By Deepa Bharath – Orange County Register
For the third straight year, hate crimes and hate incidents have continued to climb in Orange County.
According to the 2017 Hate Crimes Report released by Santa Ana-based OC Human Relations, a nonprofit that partners with the county’s Human Relations Commission, 56 hate crimes and 94 hate incidents were reported countywide in 2017.
In 2016, the county saw 50 hate crimes and 72 hate incidents and in 2015, 44 hate crimes and 43 hate incidents were reported.
The numbers tell the story of a steady increase, which officials say is troubling.
In 2017 alone, incidents involving race bias increased by 16 percent in Orange County — from 519 to 602.
Hate crimes countywide ranged from vandalism where cars or park benches were covered in swastikas to violent physical attacks. In one incident, a Latino man was kicked and punched in a park along with verbal assaults denigrating his race.
In another incident, an assailant tore a Muslim woman’s hijab off her head and struck her with a metal water bottle causing bruising. That woman stopped wearing the head scarf after the attack out of fear, officials said.
Muslims faced the highest number of hate crimes — 13 percent — followed by Jewish people (9 percent), while Caucasian and Native Americans were the least targeted in the county, the report stated.
Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent together accounted for 16 percent of hate crime targets in Orange County.
The fear of being attacked has led to Muslim men shaving off their beards and women opting to go out in public without their head scarves, especially over the last two years when these incidents have burgeoned and created an unsafe environment for community members, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Los Angeles chapter.
“Muslims are not only dealing with hate, but also discrimination in the workplace, at shopping centers and by government officials,” he said, adding that his organization has documented that 54 percent of Muslim students are bullied in California high schools because of their religion.
Hate crimes, hate incidents
Hate crimes are criminal acts motivated by gender, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability. Examples of hate crimes include vandalism, assault, criminal threats and murder.
A hate incident is behavior that is motivated by hate or bias, but doesn’t rise to the level of a crime. Such behavior, in most cases, is protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
Schools are in fact the most common locations for hate incidents in the community (23 percent), said Don Han who responds to hate incidents countywide.
Hate incidents do leave a mark on the individuals who experience them, Han said.
“A hate incident may not rise to the level of a crime, but it looks and feels like a crime to me,” he said. “With vandalism, for example, the victim may not even see the perpetrator. But, with hate incidents, like when someone utters a racial slur, there is face-to-face interaction, and I see the impact it has on victims.”
Han said Orange County reflects California and national trends when it comes to hate.
These hate crimes and hate incidents are being fueled by a polarized political and social environment where an “us versus them” mentality prevails, said Pete Simi, associate professor of sociology at Chapman University who has studied white supremacist groups for more than two decades.
Pointing to racial tensions that surfaced during a high school football game at Aliso Niguel High School where players from Santa Ana High were met with chants of “USA, USA,” Simi said the incident is an example of how a seemingly harmless “community climate” could serve as fertile ground for hate groups.
He also pointed to another instance where an elementary school principal in Seal Beach referred to NFL player Colin Kaepernick as a “thug,” a word that has historically been used to denigrate African-Americans.
Similarly, Simi said, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments have been widely and effectively manipulated by white supremacist groups to further their agenda.
“It’s gotten to the point where people don’t even realize they are sharing white supremacist propaganda on social media,” he said. “That’s because the propaganda has been mainstreamed.”
Orange County is no stranger to hate, said Brette Steele, regional director of the office of terrorism prevention at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Growing up, Steele said, she’s seen everything from burning crosses to an LGBT youth who was nearly run over for daring to start an LGBT club in his high school.
“When these incidents become more and more prevalent, they become normalized,” she said. “We need to come together and have conversations about these issues.
“Once we raise awareness, we can pivot toward prevention.”
Ayloush said communities must commit to challenging hate and bigotry, especially within close circles.
“We need to stand up when a neighbor, elected official, activist or even a relative, makes comments that demean any group of people,” he said.
“We need to realize that victims of hate are not just statistics. They are people who have been traumatized and whose lives have been impacted.”