When Austin Alford spent the night at his friend’s house last summer, he didn’t expect to wake up to 30 missed calls from his mother. Nor did he expect the news she had to share.

The 17-year-old’s car had been vandalized. Stars of David and the word “fag” were tagged in blue and red paint all over his silver Ford Focus.

The window of Alford’s car after his mom found it vandalized. Courtesy: Austin Alford

His mother was horrified, and had already called the police to file a report before Austin woke up. His Jewish friends and the community at his synagogue were upset, offering Austin support and opening up conversations about religious tolerance. For Austin, it was a sign that anti-Semitism might be growing in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“It’s been worse than in past years,” he said. “This year has been a little more scary.” 

Stories like Austin’s have become increasingly common in recent months. From the shooting of an immigrant in Kansas who was told to get out of the country, to the contortion of a Jewish family’s menorah into a Swastika, hatred seems to be running high in the United States.

Many Americans fear white Christian supremacists may be regaining traction, bolstered by President Donald Trump’s caustic rhetoric against Muslims, Hispanics, women and other minorities, as well as the appointment of Stephen K. Bannon, former chairman of the right-wing website Breitbart, to White House chief strategist.

This view assumes that hatred, particularly on the basis of faith, has long been dead in America. But the nation’s history is not as rosy as Americans might wish.

Data collected by the FBI show that religious hate crimes are not just a thing of the past. In fact, 22 states have seen an average yearly increase in the number of religion-based hate crimes over the last two decades. Eight others have seen no change. That leaves only 20 states – less than half the country – that have seen hate crimes go down on average each year since 1999.

While there are many complexities regarding the FBI hate crime data, it still provides one of the only snapshots of hatred in the United States. Each state has its own system for reporting hate crimes before they’re collected at the federal level, so the data are useful for comparing each state to itself over time, rather than comparing one state to another.

Despite these flaws, the numbers clearly reveal the persistence of religious hatred in America. Since most hate crimes are underreported, the truth may be even worse than these statistics illustrate.

The reality of anti-Semitism in America

Austin’s encounter with anti-Semitism came as a shock to many of his friends and family, who had always felt Jews were accepted by the community. While Austin admits his neighborhood isn’t very diverse and Jews make up a relatively small portion of the population, he said he rarely feels targeted or unsafe. For the most part, he fits in.

It is a narrative that resonates with several Jewish Studies scholars, who say that in many ways, Jews have assimilated into American culture.

Before World War II, there were many restrictions on where Jews could live, go to school or work, said Kenneth Stern, an attorney who developed a working definition of anti-Semitism and serves as executive director for the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation. After the Holocaust, though, many more opportunities opened up.

“The idea of what anti-Semitism could lead to was very stark,” Stern said. “In some ways, I think we are still in a golden age since then.”

In fact, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found Jews to be the most warmly regarded religious group in the country. Yet that doesn’t mean prejudice against Jews has disappeared altogether, as Austin and his family discovered.

“I think it’s ridiculous to say there is no anti-Semitism,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. “There clearly is, but at the same time, it is ridiculous to exaggerate the anti-Semitism or pretend we’re in Nazi Germany.” Reality is more nuanced.

FBI data show that Jews have experienced the most hate crimes of any religious minority in America since collection began in 1992. They are the target of more than half of all reported religious hate crimes each year.

“It doesn’t matter where or when, Jews are to some degree outsiders in the places they live,” said Hasia Diner, professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and History at New York University. “There is centuries-old anti-Jewish rhetoric that floats around. There’s a huge trove of anti-Jewish images that somebody can stumble upon and pick up… In a way, nobody should be surprised.”

Even when accounting for the relative populations of each religious group in America, the trend remains mostly the same. Only in 2001 – the year of the Twin Tower attacks – did the rate of hate crimes against Muslims surpass that of hate crimes against Jews. Since the population of Catholics in America is very large, the rate of hate crimes per 100,000 followers is just 0.1

Muslims face fewer crimes but more violence

The data seem to contradict the national narrative that focuses on anti-Muslim rhetoric and Islamophobia as the center-point of religious hatred in America.

But a closer look reveals that Muslims tend to face more violent hate crime than Jews – a trend that is particularly evident in recent years. In the last five years for which FBI data are available, six Muslims were murdered and one was raped for their religion. No such incidents were recorded against Jews during the same time.

Most of the anti-Jewish crimes involve vandalism, acts like drawing swastikas on temple doors and desecrating Jewish cemeteries. While such hate crimes can profoundly impact a person’s sense of safety, they’re not the same as a physical attack, said Sarna, the professor from Brandeis.

That’s why such incidents receive less attention and why the perception that Jews are perfectly safe in America might persist despite what the data show.

Measuring hatred in America

Hate crime reporting is complex, especially within a country as large as the United States. Though the data seem to show the total number of hate crimes in the U.S. has declined since 2008, these numbers are not fully accurate, and many expect the numbers for 2016 (yet to be released) to rise.

Congress mandated the collection of hate crime data in 1991, but left the details of the reporting up to individual police departments. Though the FBI provides a handbook suggesting best-practices, data collection methods remain inconsistent across states. Experts say the data are a better measure of legislative success than an actual indication of hate crime numbers.

“Hate crime statistics are not a true indicator of hate crime prevalence but rather of the reporting behavior of victims, witnesses, and, importantly, the police,” wrote Michele Stacey, an assistant criminal justice professor at East Carolina University, in a 2015 American Journal of Criminal Justice article.

Since reporting is up to individual police departments, the data are closely tied to the politics within a state. In fact, Rory McVeigh, a sociology professor at Notre Dame, claims FBI hate crime data can be used to measure the success of social movements and organizations that advocate for greater reporting.

The Anti-Defamation League is one such organization whose mission is “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” according to its website. The ADL played a major role in passing hate crime reporting legislation by pressuring states to support the cause.

“These organizations can win in legislative history, but the battle doesn’t stop there,” McVeigh said. After legislation passes, it takes time – and often political pressure – for police departments to start reporting hate crimes.

Given the political obstacles involved with the FBI data, other organizations like ProPublica and the Southern Poverty Law Center have started collecting their own hate crime data to create a more accurate picture of hatred in America. The goal is that better documentation will lead to more thorough analyses of hatred in the U.S. After all, the country cannot improve something it does not understand.