By Carina Hoerst
Last week was National Hate Crime Awareness Week. What started in 1999 as a reaction to attacks on the Black and LGBT community has become a big event and takes place every year since. Today, it seems to be more important than ever. The UK is currently witnessing an increased level of hate crimes. According to most sources, it has doubled since 2013. Within this increase, it seems as if specific news events trigger spikes of sudden increases in hate crimes. Awareness is an important first step, yet we need to go further and understand the processes behind this pattern, allowing us to combat hate crimes more efficiently.
First of all, what do we mean when we speak of “hate crimes” in this context? The legal definition says that any attack, perceived by the victim as based on prejudice against race or ethnicity, religion or beliefs, sexual orientation, disability, and transgender identity is defined as hate-motivated. In order to counteract those attacks, we need to know what makes them most likely to happen.
On the 23rd of June 2016, the UK held the referendum on whether to leave or remain in the European Union. The unexpected result to leave was followed by an immediate rise in hate-related attacks by 57%. Since then, subsequent peaks were recorded by the Metropolitan Police. For example, there was a spike in June 2017 which seemed to be linked to the London Bridge attack. How can we explain these patterns?
The media reported that racists got “emboldened” by the referendum result. During the referendum, Brexit was presented by some as being against “foreigners” and “foreign” control. We think that after the Brexit referendum, a minority of xenophobes amongst the population perceived the nation as backing their ideology and actions, similar to what happened after the 2016 US elections. With the referendum result, they now saw the majority as sharing their values and identity, which led to the perception of support for their actions. Xenophobes became empowered to conduct attacks on people that were seen as “non-British” and “non-White”.
However, hate and xenophobia levels not only seem to remain high, but further peaks occurred. Nationalist rhetoric of those that represent the country, published polls forecasting voting behaviour, hate posts on social media, as well as the actions of hate-groups on the internet seem to foster, if not trigger, this.
Prejudice and hate crimes are not restricted to exist “somewhere else” but can likewise exist on our doorstep. The University of Sussex is known for its liberal and welcoming environment and a policy that strongly supports respect and diversity. Nevertheless, it is a place where people from over 100 nations with different cultures and religions come together, and campus is not an exception to other places; here, as much as elsewhere, there are people holding xenophobic attitudes. Students that become a victim of hate crimes deriving from those attitudes can suffer from psychological consequences which can be as severe as physical ones. Hate affects people’s well-being which can not only lead to strong emotional responses but also to a decrease in academic performance.
We need to understand hate crimes better. We need to understand their pattern, what triggers them, and why they decline as well as rise. In my PhD research, in order to understand how xenophobic attacks increased, I will be drawing upon models of empowerment – the dynamic process by which power relations change. Perceived power or efficacy can lead to the legitimization of a movement, and people´s idea of “what is right” can influence their behaviour. I will apply this framework to examine the empowerment of xenophobic white identities, focusing on those who view themselves as victims of the establishment and immigration policies. Furthermore, by comparing spikes in hate crimes, I will examine patterns that emerge, for example in regard to the target group and the circumstances that might have encouraged offenders to conduct hate-motivated attacks. This knowledge will not only further the understanding of the processes behind hate but also contribute to tackling it – from parliament to campus.
If you are a student affected by any kind of hate-motivated attacks, University of Sussex institutions are there to help.