While criminal wrongdoing is always taken seriously by law enforcement, hate crimes combine criminal wrongdoing with a motivation spurred by a bias towards another group. As a result, they cause a ripple effect that can potentially impact all members of a certain group, whether united by race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or country of origin. For this reason, hate crimes often entail harsher penalties than other types of crimes, even those that involve violence.
Despite what the name implies, hate crimes do not always involve hatred of another individual or group. While that certainly is a factor in many of these types of crimes, the perception that a group is different from or somehow less than others is sufficient for a hate crime conviction. In terms of criminal wrongdoing, these crimes often involve vandalism, assault, arson, and even murder. Even threats of possible wrongdoing can be considered a hate crime.
Hate crimes are not a first amendment issue, despite many claims to the contrary. It's true that people are entitled to their beliefs, even though these beliefs may be offensive to most reasonable people. Additionally, people are free to espouse these beliefs as they see fit, provided they don't engage in incendiary or inciteful language. Despite first amendment protections, a system of belief cannot be used to justify any crime.
According to the FBI, in 2017 approximately 7,175 hate crimes were reported to various agencies within the U.S. The majority of these crimes were motivated by a single bias, while the remaining 69 reported incidents involved multiple biases. In both single and multiple bias incidents, race, ethnicity, or ancestry were the primary motivating factor. Bias against certain religions or sexual identities were second and third respectively.