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Will This Recession Create Hate Crime?

- November 19, 2008

David Brooks suggested yesterday that economic downturns lead to a rise in prejudice and violence against minority groups:

bq. The economic slowdown of the 1880s and 1890s produced a surge of agrarian populism and nativism, with particular hostility directed toward Catholics, Jews and blacks.

Is this true? Some relevant research suggests otherwise. Donald Green, Jack Glaser, and Andrew Rich have argued that economic conditions have little relationship to hate crime (here, gated). They examine the relationship between various economic measures and Southern lynchings, and find no robust relationship. Similar findings emerge from an analysis of various hate crimes in New York City from 1987-95. They conclude:

bq. Given the practical limitations that confront any study of bigoted violence, no single empirical finding can be regarded as decisive. But as these results accumulate, defenders of the notion that hate crime rises with a declining economy are hemmed in by untoward findings.

Brooks’ argument is essentially what psychologists call “frustration-aggression theory.” People who find themselves unable to realize some goal lash out against others — often a group not at fault. The scholarly literature has not been particularly kind to this theory. At a minimum, frustration itself is usually insufficient. As Green, Glaser, and Rich note, laboratory studies have found that frustration and aggressive impulses decay quickly, making them ill-suited to sustained campaigns of violence.

Even more important, they note, is the fact that violence tends to be a group activity. There must be some means to coordinate individuals — a task that often falls to group leaders. In other words, violence necessitates mobilization. Amidst this recession, we might expect that:

bq. The relationship between economic discontent and intergroup aggression may hinge, then, on the ways in which political leaders and organizations frame and mobilize such grievances.

[Green, Donald P., Jack Glaser, and Andrew Rich. 1998. From Lynching to Gay-Bashing: The Elusive Connection between Economic Conditions and Hate Crime. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75: 82-92.]