Analysts see link to economy, anger about immigration
Hate crimes against Hispanic and disabled victims rose dramatically in Tennessee last year, leaving advocates for both groups concerned about the trend.
A recent Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report shows hate crimes rose 28 percent overall between 2006 and 2007, but those against Hispanics more than doubled and those against the disabled grew from 1 to 30.
Those who study social conflict say stress over the economy is a contributing force, along with an increase in the Hispanic population and related anger about immigration.
"Since 2003, there's been a marked increase in hate crime directed at Hispanics," said Mark Potok, director of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. "But the disabled? … That's just bizarre. What sort of madness and anger is that?"
Advocates for the disabled in Middle Tennessee say they weren't aware of the increase or of any effort to encourage the disabled to report crime that might explain it. There was also only one hate crime against that group reported in 2005.
Most of last year's incidents were thefts, forgeries and burglaries victimizing mentally disabled persons. Donna DeStefano, assistant director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said the problem is likely economic, with criminals using one of society's most vulnerable groups for money.
House, car are targets
Nationally, hate crimes against disabled victims rose incrementally, while hate crimes against Hispanics grew 20 percent, from 2002 and 2006, the most recent five-year period with data available.
In July 2007, Rudolpho Hernandez emerged from his Nashville home to find a set of sliding glass doors bathed in egg and his car spray-painted with an ethnic slur. He called Metro police and pressed charges. A few days later, his house was egged again and his car's battery was stolen.
Both incidents were declared hate crimes, criminal acts motivated by a victim's race, ethnicity or national origin, religion, gender, sexuality or disability. In Tennessee and 32 other states, when prosecutors can prove that a form of bias played a motivating role in a crime, perpetrators face additional punishment for their crime.
"We take the reports and classify them the best way that we can….," said Detective James Lambert, who oversees hate crime investigations and data for the Metro Nashville police. "Of course, the FBI guidance tells us to take the victim's perception of the crime and any evidence into account."
Crimes go unreported
For many people, the term "immigrant" or "illegal alien" has become synonymous with a Hispanic person, said Catalina Nieto, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
Nieto suspects that much of the hate crimes against Hispanic victims goes unreported because of immigrants' concern about the consequences of contact with police.
"I think, in a way, for us it's no surprise, given the way in general how there is a lot of hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric that's used to describe immigrants," she said.
Historically, hate crime has grown most intense in the United States during periods of economic distress and when the social order is in the process of being upset, said Steven Tepper, a Vanderbilt University sociologist who specializes in social conflict.
"As much as I would like to describe the situation differently, hate crime is not something I see improving as the economy worsens," Tepper said.
Contact Janell Ross at 726-5982 or firstname.lastname@example.org.