News of more and more disturbing incidents continue to flood our news feeds, and arguments over whether or not something “counts” as a hate crime or not, you might find the idea of just ignoring the term altogether quite tempting. Likewise, merely talking about an incident might provoke the question “aren’t all crimes hate crimes?”.

Well, no. Hate crimes are different from other forms of violence, not only in their intent but in their impact. They present such a grim danger to both victims and democracy itself that their very existence demands both attention and action. Still, to really understand what makes something a hate crime, you need to learn the history behind hate crime itself. That process starts with defining the term.

Image of a battered plain white banner with all-caps marker writing held by four strings, two of them attached to a tree next to a brick house. Writing reads "TRUMP NATION, WHITES ONLY". Caption: Donald Trump's election brought about a rise in hate crimes. Photo courtesy of CBS News.
Donald Trump’s election brought about a rise in hate crimes.
Photo courtesy of CBS News.

So, what is a Hate Crime anyway?

Simply put, it depends on who you ask and what you’re looking at. So, for this entry, I’m going to offer three different definitions of hate crime. Each one shows how the phrase reflects the person (or group) using it.

Definition One

To the FBI, a hate crime is ” a criminal offense committed against a person or property which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin”. This definition works for both general understanding and for those people and organizations who work in contemporary, individual-focused practices or in criminal justice. Not so much for those who need to talk about hate crimes as a wholly different kind of crime or focus on its social nature.

Definition Two

Luckily, help is available. Hate crime researchers Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt define hate offenses as those “directed against members of a group simply because of their membership in that group…The basis for an attack may be a victim’s race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender–indeed, any physical or cultural characteristic which, in the mind of offenders, separates the victim from themselves”.

Levin and McDevitt, along with researcher Susan Bennett, have provided a hate crime typology. They break hate crimes into four categories: Thrill, Defensive, Retaliatory, and Mission-Based.

  • Thrill crimes are those where offenders are after a sense of excitement or power, looking for an easy target to attack. This is the most common hate crime.
  • Defensive crimes happen when offenders react to some threat (which doesn’t have to be real or related to the target) against themselves, their community, or some related resource.
  • Retaliatory crimes happen in response to some attack (again, doesn’t have to be real or related to the target) against the offender or their greater community.
  • Mission-Based crimes are those directly related to hateful ideology. These offenders are totally committed to their criminal careers and view themselves as crusaders against evil. Despite a rise in offenses linked with hate crimes, mission-based offenses are still thankfully, the rarest type.

However, neither of these definitions help much in looking at hate crime’s evolution, which ties directly into the history and nature of law.

Definition Three

Laws change based on what rule-makers decide. What we call hateful murder today, a government might have once called “development”. As Criminologist and civil rights attorney Brian Levin says,“…in early America, status distinctions in law, particularly racial ones, were intended to restrict the exercise of civil rights”. Historian John Legg illustrates this idea in his essay on the U.S. Government’s uprooting of the Minnesotan Dakotans in 1862.

Today, psychologists Linda Woolf and Michael Hulsizer note that hate groups remain relatively unchallenged in some places since public figures such as senators or policemen can hold beliefs which are “grounded in hate”. In other words, hate crimes relate to power.

Professor Barbara Perry, a widely-recognized hate crime scholar, defines hate crimes as “…mechanisms of power” which offenders use to help insecure power bases. They do this either through violence or threatening violence. She argues that the threats mainly emerge against people who already live in dangerous or scorned situations.

So, which one do we use?

I’m not calling any of these definitions right or wrong. They just reflect the needs and interests of the groups that use them. The definitions I’ve talked about are tools to help in that effort. Each offers different findings and ideas. They may contrast with each other, but they don’t outright deny each other. So, again, it depends on who you ask and what you’re looking at.

That said, I’ll draw upon all three of these definitions as we go forward. Next time, I’ll be taking a look at a few key events in American history and using these tools to determine if they would considered hate crimes today and why they might not have been a few years back.

Thanks for reading!


“The Criminal Class” in American Policy

In his exploration of America’s punitive turn at the end of the twentieth century, legal scholar Jonathan Simon examines the publications of Cesare Lombroso  (1825-1909), often called the “father” of positivist criminology , to create a policy template for the American criminal justice system. To clarify, a positivist criminologist applies methods characteristic of the natural sciences to explain criminality. Simon finds that American penal policy traditionally assumes that crime stems from a distinct class of people[1]. Such people, positivism suggests, inherently lean towards law-breaking and as such, require isolation and incapacitation. Simon considers that the increase in incarceration and halt of therapeutic rehabilitation between 1975 and 1985 reflect an anti-scientific approach to crime. This approach contrasts with the state’s prior view and its repression of crime through positivist-endorsed mechanisms, including eugenics, medicine, educational, and penal measures[2].

However, Simon contends that the ideas of crime control as science and the distinct, dangerous “criminal type” remain in the American criminal justice system. As such, though 1980s policy emphasized retribution and deterrence, it also simultaneously instituted positivist measures such as pretrial detention. Likewise, the incarcerated classes reflect those that positivism traditionally targets, “including the poor, recent immigrants, and minorities”[3]. In fact, when famed sociologist Charles A. Ellwood celebrated the English publication of Lombroso’s work in 1912, he noted that if Lombroso’s theory of crime “…is at all correct, it is evident that the criminal class is not essentially different in its genesis from the pauper class”[4] I should note here, though that Ellwood also argued that this parallelism was not explicit in Lombroso’s thought processes.

Simon argues that contemporary American crime policy represents a synthesis between the scientifically based findings and protective measures of Lombrosan positivism and the adjudicative control of state institutions. American crime control reflects the synthesis in its incorporation of extralegal danger assessments for selecting prosecution subjects as well as prosecutors’ flexibility to pursue extended isolation and repression for especially dangerous criminals[5].

 Simon concludes by discussing that though Lombroso remains largely forgotten by the general public, his “project” of linking state institutions and resources with scientific and cultural assumptions and his framing of crime as a mortal threat to the state remains embedded in American crime consciousness. Simon’s analysis reveals the social nature and links between both scientific and legal policy, constantly shifting between outlining origins and detailing why the American state provided such fertile ground for positivist approaches to criminality. Additionally, he illustrates the importance of recognizing “where change holds sway and where continuity”[6]. In identifying an intuitive but false assumption regarding policy change, Simon convincingly argues that Lombroso’s influence persists. In short, Simon’s historical research demonstrates what Zelizer might call the institutional and cultural persistence of Lombrosan positivism as well as the process evolution of the criminal justice system[7].

In conclusion, Simon’s analysis holds value for historians and criminologists alike in its model of systematically discussing and deconstructing the theoretical and cultural bases of a seemingly objective system. Likewise, it hold value for policymakers in its call to reassess the biases encoded in the criminal justice system and for its presence in a policy-targeted journal. However, if Simon were to argue his points more succinctly and in a more publicly available format, his call might resonate more forcefully.


Bernard, Thomas J., Jeffrey B. Snipes, and Alexander L. Gerould. “Biological Factors and Criminal Behavior” in Vold’s Theoretical Criminology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Heidt, Jon, and Johannes P. Wheeldon. “Biological Positivist Theories” in Introducing criminological thinking: Maps, theories, and understanding. 38-58. Sage Publications, 2014.

Simon, Jonathan. “Positively punitive: How the inventor of scientific criminology who died at the beginning of the twentieth century continues to haunt American crime control at the beginning of the twenty-first.” Tex. L. Rev. 84 (2005): 2135-2172.

Wolfgang, Marvin E. “Pioneers in Criminology: Cesare Lombroso (1825-1909).” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 52, no. 4 (Winter 1961): 361-391.

[1] Jonathan Simon, “Positively Punitive: How the Inventor of Scientific Criminology Who Died at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century Continues to Haunt American Crime Control at the Beginning of the Twenty-First,” Texas Law Review 84, no. 2135 (2006): 2138.

[2] Simon, “Positively Punitive: How the Inventor of Scientific Criminology Who Died at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century Continues to Haunt American Crime Control at the Beginning of the Twenty-First,”, 2168.

[3] Ibid, 2169.

[4] Ellwood, Charles A. “Lombroso’s theory of crime.” J. Am. Inst. Crim. L. & Criminology 2 (1911): 723.

[5] Simon, “Positively Punitive: How The Inventory of Scientific Criminology Who Died at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century Continues to Haunt American Crime Control at the Beginning of the Twenty-First,”, 2170.

[6] Otis L. Graham, Jr. “The Uses and Misuses of History: Roles in Policymaking,” The Public Historian 5, no. 2 (1983): 12.

[7] Julian E. Zelizer, “Clio’s Lost Tribe: Public Policy History Since 1978,” Journal of Policy History 12, no. 3 (2000): 383-388.

This essay was adapted from a review I wrote for a graduate level history course.