Sociology Doctoral Student Receives Grant to Study Perception of Hate Crimes

By Richard LeComte

Although the FBI collects statistics on hate crime in the United States, what gets reported as a hate crime depends on several factors, including whether police, victims and witnesses regard the act as an actual hate crime.

Chenghui Zhang, a doctoral candidate in sociology in the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts & Sciences, is studying the factors that go into how people interpret hate crime. She received a $50,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice for her study, “Social Construction of Hate Crime in the U.S.: A Factorial Survey Experiment.”

“My research contributes to understanding how social structure influences crime and crime reporting behaviors, with a specific focus on how racial inequalities affect perceptions of and reactions to bias crimes,” Zhang said. “I am able to bring novel insights to core sociological questions about the interactions between crime and social inequalities.”

 Zhang’s research uses an experimental model to test whether people who read an account of a violent incident will see it as a hate crime. She constructed a 20-minute survey that features vignettes describing an incident, then asked participants to give their opinion about whether the incident constituted a hate crime.

“I’m interested in producing a hypothetical situation for the respondents to evaluate,” she said. “For example, I would say that Person A is Black, Person B is white, and they’re walking on the street when person B is approaching Person A. Person A yells something to Person B. Then this crime happened. So, based on what you’ve just read, do you agree it’s a crime? Do you agree it’s motivated by the victim’s race, and how likely are you to report it?”

When she sent the survey out, she received about 2,500 responses over 24 hours on the Amazon Mechanical Turk website. By changing around or leaving out the races of the individuals involved in the hypothetical incident, Zhang checks to see how race factors in people’s perception of the crime. She then asked participants to fill out attitude surveys that seek to assess their attitudes toward race and gather demographic information.

“Each respondent reads three vignettes,” she said. “One is on race, one is on sexual orientation and one is on religious affiliation. After that, they received another set of questions asking them things about their knowledge of hate crimes. One question is, do you think that a hate crime can happen only if the victim is a minority? Another section is about their knowledge of hate crimes. By the end, I also have a section of three different attitudinal scales. The scales were pretty established on people’s biases and prejudices.”

The idea is that how participants see racial issues may influence whether they label an incident as a hate crime.

“I think that pre-existing social structures will influence people’s judgment on whether an incident would be recognized and reported as a hate crime,” she said. “I also tested on their attitudinal scores. What I’m seeing is if people have a prejudice against one kind of population, they may have a different reaction to my questions.“

Behind Zhang’s research lies the question of how many hate crimes occur in the United States. Statistics from the FBI list 7,120 hate crimes as reported by 2,026 police units. Incidents must pass through several filters before the crime is reported to the FBI, and that filtering process may take out incidents authorities might deem to be hate crimes – or even a crime at all.

 “In the United States, the victim has the responsibility to tell the police officer, ‘I think it is motivated by my race,’” She said, “That’s the first step. We need to understand what leads people to that judgment. After this, the police officers must decide whether they want to record it as a hate crime based on whether you have evidence for it.

“Then after they record it as a hate crime, the police department also has a say on whether it wants to report it to the federal government. That part is voluntary. So the police department has the power to say, ‘We don’t want to participate in this reporting process to the FBI.’ That’s where the under-reporting happens. We rely on official numbers, but in the case of hate crime there are so many things involved in the process.”

Zhang plans to use the grant for research support and data analysis as she finishes her dissertation.

This project was supported by Award No. 2020-R2-CX-0044, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justic Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.