Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Law and Crime

Why Hate Crimes Are Rising

Are the reasons baffling or barefaced?

Key points

  • There are concrete factors that have contributed to the recent upsurge in hate crimes across the nation.
  • A dangerous social process driving hate crime is what social scientists refer to as "negative polarization."
  • In this era of intense economic and cultural change, politicians frequently employ the tactics of negative polarization for political gain.

The numbers tell the story. Researchers found that in 2015 and 2016, hate crime rates increased by around 13%, even as the overall crime rate dipped by 2.7%. Recently, the F.B.I. reported that in 16 of the nation’s biggest cities, hate crimes jumped a cumulative 44% from 2020 to 2021. And these numbers likely underrepresent the problem, as fewer agencies currently report hate crime statistics.

A hate crime is a crime against a person or property that is motivated by prejudice or hatred toward that group, as when, in 2020, a Texas man slashed the faces of an Asian father and his 6-year-old daughter as the man shrieked, “Get out of America!”

The trajectory of hate is frequently aimed at minority Americans. Studies have documented increases in hate crimes towards black and brown people since 2016, and towards Asian Americans since Covid-19 hit. These expressions of antipathy speak to the schisms that currently plague American culture, reflecting a growing trend towards intolerance of non-dominant groups and immigrants.

Such “otherizing” of minorities has created a willingness in many to express a brazen malice that sometimes descends into episodes of violence. Recall, for instance, the white supremacist who murdered nine black worshippers at a Charleston, S.C. church in 2015. Consider the 2018 anti-Semitic attack at the Pittsburgh synagogue on Shabbat that left 11 Jews dead, or the eight Asians who were massacred in an Atlanta spa in 2022. These incidents are distinct from violent crimes perpetrated by the psychotically ill, like the man who killed 11 Asian people at a Lunar New Year party in Monterey Park, Calif. in January 2023.

The question becomes, “Why has there been such a staggering increase in the number of hateful incidents in recent years?”

At a most basic level, the staging ground for an upsurge in hate crimes has been brewing for years, spurred by a confluence of complex economic and social forces. Globalization has led to the outsourcing of employment, especially in the manufacturing sector, which has devastated the non-college-educated worker.

The late 1970s and 1980s ushered in an unprecedented number of immigrants coming from various places, including from Asia, which impacted the labor force by creating intense competition for jobs across the economy. Over time, as immigrants assimilated, cultural tensions, along with economic ones, became increasingly fraught. Witness the heated controversies stirred within the typically genteel Ivy League ecosystem over the claim that admission officers are practicing a form of racial discrimination by restricting the number of Asians admitted into their ranks.

In addition to changing socio-cultural conditions, the rapid development of technology over the last 40 years has sparked a number of unintended consequences. Some of the results have been beneficial, such as the increase in economic productivity due to automation. These improvements have also reduced manpower needs in an already competitive employment environment, especially for manufacturing jobs. For instance, though the domestic production of steel in 2005 was similar to the level of the early 1960s, employment in this sector had plummeted by approximately 75% as a result of technological advances.

These slow-moving yet potent socioeconomic changes have echoed in the background of our daily social lives for decades. Over time, these forces have created titanic cultural instability, disruption, and conflict.

During periods of economic disruption and uncertainty, criminologists have documented that hate crimes increase toward minorities and immigrant groups, which are perceived as the drivers of social problems and economic dislocation. This kind of “otherizing” is a defensive psychological reaction that functions to assuage feelings of helplessness and fear. To identify tangible causes for seemingly inexplicable social change—even if it’s a skewed and inaccurate perception—serves as an antidote to vulnerability. But this kind of otherizing also arouses a pernicious form of grievance.

Once minorities and immigrants are identified as the sources of unwanted social change and economic hardship, social scorn and contempt become commonplace reactions. The threat felt by the majority is deep, even existential, as it entails the possible loss of one’s livelihood and social status.

A disturbing factor that further inflames social tensions and turns communities into cultural tinder boxes is our polarized political culture, especially by what social scientists call negative polarization. This occurs when political partisans become impassioned not by what they believe in, but by what they adamantly reject, what they hate. It leads to an erosion of the normal tendency to reach out to others in a basically empathic fashion.

Instead, a hyper-tribal attitude is promoted towards those “others” who are identified as the cause of socioeconomic woes. Once one assumes such a psychological stance, the dehumanization of the other is but a brief step forward. For instance, in a series of intriguing investigations on the psychological attributes made about the out-group membership by the dominant social in-group, social scientists found that nuanced emotional reactions were perceived to exist only within the dominant in-group, and not to be part of the out-group members’ emotional experience. The “other,” that is to say, was seen as less than fully human. This subtle debasing of perceived outsiders, coupled with an intense in-group affiliation, has the effect of suffocating in-group members’ individual ethical considerations. It’s one pathway that leads normally ethical individuals to commit heinous acts.

In this era of intense economic and cultural change, politicians frequently employ the tactics of negative polarization, together with the dehumanization of rival groups, for political gain. And with the power of social media and 24/7 cable news, political messaging becomes powerfully weaponized. A florid exemplar is when then-President Trump doggedly referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus” to his supporters. The aftereffect was predictable: a wave of hate and attacks on Chinese immigrant communities.


Leyens, J-P., Cortes, C., Demoulin, S., Dovido, J.F., Fiske, S., Gaunt, R., Paladino, M-P., Rodriguez-Perez, A., Rodriguez-Torres, R., Vaes, J. (2003). Emotional prejudice, essentialism and nationalism. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 703-717.

A Police Guide to Hate Crime:

Farrell, A., & Lockwood, S. (2022). Addressing Hate Crime in the 21st Century: Trends, Threats, and Opportunities for Intervention. Annual Review of Criminology, 6.

More from Richard Lettieri Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Richard Lettieri Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today