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Are Hate Crimes Up or Are People Just Finally Taking Notice?

Sara McCleary

Full disclosure – I personally am not a supporter of U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump. But in recent weeks I’ve come to realize that, in one way at least, we owe him some gratitude.

I’ve heard both sides of the argument. Some believe that Trump’s campaign and subsequent election emboldened the alt-right and others to show their true, racist colours. Others argue that the frequency of hate crimes hasn’t increased at all, and that they’ve been going on all along. It would seem that concerning antisemitism in Canada at least, the numbers support this latter stance, but if that is true, why do so many claim that Trump has caused an increase?

he answer is, thanks to all he has said and done, that we are now on the lookout for hate crimes and hate speech, so reporting levels have risen.

So what do I mean by reporting levels? In my view, it covers three areas. First is the least formal: social media. Within only two days of the election, lists like this one were making their rounds on Facebook and Twitter. Reporters scoured social media looking for stories of post-election racism to turn into viral fodder.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of these incidents were clearly coloured by the election results, but I think it’s safe to say the culprits would have been taking similar actions, anyway. More to the point, though, because everyone was on high alert in the days leading to – and following – Nov. 8, as soon as any kind of harassment did take place, both victims and witnesses took to social media to share what they might have kept to themselves in months and years past.

The next level of reporting I’m referring to is the reporting of hate crimes to police. It’s a well-established fact that hate crimes are extremely under-reported; as B’nai Brith’s 2015 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents points out, “only an estimated 10 per cent of all hate crimes get reported to the police.”

Regarding the level of hate crimes that followed the election in Canada and the U.S., hard data remains unavailable for public consumption.

But, technically, isn’t it possible that more people are speaking up about their own confrontations with hate crimes, and that the number of hate crimes itself isn’t up, just the percentage of people reporting it? One would hope, at least, that the increasingly vocal anti-hate movement has made victims of these crimes more willing to speak out.

The last level of reporting is what we see in the media. In mid-November, CBC, CTV, and countless other websites and newspapers had their front pages ablaze with headlines like “Swastikas spray painted on Ottawa synagogue,” “Regina neighbours upset over racist graffiti tags,” and  “Editorial: no place for antisemitism in Ottawa”. Similarly, last week it seemed every major news source in Canada was reporting on a story concerning a Winnipeg family who was victimized by an antisemitic hate crime on New Year’s Eve. B’nai Brith has been consulting the family and is working with Winnipeg Police in its investigation.

But these incidents, which otherwise may have been underreported, are out in the public eye and we could owe Trump and his campaign team a thank you for it. Rather than causing an actual increase in hate crimes, it could be that Trump has served as a catalyst for people wanting to share stories of hate crimes. And this environment of heightened anti-hate sentiment has surely emboldened some who otherwise would have stayed silent to report hate crimes to the police, seeing on social media and in the news that many are on their side.

Ask any news editor what they want from a story and odds are the answer you will get is “controversy,” or some version thereof. If Trump had never said a word about minorities or allowed the issue of the alt-right to be brought into mainstream focus, these stories would probably still be relegated to a small 200-word blurb on the bottom right-hand side of page four.

So thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping to raise awareness of just how racist the world still is, and for indirectly motivating so many to fight against the racist currents that have been there all along.