Contributed by -

Kristen Clarke

Assistant Attorney General For Civil Rights U.S. Department of Justice

From the brutal lynching of Emmett Till to the heinous dragging death of James Byrd to the violent shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, racially-motivated hate violence remains a long-standing and persistent threat in our country.

On February 23, 2020, three white men murdered 25-year-old Arbery simply because he was Black. Mr. Arbery was running on a public street in Brunswick, Georgia when two men armed with guns got into a truck and chased him through the neighborhood. They yelled at him, used their truck to cut off his route, and threatened him with firearms. A third man also joined the chase. After Mr. Arbery repeatedly and desperately tried to get away, he found himself facing down the barrel of a shotgun. In desperation, he ran toward the man holding the gun and tried to redirect it away from himself. The man with the gun fired three times, shooting Mr. Arbery through the chest and killing him. 

The state tried and convicted the men on murder charges, but Georgia did not have a hate crimes law at the time of Mr. Arbery’s death. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice stepped in to fill that gap, mounting a federal case against the men who murdered Mr. Arbery. The evidence in the federal trial revealed that the defendants harbored racist beliefs that led them to make assumptions and decisions about Mr. Arbery because he was Black. For example, one defendant associated Black people with criminality and wanted to see them killed or harmed. After hearing the federal government’s evidence on the crime and the racial motivation, on February 22, 2022, a federal jury convicted the three men of hate crimes and kidnapping and two of the men of additional firearms offenses.

The lead defendant was sentenced to life plus ten years in prison, a second to life plus seven years in prison, and a third to 35 years in prison.

Unfortunately, this case is not unique. One day after the verdict in Georgia, a Texas man pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes charges following an attack on an Asian family at a store in Midland, Texas. The defendant followed them into the store and violently attacked the father and his two young children with a knife, slashing the face of a six-year-old boy. The defendant admitted to targeting the family because he believed they were Chinese and responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And another tragic example is the shooting at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York. On July 14, 2022, the Justice Department obtained a 27-count indictment charging a man with using a Bushmaster XM rifle to kill 10 Black people in the store. The indictment charges that this man violated the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act by willfully causing the death of the victims because of their actual and perceived race and color.

As these incidents illustrate, combatting hate crimes and violent extremism remain an urgent and pressing mandate for the Department of Justice.

According to FBI statistics, in 2020, hate crimes rose to their highest levels in nearly two decades. The FBI’s most recent statistics from 2021 confirm that hate crimes remain prevalent. The 2020 data shows that the majority of these crimes – over 60% – were motivated by race and ethnicity. And of those crimes, more than half targeted Black people.

We also saw a shocking rise of over 70% in hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent – the highest in over a decade – and an increase of over 30% in hate crimes motivated by the victim’s gender identity. In addition, numerous other acts of hate violence have targeted houses of worship and religious communities.

The Justice Department is using every tool at its disposal to reduce unlawful acts of hate. The Civil Rights Division plays a critical role in these efforts. Hate crimes not only harm the direct victims but also reverberate to instill fear across entire communities. That is one of the reasons why Attorney General Merrick Garland’s very first directive in March 2021 called for an internal review to determine how the Justice Department can counter this troubling rise in hate.

In May 2021, the Attorney General issued a memorandum strengthening the Justice Department’s efforts to address unlawful acts of hate. From incident reporting to stronger law enforcement training and coordination to community outreach and designation of a Department-wide hate crimes coordinator, the Department has been fully activated in the fight against hate.

The Civil Rights Division is expediting its review of federal hate crimes. From January 2021 through February 2023, we charged more than 70 defendants with federal hate crimes and secured convictions against more than 60 defendants. As this work shows, the Justice Department will hold perpetrators of these heinous acts accountable.

The FBI has identified acts of hate-motivated by race and ethnicity as a top domestic terrorism threat, and the Justice Department’s prosecutions reflect that unfortunate reality. For example, in January 2023, four white supremacist men were sentenced for the brutal, racially-motivated assault of a Black man at a bar in Washington State. The defendants, members of white supremacist organizations Crew 38 and the Hammerskins, attacked the victim, who was serving as the disc jockey, while using racial slurs. The defendants wore shirts with phrases, numbers, or logos that expressed white supremacist ties and had visible tattoos, including swastika tattoos, that expressed their views on white race superiority.

In December 2022, a former correctional officer was sentenced for, among other crimes, facilitating an attack on a Black inmate carried out by inmates who were white supremacists. Also in December, a Georgia man with ties to a white supremacist organization pleaded guilty to firing numerous rounds into two convenience stores with the intent to kill people inside because they were Black or Arab.

The Civil Rights Division is also fighting back against unlawful acts of hate that violate other civil rights statutes we enforce. For example, we secured a settlement with a school district in Utah for failing to address rampant racial harassment of Black and Asian American students, including hundreds of documented uses of the “N-word” and physical assaults. And we are also focused on prevention, leading the launch of the nationwide United Against Hate Initiative, through which all 94 United States Attorneys’ Offices are activating local outreach and engagement programs to forge coalitions and build community resilience while identifying localized strategies to counter hate.

Unlawful acts of hate come in many forms—from mass murders, physical assaults, cross-burnings, and attacks on houses of worship, to online harassment and verbal threats. But these acts have one thing in common:  they terrorize not only individuals and families but entire communities because of their race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity. The Civil Rights Division will continue using the law, public education, and outreach to stand up to racially-motivated violence and to protect the foundational principles of our democracy. 

Our Partners

Key partners supporting the National Urban League's mission for State of Black America Report

Subscribe our newsletter!

Scroll to Top