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Why Do People Commit Hate Crimes?

More than 400 hate crimes and related cases of harassment took place across the U.S. in the six days after Election Day. Roughly 10 percent occurred in Texas.



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What do people who commit hate crimes look like? Do they wear white hoods and robes? Do they shave their heads and sport swastika tattoos? In fact, most look just like anyone else.

Jack Levin grew up in Houston during the days of Jim Crow. He's now co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University. He sees two major reasons people commit hate crimes. The first is what he calls "thrill seeking."

"Other guys might go out to play a game of cards or go drinking in a bar," Levin says, "but these guys will go out because they are looking to be violent."

A prime example is the 2013 Katy "knockout" case, profiled in part one of this series. In that case, Conrad Alvin Barrett broke the jaw of Roy Coleman, a black victim, simply to see if it would get him on television.

"These are people who feel a profound sense of their own powerlessness, and they're desperate to feel important, special, like bigshots," Levin says.

But there's another type of attack, which Levin calls "defensive" hate crime. And this too boils down to power. "The perpetrator may feel that the enemy is here," he says. "The enemy is responsible for his feeling that he's unsafe, that he may be a victim of terrorism, that he can't find a job, that his culture and religion are being impaired."

Such defensive hate crimes have become far more common since 9/11. But the ideology behind them has long been a draw for organized hate groups.

Christian Picciolini of Chicago had a dramatic introduction when he was just 14. "I was standing in an alley smoking a joint," he says, "and a 1968 Firebird came roaring down the alley, spitting up gravel and rocks and dust, and it screeched to a halt about 6 inches from me. And this man with a shaved head and boots walked up to me."

The man turned out to be Clark Martell, one of America's most-notorious neo-Nazi skinheads.

"He grabbed the joint out of my mouth," Picciolini says, "crushed it with his boot, and he said, ‘Don't you know that that's what the Jews and the Communists want you to do to keep you docile and maintain control of you?'"

Picciolini says he didn't know what Communism was, didn't know any Jews. But he did know what it was like to be bullied, to feel weak. And Martell told him he could be strong.

"My neighborhood was changing, I did start to see families that weren't Italian or weren't white moving in, and that fed into the fear that they instilled in me."

Picciolini joined Martell's group, ultimately succeeding Martell as leader. But after years of violence, he began to question his ideology and ultimately left the white power movement. Since then, he's co-founded Life After Hate, an organization that helps others like him to leave hate groups and rebuild their lives.

Membership in hate groups has plunged since the 1980s. People no longer need to join up to find others who share their views. It's much easier to do so on social media. Picciolini says that, plus the presidential election, has helped to spread such ideas into the mainstream.

"I was at Donald Trump's rally in Chicago," he says, "the one that was supposedly canceled because of the violent protesters, of which there really weren't any. But I heard more vile things come out of people's mouths that look like our doctors, our mechanics, our nurses, our lawyers, than I heard at any Klan rally or any of the dozens of neo-Nazi skinhead rallies that I have ever been to."

Trump blamed the violence at the Chicago event, which took place in March, on activists linked to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. That said, more than 400 hate crimes and related cases of harassment took place around the country in the six days after Trump's election, according to reports collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Forty-three were in Texas.

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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