Are discriminatory policies like HB2 and hate crimes connected?

HB2 protestor Connie Jones of Raleigh, center, shouts with other protesters across from the NC Governor’s Mansion in April.
HB2 protestor Connie Jones of Raleigh, center, shouts with other protesters across from the NC Governor’s Mansion in April. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The U.S. Department of Justice has asked the federal district court to halt implementation of House Bill 2. There are many reasons for the court to act, but even if it does, there could be surprising consequences from having such discriminatory laws remain on the books – even temporarily. Discriminatory public policies may actually increase hate crimes against the stigmatized group.

Together with a coauthor, I recently published a study in Social Science Research that examines how public policies expanding rights for the LGBTQ community affect reported incidence of hate crimes based on sexual orientation. To our knowledge, this is the first nationwide, long-term analysis of hate crimes based on sexual orientation – and the first analysis to examine how public policies might affect incidence of hate crimes of any kind.

Why would public policies affect someone’s decision to commit a hate crime? We hypothesize that policies either legitimize or delegitimize stigma against LGBTQ individuals. Laws reflect the values and norms we share as a society, and a social context saturated with stigma is one ripe for hate crimes.

For example, following the successful Brexit campaign that conjured ethnocentric and nativist themes among some supporters, several racist hate crimes occurred. Here in North Carolina, author Jared Yates Sexton’s live-tweeting of Donald Trump’s Greensboro rally reveals just how public and brutal stigma and hate speech continue to be. Laws are one way to demonstrate that such speech – and worse, crimes – are unacceptable.

To test this idea, we analyze how the rate of hate crimes based on sexual orientation changed each year from 2000 to 2012 in 48 states plus Washington, D.C. We compare the increases and decreases in hate crimes with state-level changes in three policies directly affecting the LGBTQ community: partnership recognition (e.g., same-sex marriage) and whether a state’s hate crime and employment nondiscrimination laws include sexual orientation as a protected class.

After a state enacts a pro-equality policy, two good things happen. First, hate crimes go down. Specifically, in the year following implementation of a pro-equality policy, the incidence of hate crimes based on sexual orientation decreases. The size of this reduction is large enough to explain a moderate level of hate crime incidence nationwide.

Second, once a state enacts all three pro-equality laws, victims become more likely to report hate crimes that have occurred. This may seem counter-intuitive, but reports from the United Kingdom and American college campuses show similar increases in reporting following pro-equality policies. The logic is that a supportive social and political environment fosters trust in the legal system, which increases victims’ reporting.

You may think changing public opinion and greater social tolerance drive both policy changes and hate crime reductions, so policies themselves do not matter. It is unlikely. If true, we would expect hate crimes to fall before laws are changed because it takes politicians a long time to do anything these days. Instead, we see that hate crime rates decline in the years after states enact pro-equality policies. This suggests that the effect of public policies could be causal.

Unfortunately, North Carolina not only has the discriminatory HB2 as law, but the state does not include sexual orientation or gender identity as protected classes in hate crimes or employment nondiscrimination laws. Moreover, you can still discriminate in the housing market and other arenas.

Certainly, a potential drop in hate crimes is not the only reason to enact pro-equality policies. These policies are related to a host of individual-level benefits (health benefits, tax benefits, etc.), and these provide enough justification. Nevertheless, roughly 4 in 10 Americans still oppose same-sex marriage. The public is not, however, divided in its opposition to hate crimes. So, our findings could offer an argument that appeals to a broad spectrum of the electorate.

As the recent tragedy in Orlando points out, the LGBTQ community continues to suffer from bias violence. Today alone, three hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals will take place and be reported to the FBI, and the true total is undoubtedly much higher because current reports are demonstrated to undercount. In fact, the LGBTQ population is the most likely of any demographic group to be victimized by hate crimes.

We should be doing everything we can to reduce levels of social stigma and provide a safe environment for all North Carolinians. This includes a supportive policy context that emphasizes equality.

Brian Levy is a doctoral candidate in sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill.