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The Impact of Hate Violence on Victims

Emotional and Behavioral Responses to Attacks

Criminal acts stemming from prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity—frequently referred to as "hate violence"—have increased during recent years. This study explored the nature of hate attacks and victims' responses to them. The sample consisted of 59 victims and included black, white, and Southeast Asian people. Data were obtained through focus group meetings, individual interviews, and questionnaires. More than half of the victims reported experiencing a series of attacks rather than a single attack. Anger, fear, and sadness were the emotional responses most frequently reported by victims. About one-third of the victims reported behavioral responses such as moving from the neighborhood or purchasing a gun. The responses of hate violence victims were similar to those of victims of other types of personal crime. Implications for social work intervention are discussed.

Key Words: hate crimes; racism; victims; violence

The importance of crime as a major social problem in the United States has been well documented (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1988). Since the mid-1960s, American society has been increasingly concerned about the problems experienced by victims of crime (Greenberg & Ruback, 1984). This interest has led to the development of a variety of victim service programs (Elias, 1986; Schultz, 1987) and a new area of social research that focuses on victims rather than on criminals (Ochberg, 1988). However, the plight of one class of crime victims, those experiencing hate violence, has been little changed by these developments.

Hate violence crimes are those directed against persons, families, groups, or organizations because of their racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual identities or their sexual orientation or condition of disability. These crimes include arson of homes and businesses, harassment, destruction of religious property, cross burnings, personal assaults, and homicides. Hate violence has a long history in the United States (Brown, 1989). Although it is difficult to estimate the current prevalence of hate violence in the United States (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1986; Weiss, 1990), many sources suggest that the level of this type of crime has increased in the past several years (Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, 1991; Community Relations Service, 1990). Also, in recent years the media have increasingly provided information on the explosion of hate violence on college campuses (Collison, 1987) and on the capacity of hate violence to spark large-scale urban disturbances ("Black Child," 1991). With the passage of the Hate Crime Statistics Act, data on the prevalence of ethnoviolence (hate violence on the basis of race or ethnicity) nationwide will be compiled by the U.S. Attorney General for the years 1990 through 1994 (National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, 1990).

Research is beginning to identify the effects of various types of personal crime on victims (Davis & Friedman, 1985). However, despite the social importance of hate violence, there is little available information on how it affects victims (Weiss & Ephross, 1986). The present study examines the nature of hate violence and the impact of these crimes on victims.


Research Design and Sampling

Using an exploratory research design, the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence conducted a pilot study of the effects of hate violence on minority group members (Ephross, Barnes, Ehrlich, Sandnes, & Weiss, 1986). A purposive sample of victims was obtained by contacts between members of the institute’s staff and officials of human rights agencies, social services agencies, community relations agencies, and special units of police departments in several urban areas. These areas included Alexandria, Virginia; Baltimore; Cleveland; Philadelphia; Oakland, California; Rockville, Maryland; San Jose, California; Suffolk County, New York; and Statesville, North Carolina.

Data Collection and Analysis

The technique of focus group interviewing was used in the study. A focus group is a small group convened to share feelings, thoughts, and reactions to a particular subject (Lydecker, 1986). Ten focus group meetings and some individual interviews were held at sites in the victims’ communities.

Each focus group meeting was conducted by two members of the institute's research staff. The institute's staff guided the interviews by posing a prepared set of open-ended questions for each group. With the permission of the participants, each meeting was audiotaped. Participants were assured of confidentiality.

Participants also completed questionnaires. Initially, the questionnaires obtained data on the demographic characteristics of victims and the types of crime they experienced. After the third focus group, the questionnaires were revised to include seven items measuring victims' emotional responses to the hate violence incidents.

The audiotape of each interview was reviewed by pairs of institute researchers working independently. Vignettes describing each victim's experience were written by the first reviewer and then checked for reliability by a second reviewer. In addition to these procedures, the first author analyzed each audiotape using a content analysis procedure (Mostyn, 1985). Complete results from the content analysis were not available for inclusion in the pilot study report (Ephross et al., 1986).


Study Sample

The current report deals with the 59 focus group participants (out of 72) for whom complete information is available. The ethnic and religious backgrounds of the study sample are presented in Table 1.

The diversity of the group is apparent, although the nonsystematic method of sampling resulted in a seeming oversampling of Southeast Asian victims and an undersampling of Hispanic victims. Forty-one percent of the 59 victims were foreign born. They were almost equally divided by sex (54 percent male, 46 percent female) and ranged in age from 16 to 67 years. The median age was 39 years. Sixty-three percent of the participants were married. The sample's median household income was $15,500; the range was from $5,000 or less to over $50,000.

Acts of Violence

The interviews focused primarily on the most recent personal attack that participants had experienced. The total number of recent attacks for the sample was 53, rather than 59, because the sample included six couples who mutually experienced six attacks. As indicated in Table 2, for slightly more than two out of five respondents (44.1 percent), the most recent attack had occurred in a single time period and had been their first hate violence victimization. One-tenth of the respondents (10.2 percent) reported experiencing one or more prior hate violence incidents that appeared to be unrelated to the most recent attack. For slightly more than two out of five respondents (45.8 percent), the most recent incident was actually the latest in a series of related attacks. Some of these serial attacks ranged over several months and some over three years.

Some of the most recent attacks reported by respondents included multiple crimes that occurred on the same date (Table 2). Because of the multiple nature of some attacks, the total number of crimes experienced by victims in recent attacks was 68 rather than 53.

Physical assault, verbal harassment, and mail or telephone threats were the most frequently reported crimes (Table 2). These three categories together accounted for almost 49 percent of the experiences of respondents. The next most common attacks (14.7 percent) were symbols or slogans of hate on or near the personal property of victims. Attacks on homes and other acts of vandalism, respectively, accounted for 8.8 percent and 7.4 percent of the incidents. Robberies and attempted robberies were considered possible hate violence attacks because the motives of the offenders were unclear. However, it should be noted that victims of these crimes perceived them as crimes motivated by prejudice.

Impact of Attacks on Victims and Their Families

The majority of the 59 victims (76 percent) did not receive physical injuries as a result of the most recent attack. Minor injuries were sustained by 10 percent, and 9 percent received medical treatment for injuries inflicted in the attack. The severe injuries inflicted on 5 percent of the victims required hospitalization. In 41 percent of the most recent attacks, victims incurred property damage.

Participants identified several emotional reactions to the most recent attack on them (Table 3). Irwin, a Jewish victim who had a swastika spray- painted on his mailbox, identified his response as "mostly a feeling of anger." The most prevalent emotion was anger at the perpetrator, which nearly 68 percent of the participants reported. Fear of injury was the next most frequently cited emotion, with nearly 51 percent of the participants indicating fear that they or their families would be physically injured. A number of victims (approximately 36 percent) were saddened by the incident.

About one-third of the participants (33.9 percent) reported behavioral changes as both coping responses to the most recent attack and as attempts to avoid potential future victimization. These behavioral changes included moving out of the neighborhood, decreasing social participation, purchasing a gun or increasing readiness to use a gun, buying initial or additional home security devices, and increasing safety precautions for children in the family. Somala, a Cambodian refugee, was assaulted by a black man in a suburban park. Shortly after the attack, Somala moved to another county. She moved because of fear that the man would find her and attack again, and she subsequently avoided the county in which the attack occurred. Somala's responses represent the avoidance behavioral coping that some victims adopted.

In contrast to avoidance, the behavioral coping of some victims consisted of preparations for retaliation. One black man stated, "I am scared that I might catch one of these people. . . . The scariest thing is I got guns and can use them."

Discussion and Implications

In examining the most recent hate violence incidents, the study found considerable variation in both the type and intensity of attacks. This finding is consistent with those of other recent investigations of hate violence (for example, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1986; Wexler & Marx, 1986). The characteristics of some attacks appeared to be consistent with conventional definitions of social terrorism (Gurr, 1989), particularly evident in the finding of the current study that more than half of the participants experienced multiple attacks.

In comparing the emotional and behavioral responses of victims of hate violence with those of victims of personal crimes such as assault and rape, several similarities were identified. Investigators have reported intense rage or anger (Bard & Sangrey, 1986); fear of injury, death, and future victimization (Davis & Friedman, 1985); sadness (Ochberg, 1988); and depression (Shapland, Willmore, & Duff, 1985) as elements of victims' potential reactions to crime. Thus, to some extent, the predominant emotional responses of hate violence victims appear similar to those of victims of other types of personal crime. The behavioral coping responses of hate violence victims are also similar to those used by other victims of crime (Davis & Friedman, 1985; Wirtz & Harrell, 1987).

Crime victims often experience feelings of powerlessness and increased suspicion of other people (Bard & Sangrey, 1986). These emotions were also reported by victims of hate violence. A major difference in the emotional response of hate violence victims appears to be the absence of lowered self-esteem. The ability of some hate violence victims to maintain their self-esteem may be associated with their attribution of responsibility for the attacks to the prejudice and racism of the perpetrators.

Some limitations of this study need to be mentioned. First, the participants interviewed in the study had all contacted the police, human rights agencies, or other organizations. Thus, study findings are most relevant to the population of victims who report hate violence. Second, the general-izability of the findings to this population may be affected by the relatively small size and nonrandom nature of the sample.

Although responsibility for responding to hate violence is primarily allocated to community relations agencies, social workers in a wide array of settings encounter clients who have experienced this type of victimization. Thus, social workers must have knowledge of characteristics of hate violence, victims' reactions to attacks, and community resources that address hate violence.

Practitioners can assist victims in managing the stress of hate violence. As with victims of other types of crime, short-term interventions appear best suited for meeting the needs of hate violence victims (Young, 1988). Group work services may also be beneficial (Weiss & Ephross, 1986). With highly traumatized victims, specialized psychotherapy may be required (Ochberg, 1988). To prevent hate violence, social workers need to assist in educating citizens about this problem (Weiss, 1990).


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Arnold Barnes, PhD, is assistant professor, Indiana University School of Social Work, Education/Social Work Building 4138, 902 West New York Street, Indianapolis, IN 46202-5156. Paul H. Ephross, PhD, is professor, School of Social Work, University of Maryland at Baltimore.

Accepted July 22, 1992


From Social Work, May 1994, pp. 247-251.

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