WASHINGTON - Noting recent incidents of "bias-motivated violence," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said yesterday that new hate-crimes laws were needed to stop what he called "violence masquerading as political activism."
Holder's call for Congress to act came as a civil rights coalition reported a surge in white-supremacist activity since the election of the first black president and another group reported a jump in the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people killed in bias attacks.
Immigrants, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs also were among the targets of bias attacks, according to FBI data cited by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.
While the number of hate-crime incidents tallied by the FBI dropped in 2007 - the most recent year for which data are available - by 1 percent, to 7,624, violence against Hispanics and gay people bucked the trend.
"Over the last several weeks, we have witnessed brazen acts of violence committed in places that many would have considered unthinkable," Holder told the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
He cited attacks over a two-week period that killed a young soldier in Little Rock, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kan., and a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Holder said Congress should update hate-crimes laws so law enforcement could more effectively prosecute those who commit violent attacks based on gender, disability, or sexual orientation.
Republicans have opposed Democratic efforts to expand the hate-crimes law, saying current laws are adequate.
The Leadership Conference issued a report saying white-supremacist activity online spiked after Barack Obama's election victory in November, and hate groups now use social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to spread their message.
Its report also says:
Blacks by far are the most frequent victims of hate crimes, accounting for 34 percent of the 7,624 such crimes reported nationwide in 2007.
From 2003-07, the number of hate crimes reported against Hispanics increased nearly 40 percent, from 426 in 2003 to 595 in 2007. Of all hate crimes reported in 2007, 7.8 percent were committed against Hispanics.
"As inflammatory rhetoric targets immigrants at the same time that the number of hate crimes against Hispanics and others perceived to be immigrants steadily increases, a heightened sense of fear has gripped Hispanic and other minority communities around the country," the report states.
In 2007, there were 969 reported hate crimes against Jews, constituting 12.7 percent of all hate crimes reported.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hate crimes against Arab Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs escalated. While the number of reported hate crimes against these groups has declined from 481 at the 2001 peak, it remains substantially above pre-2001 levels.
Reported hate crimes committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation rose in 2007 to 1,265, the highest level in five years.
Of all hate crimes reported in 2007, the proportion committed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals rose to 16.6 percent, also the highest in five years.
According to a national coalition of advocacy groups, the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people killed in bias-motivated incidents increased by 28 percent in 2008 compared with 2007.
Last year's 29 killings were the highest number recorded by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs since 1999, when it documented the same number, according to a report released yesterday by the coalition.
Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which coordinates the coalition, cited debates about same-sex marriage, the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and federal legislation that would ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as possible flash points.