Do hate crime laws reduce number of hate groups?

Published 7:27 pm Sunday, March 18, 2018

Thankfully, few of you have heard of Benjamin Thomas Samuel McDowell. This 30-year-old from Conway, South Carolina would be a household name, like today’s domestic terrorists or school shooters. But he chose to buy a gun from an FBI agent who only posed as a white supremacist, instead of the real thing. 

McDowell said this of Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof. “I seen what Dylann Roof did and in my heart, I reckon I got a little bit of hatred and I…I want to do that [expletive].”

But you might hear of him soon.  He’s expected to be out in three years, to find another way to get the .40-caliber Glock and hollow-point ammunition that he so desperately sought. If only he would declare allegiance to ISIS, so he could be in jail for a much longer and safer time.

If only South Carolina had some sort of hate crimes law, where McDowell could face more than some watered-down charges. But the Palmetto State is one of five states which has dug in its heels, refusing to pass such laws, even as Roof tried to start a race war by gunning down several members of an African-American Church (and his sister brought a weapon to school and posted on social media a screed against those who marched in sympathy with Parkland shooting victims).  The others without a hate crimes law are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana and Wyoming.

So are hate crime laws effective?  To test this, my students from our U.S. government class and I collected data on the number of hate groups active in the United States, by state.  The data came from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report for 2008.  South Carolina was the state with the fourth largest number of hate groups, followed by Georgia who is tied for fifth. 

Arkansas may be a similar size to Kansas, but it has 2.5 times more hate groups. Indiana is about the same size of Wisconsin, but has 16 hate groups to the dairy state’s 10.

But do states without a hate crimes law have significantly higher numbers of hate groups? I ran a difference of means test on the 45 states and the District of Columbia with hate crimes laws, and those five states that don’t have such hate laws. 

Dividing the number of hate groups in each state by that state’s population in the 2010 census gives us 3.05479E-06 hate groups per capita in states with a hate crimes law, and 5.34659E-06 hate groups per capita in states without a hate crimes law. A difference of means test shows that the averages are significantly different, meaning that hate groups are more likely on average to reside in a state without a hate crimes law.

That’s not the entire story. Any hate group in America is one too many. And whether it is white supremacists or the Nation of Islam or any other hate group, laws have not eliminated such groups. 

Laws enabling people like Mr. McDowell to be prosecuted are a good start, but more must be done in the community, even strengthening such laws to stop people from attacking religion, police officers and other pillars of the community, the disabled, and people based on their orientation. 

Groups like the Racial Trust Building Initiative offer promise for their ability to get groups to come together, making terrorists like McDowell less likely to embrace hate in the first place.