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date: 10 April 2021

Hate Crimes in a Cross-Cultural Contextfree

  • Keller G. Sheppard, Keller G. SheppardSchool of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Northeastern University
  • Nathaniel L. LawsheNathaniel L. LawsheSchool of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Northeastern University
  •  and Jack McDevittJack McDevittSchool of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Northeastern University


Hate crimes are criminal offenses that involve elements of bias based on some individual characteristics of the victim, including race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and religion. The passage of laws criminalizing or enhancing the punishment for crimes featuring bias motivations has been met with intense controversy. In addressing criticism of such legislation, proponents of these laws highlight the considerable harms caused by hate crime. These incidents are considered especially heinous as they not only violate the civil and human rights of the immediate victim but also send a message of fear to the entirety of that victim’s community or social group. Prior scholarship on these offenses have employed numerous theoretical frameworks—psychological, historical, sociological, and economic theories—to describe why perpetrators target victims based on perceived group identity. Other work has provided insight into the causes of hate crime by considering factors distinguishing bias-motivated offenders from other criminal offenders. Conflicting legal definitions of hate crime add to the complexity of its conceptualization. At the international level, hate crime statutes are strongly influenced by the different social, cultural, and historical contexts across nations. Hate crime laws differ markedly across countries with respect to the specification of protected groups’ identities, treatment of hate speech, legal standards for establishing bias motivation, and utilization of hate crime statutes for criminal prosecutions. These differences, coupled with nationally distinct methodologies for recording bias-motivated incidents, have stymied attempts to engage in cross-national comparisons of the quality and extent of hate crime.

What is a Hate Crime?

The chief federal law enforcement agency in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), defines a hate crime as “any criminal offense motivated by bias against race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity” (FBI, 2018). The motivation of criminal behavior is the critical element of these incidents, distinguishing them from other offenses.

A universally accepted definition of hate crime proves elusive as issues concerning the types of social groups warranting protection and the ideal legal method of enhancing bias-motivated charges is subject to fierce debate (Bennett, Nolan, & Conti, 2009). However, scholars generally agree upon one key aspect of a hate crime. The victim must be targeted due to actual or perceived membership in a particular social group that the offender holds a bias against and the victim is interchangeable with others who belong to their perceived or actual group (Garland, 2010). It should be noted that any single hate crime incident can involve multiple motivations.

Garland (2010) illustrates this conceptualization of hate crime by recounting the murder of Sophie Lancaster in England. Sophie was violently beaten by a group of males in an ambush-style attack and died from injuries sustained. The judge that presided over the case labeled the attack a hate crime, “apparently viewing the targeting of her ‘difference’ as being the key factor of what constitutes such a crime” (Garland, 2010, p. 159).

Protections may have a political bend where those represented by high-profile political groups are able to speak louder than other groups (Chakraborti, 2014). For example, the homeless in the United States are often targeted due to their status but are not considered to be a protected group in most states (Chakraborti, 2014; Wachholz, 2005). On the other hand, gender identity became a protected category due to the attention that the 1998 killings of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. garnered.

Discussion of the Literature


It logical to conclude that hate crime, as conceived by researchers and lawmakers, is influenced by some sort of bias held by the offender. However, the precise mechanisms leading to biases and how these biases engender violence and discrimination remain a central focus for scholars considering the causes of hate crime. Despite conflicting conceptualizations of hate crimes, prior scholarship has explored a host of factors and employed a variety of strategies to uncover these processes.

Offender Typologies

One common strategy for understanding the causes of hate crime focuses on the motivations of persons involved in bias-motivated incidents. To this end, researchers have developed hate crime offender typologies (Awan, 2014; Jacks & Adler, 2015; McDevitt, Levin, & Bennett, 2002). The second approach takes a broader view of the factors precipitating hate crimes. Green, McFalls, and Smith (2001) provide a review of these potential mechanisms by which hate crime can emerge, to include psychological, social-psychological, historical-cultural, sociological, economic, and political explanations.

Proponents of the typology approach assert that the ability to group complicated processes affords greater insight into the phenomena as a whole. The most widely cited typology of hate crime offenders was authored by McDevitt et al. (2002). The typology expands upon earlier work by Levin and McDevitt (1993) in which three types of offender motivation were identified: thrill-seeking, defending one’s space, and mission-driven individuals. The expanded typology included an additional category: “retaliatory” (McDevitt et al., 2002, p. 306).

While bias motivation underlies each type of motivation in the typology, each category of offender exhibited distinguishing factors with respect to their methods and concurrent motivations. Thrill-seeking motivation is evidenced by offender behavior that indicates the hate crime was perpetrated for excitement and fun. The authors state,

In 91% of these thrill-motivated cases, the perpetrators reported having left their own neighborhood to search for a victim in a gay bar, a temple in another part of town, or a minority neighborhood. It is important to stress that their target was not selected randomly but was chosen because the offender perceived that the victim was somehow different.

(McDevitt et al., 2002, p. 307)

Defensive motivation is linked to the desire to oust minority groups perceived to be encroaching upon an offender’s community. These offenders’ bias-motivated attacks are intended to convince individuals in a minority group to move elsewhere. Mission-driven motivation is categorized by behavior that exhibits intense hatred toward a minority group and often participation in an organized hate group. Unlike defensively motivated offenders, these offenders make it their life’s purpose to not just remove the target group from their community, but to eradicate the group. Lastly, the newest category, retaliation, is shown by offender behavior that signals their crime was the result of prior perceived attacks on their community. For example, an offender may commit a hate crime against an individual they perceive as Muslim as a response to the 9/11 terror attacks or an Asia American individual in response to COVID-19 pandemic.

To assess the patterns of offender typology, McDevitt et al. (2002) analyzed case files of hate crimes, limiting the analysis to cases that contained information about the offender, stored by the Boston Police Department’s Community Disorders Unit over an 18-month span from July 1991 to December 1992. Researchers found that of the 169 cases analyzed, the majority of cases were motivated by thrill-seeking (66%) followed by defensive motivation (25%). The most recently added category, retaliatory motivation, consisted of 8% of cases. Finally, mission-driven offenders comprised less than this sample.

In addition to McDevitt et al.’s (2002) hate crime offender typology, subsequent research using this typology approach has expanded the categories of offenders. Increased utilization of the Internet for the promulgation of bias has prompted researchers to recognize the importance of typifying participants in this unique subculture. Jacks and Adler (2015) conceptualized four types of participants in online hatred: the browser, the commentator, the activist, and the leader.

The browser simply views content that incites hatred online but does not actively participate in conversations or generation of hateful content. Commentators predominantly comment on hateful material and function as discussants. Activists participate in generation of hateful content and may be linked with extremist groups. Lastly, leaders are the most strongly motivated by hatred and are the primary generators of hateful online content. They may also provide the platform for the proliferation of hateful content, such as the development of a website with the sole purpose of hosting said content.

This typology approach to classifying offenders can be employed when differentiating between members of a subgroup. For example, Awan (2014) extended the typology approach when considering motivations for hateful messages directed at Muslims on Twitter. This process yielded eight distinct types of Twitter users who proliferated online hate against Muslims: the trawler, the apprentice, the disseminator, the impersonator, the accessory, the reactive, the mover, and the professional.

Theories of Hate Crime

While typologies are useful for identifying patterns of behavior, they often fail to ascertain why bias-motivated behavior occurs a priori. To ameliorate this shortcoming of the typology approach, prior scholarship has sought to explore a variety of theoretical explanations for hate crimes. Green et al.’s (2001) review of the hate crime literature identified several additional theoretical explanations for hate crime, utilizing differing frameworks: psychological, social-psychological, historical-cultural, sociological, economic, and political explanations. In the years following this review, hate crime scholarship has continued to employ several theories within these categories.

Psychological theories trace the root causes of bias-motivated criminal behavior to the cognitive qualities of offenders. Here, Allport’s (1954) work has been seminal. He characterizes prejudice as resulting from exaggerating qualities about other groups of people. Members of one’s own group have difficulty empathizing with those of another group, and due to the human tendency to categorize and simplify, stereotypes about other groups are formed. These stereotypes may be positive or negative. However, the psychology literature increasingly suggests that tendencies toward prejudice may be a consequence of cognitive, motivational, and sociocultural factors (Dovidio, Glick, & Rudman, 2005).

With respect to psychological explanations for hate crime, Hall (2014a) decries how bias-motivated crime has been explored. Referring to the psychological literature on bias crime, he writes, “the existing literature tells us remarkably little about how prejudice transforms into actions that would constitute hate crime” (Hall, 2014a, p. 82). As it pertains to bias, psychology tends to focus on individual qualities that bring about prejudice. However, it has largely failed to uncover the mechanisms occurring within the black box of offender decision-making that explains the step between prejudice and bias-motivated offending.

Still rooted in psychology, some research utilized social-psychological explanations to consider how personality traits interact with situational factors in determining bias-motivated offending (Craig, 2002). A combination of group pressures from normative behavior and individual traits motivate an individual to commit a hate crime under this model. This literature has been characterized as promising, but still lacking in explaining the process of committing hate crime as a result of individual qualities (Hall, 2014a).

Historical-cultural explanations are differentiated from psychological and social-psychological theories in their emphasis on macro-level processes. They utilize the cultural background of a society to illustrate the conditions in which a hate crime could take place. In the United States, the atrocities of slavery and continued state-sponsored degradation and discrimination of people of color are theorized to set the stage for continued racial inequality in contemporary society (Aaronson, 2014). For example, Wacquant (2003) cites the treatment of African Americans in the United States to argue that the country’s prison system is the fourth “peculiar institution.” A peculiar institution is a euphemism referring to slavery in the United States. Wacquant (2003) uses history to highlight efforts of those in power in the United States to control African Americans post-slavery with Jim Crow laws, the ghetto, and currently in the penal system. These “peculiar institutions” are a mechanism for the extraction of cheap labor and a method of segregating African Americans to deny opportunities for upward mobility.

Similarly, bias against Muslims can be traced back to historical roots in Renaissance Europe, at a time when Islam was perceived by Europeans to threaten Western ideals (Frost, 2008). Historical accounts of hate crime are useful for understanding the context in which hate crimes are perpetrated and the social meaning behind the act. Ultimately though, these accounts are unable to fully explain the process of how prejudice leads one to commit a hate crime.

Sociological explanations that view hate crime as a consequence of an ever-changing landscape of social forces have also been posited. Several of these sociological perspectives are rooted in the work of Blaylock’s (1967) power–threat hypotheses. This theory has been most commonly applied to racially biased violence and asserts that dominant groups commit violent acts against subordinate groups presenting political, economic, and symbolic threats (Dollar, 2014). Research inquiries that employ this framework tend to examine the relationship of relative in-group and out-group sizes and out-group spatial movement into in-group areas, or vice versa, on hate crime rates. These studies typically find that the relative size and changes in sizes of both the in-group and out-group are correlated with increases in hate crime rates (Lyons, 2008a; Piatkowska, Messner, & Yang, 2019; Stacey, Carbone-López, & Rosenfeld, 2011). Also important in this framework is the role of place. Members of powerful in-groups who have historically occupied an area may perceive the presence of out-groups as an encroachment deserving of racialized violence (Green, Strolovitch, & Wong, 1998).

Perry’s (2001) structural action theory considers the power difference between offenders and victims of hate crime. It emphasizes the structural differences between victims and offenders. Victims are seen to be less valued by society and these social groups often lack the resources to defend themselves from discrimination and bias-motivated violence adequately. In this framework, hate crimes are an expression of power and oppression of a majority group over a minority group. Hate crimes in this conceptualization reinforce the social boundaries between hegemonic and marginalized groups of individuals. Victims of hate crime are interchangeable in Perry’s (2001) framework, so long as they are perceived to be a member of a marginalized group, as the goal of hate crime in this conceptualization is to send a message to the victim’s community. This theory does not account for every manifestation of hate crime. For example, it does not have the capacity to explain hate crime committed by marginalized groups against groups of individuals in power.

Other traditional criminological theories have also been applied to hate crime offending. Routine activities theory states that the potential for a crime to occur increases in a situation in which a motivated offender, a suitable target, and a lack of guardianship occur at a single location and point in time (Cohen & Felson, 1979). One qualitative study was based on interviews with hate crime offenders that targeted the Amish community in a confirmatory approach where the components of routine activities were assessed (Byers & Crider, 2002). They found that offenders would target the Amish due to a perception of the lack of guardianship within Amish communities and that the Amish were suitable targets due to the perceived inferiority of the group and the vulnerability of the population, among other reasons. Utilizing routine activities theory as a framework was also useful in explaining differing sexual orientation bias victimization rates (Waldner & Berg, 2008).

Social disorganization theory has also provided explanations for hate crime offending. This theory emphasizes that neighborhood structural characteristics, such as racial and ethnic heterogeneity, residential instability and poverty, among other signifiers of disadvantage, influence crime rates within that specific area (Shaw & Mckay, 1942). Some researchers have explored using social disorganization as a predictor of hate crime. In particular, one study in this line of research found that racial heterogeneity may result in the breakdown of social norms that produce an environment more conducive to bias-motivated crime (Hipp, Tita, & Boggess, 2009). Additionally, there are differences in whom is targeted depending on the level of disadvantage of the community. Anti-black incidents were more likely to occur in more organized communities with higher levels of informal social control, while anti-white incidents were more likely to occur in disorganized communities (Lyons, 2007). Gladfelter, Lantz, and Ruback (2017) found similar results: anti-black instances of bias crime were most likely to occur in residentially unstable white communities with relatively lower levels of disadvantage while anti-white bias crime was most likely to occur in more disadvantaged communities characterized by high levels of residential instability.

Hate crime research has also considered these incidents through an economic lens that frequently draws from anomie theory. Bias-motivated offenders may be compelled to violence due to economic strain caused by anomie—a societal condition in which feelings of morality are generally unregulated due to economic unease (Merton, 1949; Piatkowska et al., 2019). Merton’s (1949) anomie-strain theory of crime explains that crime is the result of individuals experiencing strain. That is, individuals within a society have goals set for them by said society, which in the case of the United States is economic success. However, not everyone can achieve these goals and must innovate in their actions to reach them. This innovation engenders crime. The explanation that strain theory provides in hate crime motivation is that it is a form of communication to an out-group that they are threatening the in-group’s legitimate means of achieving the culturally acceptable goals of a society (Hall, 2014b).

In the strain theory explanation, less powerful groups are seen as scapegoats for societal ills (see also Perry, 2001). Although there is some evidence to suggest that economic factors may only matter in certain contexts. Green, Glaser, and Rich (1998) found that economic conditions no longer mattered in predicting lynching when the time period examined, using time-series analysis, extended through the Great Depression. Utilizing macroeconomic indicators, they applied the same analysis to hate crime incidents from 1987 to 1995 in New York City documented by New York Police Department’s Bias Incident Investigative Unit and found that economics was not able to account for the pattern of hate crimes over time.

There are also political explanations for bias motivation. These theories generally posit that political climates engender environments in which hate crimes against less powerful groups are effectively neutralized. For example, a culture of distrust formed beginning in the 1800s toward Asian immigrants who came to construct railroads and assist in the farming of sugarcane (Healey, 1995). This culture of distrust contributed to the neutralization of the impact of Japanese internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor (Petrosino, 1999). Another example of political influence in hate crime is how the welfare system is used as a political tool.

Some researchers have attempted to integrate several of these theories to produce a single, cogent explanation of hate crime offending. For example, Walters (2011) utilizes Merton’s (1949) strain theory, Perry’s (2001) structured action theory, and self-control theory (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). He contends that strain theory and structured action theory provide the background for the development of fear and hatred toward minority groups, which are seen as economically threatening in addition to being othered. Utilizing the expanded hate crime typology (see McDevitt et al., 2002), Walters (2011) suggests that self-control has the capacity to explain thrill-seeking and defensive hate crimes, but not retaliatory or mission-driven types. Altogether, strain theory and structured action theory provide the cultural background for prejudice, and self-control theory explains the individual decision to commit a hate crime. It should be noted that this model has yet to be directly tested. However, in a nationally representative study of Finnish students aged 15–16, self-control was found to be an important factor correlated with self-reported hate crime offending, alongside elements of general strain theory and social control theory (Näsi, Aaltonen, & Kivivuori, 2016).

These differing explanations do not detail the complete process of how one becomes prejudicial and later commits a hate crime. These theories and explanations of motivation can explain only pieces of the process. Several scholars have attempted to integrate multiple theories to develop a general theory of hate crime, but these remain largely untested (Burke & Pollock, 2004; Walters, 2011). While developing an integrated general theory of hate crime may be possible, accounting for the numerous individual, contextual, cultural, and historical factors potentially influencing bias-motivated offending presents a daunting challenge (Craig, 2002).


While much of the prior scholarship focused on the causes of hate crime, a burgeoning literature seeks to describe the individual and societal consequences of these incidents. Most of the former scholarship on the consequences of hate crime have focused on the psychological and physical outcome of victims (Herek, Cogan, & Gillis, 1997; Levin & McDevitt, 1993). As will be discussed in greater detail in a later section “Measuring and Quantifying Hate Crime,” estimating the extent of hate crime victimization is challenging. However, individuals across the globe are routinely subjected to bias-motivated violence resulting in financial loss, serious injuries, psychological distress, and, in some extreme cases, death (McDevitt, Balboni, Garcia, & Gu, 2001; Noelle, 2002; Wilson, 2014).

Research on the outcomes of hate crime relative to other forms of violence indicates that serious injuries are more likely to occur when bias motivation is present (Fetzer & Pezzella, 2019; Messner, McHugh, & Felson, 2004). One estimate from hate crime victimization in the United States suggests that almost one in five hate crime victims sustained an injury (Wilson, 2014). Work by Powers and Socia (2019) indicates that the association between bias victimization and injurious outcomes may also depend on the characteristics of both offender and victim demographics. Examples of bias-motivated homicide are plentiful in communities across the globe. Names such as Sean W. Kennedy, Matthew Shepard, and Sophie Lancaster are now synonymous with lethal hate crime (Iganski & Levin, 2015).

Bias-motivated attacks not only leave physical scars, but produce serious psychological trauma (Botcherby, Glen, Iganski, Jochelson, & Lagou, 2011; Herek et al., 1997; Rose & Mechanic, 2002). Victims of hate crimes consistently report anger, fear, and sadness as the top emotional responses stemming from victimization, in addition to increased perceptions of risk when venturing outside (Barnes & Ephross, 1994). These experiences with psychological distress produce other negative health outcomes as hate crime victimization is associated with increased alcohol and drug consumption (Descamps, Rothblum, Bradford, & Ryan, 2000). Research focused on the victimization experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) populations uncovered troubling associations between bias-motivated victimization and subsequent suicide attempts (Clements-Nolle, Marx, & Katz, 2006; Maguen & Shipherd, 2010; Williams & Tregidga, 2014).

Bias-motivated crime is considered especially harmful due to its profound impact on not only the well-being of individuals but also the community in which that individual belongs. This research recognizes that offenders often intend to harm the victim’s perceived group as much as the victim themselves as an expression of power or act of intimidation (Iganski, 2001). This notion is supported by a growing body of literature that has sought to identify how broader communities also suffer deleterious effects in the aftermath of hate crimes.

High-profile hate crimes have been observed to elicit serious psychological distress among other members of the targeted group, even if they are not physically present or personally know the victim. Noelle (2002) documented these vicarious victimization effects among individuals identifying as a member of the same social group as a high-profile bias-motivated murder victim. This suggests that victimization experiences can induce a ripple effect that pervades an entire social group. Numerous other studies have similarly observed this process of vicarious victimization. Hate crime incidents signal to all members of a community that they are at risk of victimization and discrimination themselves, which leads to negative psychological effects (Bell & Perry, 2015; Perry, 2014; Perry & Alvi, 2012).

Criminalizing Hate: Cross-Nations Variation in Hate Crime Laws

In recognition of the personal and societal harms caused by bias-motivated offenses, many nations have sought to criminalize hate-motivated violence. Beginning in the United States and subsequently adopted in many Western nations, hate crime laws provide legal sanctions against bias-motivated offenses. While government recognition of and responses to this issue can be traced to the mid-1960s (Levin, 2002; Meron, 1985), this movement toward legal intervention in hate crime is a relatively new development, with the preponderance of hate crime laws originating at the turn of the 20th century. However, these formalized responses to hate crime have been largely confined to countries in Europe and North America. Tracing the process by which hate becomes criminalized requires careful consideration of the unique historical and cultural context of communities and nations across the globe.

Origins of Hate Crime Legislation

Hate crime legislation often traces its roots to the efforts of various social movements vying for equal rights and legal protections of marginalized groups. Historically, subjugation or violence toward many groups currently protected by contemporary hate crime laws was overlooked and often formally or informally sanctioned by governments. Slavery and segregation laws known as “Jim Crow” laws in the United States, anti-Semitic laws including during the Holocaust in Europe, and countless other instances of state-sanctioned bias are illustrative of governments’ active historical role in the marginalization of certain groups (Brustein, 2003; Jenness & Grattet, 2001). Even following the formal dismantling of these discriminatory government policies, their repressive legacies created considerable legal, social, and economic challenges for historically exploited groups. The characteristics of persons subjected to bias and denigration vary across nations as differing nation-specific cultural contexts dictated the precise targets, forms, and extent of bias-motivated violence (Iganski & Levin, 2015).

In response to both past and contemporary inequality, civil rights movements became the primary proponents of formal legal protections for minority groups exposed to hate-motivated violence (Jenness & Broad, 1997; Jenness & Grattet, 2001). For example, organizations in the United States such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Southern Christian Leadership Conference campaigned for racial equality through public demonstrations and political mobilization throughout the 1950s and 1960s (Sitkoff, 1993). These groups sought to rectify the pervasive racial inequalities and violence directed toward African Americans extending from slavery and maintained by both de facto and de jure forms of racial bigotry. Along with many other societal, political and legal gains, these social movements culminated in one of the earliest hate crimes laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Levin, 2002). This federal law permitted federal prosecution of persons who “willingly injures, intimidates or interferes with another person, or attempts to do so, by force because of the other person’s race, color, religion or national origin” (18 U.S.C. § 245).

These patterns of social movements leading to the passage of hate crime statutes led Schweppe (2012) to assert that reforms to these laws were primarily “the result of sustained lobbying on the part of particular interest groups” (p. 441). Other advocacy groups championing gender, religious, sexual orientation, and disability rights and protection were also active in the United States and succeeded in extending federal and subsequently state legal protections covering a broad range of prohibited offenses featuring bias against religion, sexual orientation, gender, and disability (Grattet & Jenness, 2001). The Violent Crime and Control Act of 1994 contained 28 U.S.C. Section 994, which enhanced the penalties for bias crimes motivated by individual traits. Religious hate crimes are covered under the Church Arson Prevention Act, which “prohibits the intentional defacement, damage, or destruction of religious real property because of the religious nature of the property.” In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 extended protections to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Similar movements in states within the United States and other countries organized by local, national, and international advocacy groups and human rights organizations coordinated comparable social and legal campaigns to criminalize bias crime (Mason, 2014). However, prior legal scholarship has noted that while early adopters of hate crime laws were often motivated by social movements, there are alternative motivations to criminalizing hate. Nations without intense internal pressures from social movements are often encouraged to adopt hate crime due to external incentives or in the pursuit of institutional legitimacy (Kelley, 2010; Schimmelfennig & Sedelmeier, 2005). International organizations such as the European Union (EU), European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and numerous others actively promote and facilitate the creation and strengthening of hate crime laws to protect groups at risk of bias-motivated violence. These organizations exert pressures on member states within their ranks to adopt various forms of hate crime legislation. In one example, Godzisz (2019) illustrates this process by exploring why western Balkan countries characterized by high levels of societal homophobia have adopted hate crime protections for LGBT populations.

Patterns and Types of Hate Crime Laws

Proceeded by legislative actions in the United States, hate crime laws proliferated across many European nations and Canada in the 1990s. However, these criminalization efforts have largely been confined to these regions, as few countries outside of North America and Europe have passed hate crime laws, with Brazil and Australia representing two notable exceptions (Carrara, 2012; Mason, 2009). Other nations such as South Africa have seen substantial momentum toward the passage of hate crime laws in decade but have yet to pass these (Breen & Nel, 2011). While legal regulation of hate crime has been introduced in several countries across the globe, these laws differ remarkably from country to country with respect to the specification of protected groups, treatment of hate speech, legal standards for establishing bias motivation, and utilization of hate crime statutes in criminal prosecutions.

Protected Groups

Hate crime laws are unique in their specification of protected victims or groups due to particular characteristics. The inclusion of specific groups in hate crime legislation is predicated on several conditions that will differ across nations. The OSCE advises that characteristics both representative of a group identity and fundamental to a person’s sense of self generally receive formal recognition in hate crime laws (OSCE, 2009). Groups possessing these culturally identifiable characteristics must generally demonstrate historical or contemporary discrimination that exposes members to bias-motivated violence. Further, these groups must garner recognition and support from the government officials tasked with drafting and ultimately signing these protections into law (Jacobs & Potter, 1998; Mason, 2014).

Generally, demonstrations of historical and contemporary discrimination coupled with continued vulnerability to bias-motivated violence are required for social groups to receive legal protection afforded by hate crime laws (Chakraborti & Garland, 2012; Iganski & Levin, 2015; Perry, 1998). Of the nations with hate crime laws, almost all recognize race as a protected category and most extend these statutory protections to religious groups as well (McClintock, 2005). Although the particular minority racial and religious groups experiencing bias-motivated violence and serving as the impetus for hate crime laws vary across nations, the near universality of racial and religious discrimination ensures that groups defined by these characteristics can demonstrate the merit of legal protections in most cultural contexts.

Legal recognition of other forms of prejudices beyond racism and, to a lesser extent, religious discrimination varies substantially across contexts. While traditional definitions involve discrimination against immutable traits of an individual, statutory protections in the United States and globally are expanding to include out-groups that do not conform to traditional societal norms in general (Garland, 2010; Mason, 2014). Other group statuses such as sexual orientation, disability, gender identity, and nationality also receive formal protections from hate crime laws (Jenness, 2003; Moran, 2014; Sherry, 2010). Further, several states within the United States and Western European nations have adopted legislation that now includes protections for social and legal groups such as homeless individuals and law enforcement officers (Joern, 2008; Walker, 2017). Within the United States, laws extending hate crime protections to police officers have received mixed support (Chandler, 2020). Critics have expressed concern regarding the necessity and purpose of these protection.

Differences in the visibility, political capital, and cultural status of these less common protected groups generally explain their less frequent inclusion (Mason, 2014). Some communities are inhabited by unique social groups whose populations are concentrated in particular countries or regions. For example, legal protections for the Roma are generally only found in European countries where these communities exist in sufficient numbers (James, 2014). While members of these groups do live in countries such as the United States and Canada, their relatively small population compared to other minority groups diminishes their visibility and political clout. The extensive variation of protecting groups observed within U.S. jurisdictions and across nations is a testament to the cultural and social heterogeneity between communities. Table 1 illustrates the differencing patterns of group inclusion across selected countries.

Table 1. Cross-National Comparison of Groups Protected by Hate Crime Legislation


Race/National Origin/Ethnicity


Sexual Orientation
















United Kingdom





Note: Data for this table were derived from provided the most up-to-date comprehensive review of international hate crime statutes.

Source: McClintock (2005).

Treatment of Hate Speech

Hate crime laws differ internationally not only with respect to the social groups receiving protection, but also the types of actions criminalized. The most evident illustration of these differences can be found in the treatment of hate speech. While most nations’ hate crime laws generally apply to criminal offenses, several nations such as Germany and the United Kingdom have criminalized public expressions of hate that could engender or promote violence against protected groups (Bleich, 2011). In the United States and other liberal democracies, speech is strongly protected and revered as an essential human right. However, several nations have sought to curb hate speech thought to incite bias-motivated violence.

Germany’s Volksverhetzung (meaning “incitement of the masses”) laws represent one of the better-known hate speech laws. Section 130 of Germany’s Criminal Code criminalizes any speech that incites hatred against protected groups and proscribes criminal punishments of up to five years for those committing such offenses (Kahn, 2005). In the German context, the legacy of the Holocaust is theorized to be largely responsible for the criminalization of hate speech despite the country’s legal protections for free speech more broadly. A spate of high-profile anti-Semitic hate speech incidents and continuing struggles with Holocaust denial led the German legislature and courts to adopt and uphold hate speech laws (Kahn, 2005).

Criminalization of hate speech has been met with controversy in several countries with a cultural reverence for and history of legal protections of freedom of speech. In the wake of controversial arrests and prosecutions for hate speech in the United Kingdom, critics of hate speech laws have decried the laws as overreaching forms of censorship (Heinze, 2016). In striking the balance between free speech and regulation of hate speech, other nations have refrained from passing such laws. In the United States for example, freedom of speech has been a central tenant of individual liberty since the framers of the U.S. Constitution cemented these protections in the First Amendment or the Bill of Rights (Heyman, 2009). This, coupled with political pressures exerted by many free speech activist organizations— American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the National Coalition Against Censorship—are responsible for the defeat of hate speech laws in the United States.

Legal Standards

Other important legal differences emerge when comparing cross-national differences in the hate crime standards. Since the presence of bias motivation is a distinguishing feature of hate crime, different standards regarding how countries’ legal systems identify and classify this element of a crime are especially important to consider. While some laws specify that bias must be the primary motivation of the crime, others would consider the mere presence of bias justification for classifying an offense as a hate crime (Garland & Funnell, 2016). For example, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in the United Kingdom provides the following definition of hate crime:

Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or transgender identity or perceived transgender identity.

(CPS, 2016, p. 2)

Importantly, CPS also states: “There is no legal definition of hostility so we use the everyday understanding of the word which includes ill-will, spite, contempt, prejudice, unfriendliness, antagonism, resentment and dislike” (2016, p. 2). This definition means that any aspect of the crime that is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by bias can be classified as a hate crime.

This contrasts with Germany’s characterization of hate crime as described by Kugelmann (2015, p. 1):

The term hate crime covers criminal offences that are directed against a person or an object simply or primarily because of group characteristics shared by this person or the owner of the object, in particular for reasons of political affiliation, nationality, ethnic origin, on grounds of race, skin colour, religion, world view, origin, sexual orientation, disability, external appearance or social status.

Further, “In criminal law, it is decisive that the act is motivated by reasons that go beyond the personal damage done to the victim, and that this act is linked to specific characteristics pertinent to the victim” (Kugelmann, 2015, p. 1). The difference in determining bias motivation between Germany and the United Kingdom is striking. In the latter, bias motivation is determined by the victim, or another associated person, and is then investigated by the police (CPS, 2016). In Germany, motivation is not considered until sentencing, meaning that the judge has the last say in whether or not bias motivation was present (Danneman & Schäfer, 2001).

Utilization of Hate Crime Statutes in Criminal Prosecutions

Protections against biased motivated victimization institutionalized in federal and/or state legislation predicates formal responses to this crime such as law enforcement intervention and criminal prosecution. While many nations codify hate crime, these criminal sanctions are infrequently or, in some instances, never utilized in the adjudication process (OSCE, 2014). Law enforcement officials tasked with the identification and investigation of hate crime incidents and prosecutors responsible for adjudicating these cases routinely cite insufficient training, staffing, and other resources for low rates of hate crime charges and prosecutions (Byers, Warren-Gordon, & Jones, 2012; Chakraborti, 2018). In many hate crime statutes, the evidentiary standards required to establish biased motivation associated with many hate crime laws dissuade law enforcement and prosecutors from charging individuals under hate crime laws (Chalmers & Leverick, 2017), particularly when other statues such as assault or intimidation might be available.

Measuring and Quantifying Hate Crime

Inconsistent criminalization and differing scopes of hate crime laws as discussed complicate cross-national comparisons of hate crime incident rates. Generally, attempts to formally and systematically measure a type of criminal behavior proceed by the adoption of laws defining them as crimes. Most information on the extent and characteristics of hate crime comes from law enforcement records, so presences of and differences in hate crime laws across nations will impact the ability to measure bias motivation through official crime records. These challenges are compounded by wide variations of data collection methodology, which inhibits attempts to quantify hate crime victimization and engage in international comparisons of incidence rates.

Despite these challenges, numerous sources provide information, albeit limited in different ways, on how incidence rates for hate crime compare cross-nationally. A patchwork of official crime data, victimization surveys, and independent efforts by non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups have attempted to measure and quantify these incidents. Each of these data sources provide distinct perspectives on the extent of hate crime internationally and possess relative strengths and weakness when attempting to measure this behavior.

Official Crime Data

Official crime data generally measures incidents reported to law enforcement and is available in many European and Western nations. While these sources represent the most accessible hate crime data, their use for cross-national comparisons of crime is hampered by several methodological limitations. As official data only captures crime that becomes known to the police, differential reporting patterns by victims and across countries will introduce bias into cross-national comparisons (Lynch & Pridemore, 2011). Many cross-national studies use homicides as a comparison measure since this crime is less susceptible to these measurement problems. While these issues affect all cross-national comparisons of official crime data, hate crime is especially prone to measurement error due to legal and data collection methodological differences that uniquely affect hate crime.

Legislation criminalizing hate crimes represents the chief prerequisite in facilitating the collection of official hate crime data as it invokes the involvement of legal authorities and, as discussed, defines the scope of legal prohibitions that arise to the level of criminalized behavior (Hagan, 1980). Protected populations and acts criminalized by hate crime legislation differ drastically from country to country or even within countries as evidenced by the U.S. federalist system, which features state-specific hate crime legislation (Bleich, 2011; Soule & Earl, 2001). Further, some nations, such as the United States, adopted hate crime laws mandating data collection on these incidents (Nolan, McDevitt, Cronin, & Farrell, 2004), however, these reporting mandates and allocation to fund these data collection efforts are not universal.

These hate crime laws and criminal justice policies have produced official crime datasets such as the Uniform Crime Report (United States), Police Reported Crime (United Kingdom), and Police Crime Statistics (Germany). Agencies in the United States are increasingly transitioning from the traditional summary-based system to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) reporting system that collects more detailed data on bias-motivated crimes against persons, property, and society (McDevitt, Levin, Nolan, & Bennett, 2017). In addition to providing information on numerous incident-level characteristics, NIBRS also includes offender and victim demographics that afford researchers unprecedented insight into nature of hate crime. Across countries, each dataset will differ in fundamental ways depending on the substance of hate crime laws. Further, nations with laws requiring high standards of proof of bias motivation will undercount recorded offenses when compared to their counterparts with less restrictive definitional standards (Chalmers & Leverick, 2017).

Beyond the problems with varying legislation, other limitations of cross-national official crime data are not confined to hate crime but also affect the measurement of almost all crime types. These sources are ultimately dependent on victims or witnesses reporting incidents to legal authorities and underreporting is especially consequential for the validity and reliability of official crime data. Prior scholarship has documented substantial underreporting of hate crime offenses, with studies asserting that anywhere from 56 to 84% of incidents are not reported in the United States (Levin, 1999; Levin & McDevitt, 1993; Zaykowski, 2010). Other studies suggest similar problems with underreporting in other countries (Chirico, Das, & Smith, 1997; Hall, Corb, Giannasi, & Grieve, 2014; Roberts, 1995). While there have been no attempts to explore cross-national differences in hate crime reporting to date empirically, factors that prior studies have identified as crucial to reporting decisions, such as confidence in the police, differ across countries (Morris, 2011). Further, cross-national differences in the visibility and acceptance of hate crime laws—often the result of localized social movements and presences of activities infrastructure—may also lead to differential reporting practices across and within countries (McVeigh, Welch, & Bjarnason, 2003). These unknown reporting differences represent a substantial threat to cross-national comparisons with official data.

For those hate crime incidents that are reported to law enforcement, accurate measurement is reliant upon recognition of a crime’s hate or bias elements. However, due to a lack of training and insufficient resources, and ill-defined agency, hate crime policies routinely result in law enforcement misclassification of incidents that introduce additional measurement error in official crime data (Cronin, McDevitt, Farrell, & Nolan, 2007; Grattet & Jenness, 2005; McDevitt et al., 2003). Several nations allocate funding for training and other resources to aid in the detection and processing of hate crimes by law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. The quality and access of these resources differ substantially across nations (Bleich, 2006), which serves to further exacerbate challenges in the reliability of cross-national comparison. Moreover, there is wide variation in statutory provision for hate crime training, even within countries, as evidenced by the substantial differences observed across the United States (ADL, 2019).

Given these factors, cross-national comparisons of hate crime, solely reliant upon official crime statistics, is a hazardous undertaking and any conclusions stemming from them must be interpreted with caution. With these limitations in mind, Table 2 displays estimated 2017 or 2018 hate crime incident rates from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, as each county publishes national crime data and detailed information on data collection methods. U.K. police reported an incident rate of 174.86 per 100,000, which is over 30 times higher than the incident reported by Canadian police (5.71) and 75 times as in the United States (2.27).

Table 2. Cross-National Comparison of Hate Crimes Reported to the Police

County (Year)

Hate Crime Incidents Reported

Population Covered

(% of Population Reporting)

Incident Rate (Per 100,000 Population)

United States (2018)


306.87 million (93.79%)


United Kingdoma (2018/19)


59.12 million (100%)


Canada (2017)


36.32 million (99.4%)


a Note: Includes reported crime from England and Wales only.

The stark difference in incident rates in between the United Kingdom and the other two countries affirms the concerns of using official crime rates for cross-national comparisons. Further, national reporting systems differ in the standards required to differentiate hate crimes from other crimes lacking a biased motivation. Policy differences between U.S. and U.K. law enforcement agencies may, in part, be responsible for these differences. When reporting official crimes, law enforcement officials in the United Kingdom categorize any incident in which the victim or any other person perceives bias motivation as a hate crime in their Police Reported Crime data. Their counterparts in the United States must generally verify that bias motivation was an element of the crime through a police investigation, so while they do account for victim perceptions of offender motivation, they are not driven by the victim’s perception as is the case for U.K. officers (Flatley, 2019; Pezzella, Fetzer, & Keller, 2019).

It is impossible to determine the extent to which these differences can be attributed to real differences in hate crime offending or methodological factors. Law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada rely on different standards for hate crime classification and prior studies have documented extensive underreporting (Giannasi, 2014b; Pezzella et al., 2019). However, the stability of official crime data over time suggests that these data sources may still provide valuable information on the temporal trends within a single country. A review of the FBI’s hate crime data over time reveals a remarkable stability of characteristics such as bias motivation and location. Cross-national differences in the extent of undercounting do not invalidate the use of official data for examining individual countries, but rather complicate cross-national comparisons.

Measuring the Dark Figure of Hate Crime: Victimization Surveys

Since measuring the extent of hate crime through official crime data has critical limitations, an alternative approach to estimating incidence rates of this crime seeks to bypass formal reporting channels by directly surveying potential victims. Since the mid-20th century, crime victimization surveys have been administered in several countries, during which survey administrators ask representative cross-sections of the population about their personal or household characteristics, victimization history, and circumstances of any incidents (Gottfredson, 1986). These efforts have revealed the thousands of hate crimes are either not reported to or not properly classified by law enforcement (Pezzella et al., 2019). Crime victimization surveys have been instrumental in identifying and quantifying what has been called the dark figure of crime, which consists of all crimes that occurred but are not reflected in official crime datasets.

Several national surveys conducted in several countries demonstrate the benefits of this research method for measuring the true extent of hate crime. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) in the United States is an ongoing victimization survey that conducted upwards of 240,000 interviews during the 2018 survey. If participants indicated they experienced a crime, this survey inquired if the victim perceived that the incident was motivated by an offender’s bias. While official crime data such as the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) never exceed 10,000 incidents in a year, NCVS estimated that United States residents experienced an average of 250,000 hate crime victimizations annually from 2004 to 2015 (Masucci & Langton, 2017). Estimates derived from victimization surveys in the United Kingdom’s Crime Statistics for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that police reported crimes failed to record nearly four of every five biased incidents (Giannasi, 2014a). Canada’s 2014 General Social Survey indicated similar discrepancies between hate crime victimization and police records. Approximately two-thirds of victims elected not to report the crime to the police, with the majority of citing concerns that the police would have been ineffective or beliefs that the accused would not be sufficiently punished (Armstrong, 2019).

While victimization surveys promise valuable insights into measuring the extent of hate crime, they are not without their methodological limitations. Most victimization surveys utilize a victim’s perception to determine if bias was an element of the crime. This standard requires victims to speculate about the accused’s motivations in a manner akin to the United Kingdom’s standard for police classification of the incident, which is a difficult or even impossible determination in many circumstances. Further, perceptions of what constitutes a hate crime or bias motivation varies by individual demographics and community context (Drakulich, Fay-Ramirez, & Benier, 2019; Lyons, 2008b; Wickes, Sydes, Benier, & Higginson, 2017). The same action can be interpreted differently depending on an individual’s background and understanding of hate crimes and crime in general. Moreover, research is needed to identify the factors responsible for producing differential perceptions of bias motivation to fully account for their impact on victimization surveys’ validity.

Assessing victimization experiences can be further complicated due to sampling strategies and survey instruments. Survey administrators generally employ an age criterion for participation. This age restriction varies by country; however, even the most inclusive surveys fail to include an especially vulnerable segment of the population that is routinely subjected to bias crimes or bullying in their schools, communities, and online (Corb, 2014; Stotzer, 2015; Wieland, 2007). Among the three national victimization surveys discussed, the respondents must be 12, 15, or 16 or older to qualify for the surveys conducted in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, respectively. Further, some surveys omit key demographic or cultural background characteristics that preclude consideration of hate crimes against particular groups. For example, the NCVS’s exclusion of information on immigrant status precludes consideration of immigrant bias victimization. Exclusion of this important group identity comes at a time when anti-immigrant sentiments are pervasive globally (Dancygier & Laitin, 2014; Vargas, Sanchez, & Valdez, 2017). Finally, this data collection method fails to record lethal incidents, public order offenses, and incidents occurring in alternative living quarters (e.g., dormitories, assisted care facilities, or military barracks).

Alternative Datasets

A number of multinational surveys have sought to measure hate crime to inform efforts to combat it. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights publishes information on hate crimes reported to the police and prosecuted in over 41 countries. This agency supports member countries with their data collection efforts and participating countries voluntarily submit their official hate crime data for publication. Similarly, the FRA releases annual reports on state hate crime legislation and official hate crime data for 19 EU member states. In response to underreporting, the FRA has also sponsored a crime victimization survey, the European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, that purposefully oversamples minority populations. Finally, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance engages in rotating country monitoring during which analysts coordinate with local government and non-governmental organization officials to identify and eradicate biased crime.

Several non-governmental and civil society organizations have also been instrumental in quantifying hate crime and raising awareness of the issue.

Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) solicits information on anti-Muslim or Islamophobic incidents and provides public reports on trends in victimization facing this community.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) tracks instances of anti-Semitic incidents reported directly to the ADL or publicized by media or law enforcement.

ProPublica scours media coverage, law enforcement reports, and non-profit reports to create a database of bias and hate crimes incidents spanning from 2016 to the present.

The Southern Poverty Law Center records a different type of information on hate crime by tracking the location and activities of verified hate groups in the United States.

These represent just a fraction of the organizations that use a variety of data collection methods to describe and measure offenses against numerous groups. Strong relationships between these organizations and populations frequently subjected to hate crime victimization allow for special insight into this sensitive issue.

Concluding Remarks

Legal treatment of bias-motivated crime is a controversial issue that has received substantial attention from legal and social scholars. Prior research has advanced competing definitions of hate crimes. However, scholars generally all recognize that these are incidents in which victims must be targeted due to actual or perceived membership in a particular group. Prior scholarship on hate crime that spans multiple disciplines and employs numerous theoretical frameworks has provided insight into the causes and consequences of these incidents. Collectively, this body of work indicates that hate crime affects cultures and countries across the globe, as victims and marginalized communities in every society suffer serious physical, psychological, and social harms resulting from bias-motivated violence and discrimination. While many countries now recognize the severity of these offenses, criminalization of these bias-motivated incidents has taken different forms. Prior scholarship has explored how a nation’s historical and cultural contexts converge to influence both the existence and substance of hate crime laws. Variation within these laws and cross-national differences in data collection methodology poses challenges to assessing international differences in the quality and existence of bias-motivated offending.

Further Reading

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