Wilfred Reilly is a political scientist, Kentucky State University professor, and author of the 2019 book Hate Crime Hoax. I wanted to talk to Reilly about the nature of hate crimes in America. One reason I wanted to discuss this is because our perceptions of hate crimes, and racism more generally, are a factor in our us-versus-them polarization, and so examining nuance in this area can be helpful for depolarization purposes. Transcript below.
Topics discussed include: how hate crimes are tracked; why it can be hard to get a clear picture of hate crime numbers; the logic of ‘hate crime’ as a legal designation; irresponsible media coverage of racism-related issues; the motivations of people who fake hate crimes; distorted perceptions of American hate crimes and racism; how distorted perceptions can amplify polarization; and what it’s like working on these topics while teaching at a historically black college.
Podcast platform links:
Resources related to or mentioned in our talk:
- Wilfred Reilly’s Wikipedia page
- Reilly’s Twitter account
- 2019 Washington Post article mentioning Reilly’s work
- Reilly’s book Hate Crime Hoax on Amazon
- FBI’s page on hate crimes
- Department of Justice BJS page on hate crime reporting
- An article by Reilly on Commentary: Hate Crime Hoaxes and Why They Happen
Zachary Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding others, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at www.behavior-podcast.com, and you can subscribe to the podcast there, too.
On today’s episode, I’ll be talking to Wilfred Reilly, a political scientist who’s the author of a book called Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War. In that book, he examines many instances of hate crime hoaxes, with a focus on, as he sees it, the liberal leaning media’s irresponsible coverage of these things. He sees the media coverage as helping create divisive, untrue narratives, and as contributing to support for the far right.
I’ll read the first paragraph of his book, as it gives a sense of his views and of why he’s passionate about this topic:
Authors of books that lean right are often accused of “hating” someone, or everyone. To the contrary! I am a proud Black man, and this book is both a pro-American and a profoundly pro-Black work of social science. I write it with the intention of lancing a boil. One major issue poisoning relations between whites and people of color (POC) in America today, and to a lesser extent relations between the two sexes and our nation’s social classes, is an ongoing epidemic of patently false claims of oppression. Making outrageous claims of oppression—”Baseball is racist”; “The math SAT is culturally biased!”—is arguably the main thing the modern activist Left does, and the backlash against such patently absurd contentions is largely responsible for the rise of the even more god-awful alt-right. End quote
A little later in the book he writes: Bigotry does exist. But that fact is no justification for false claims of oppressive violence, which are rife: complete hoaxes make up a sizable percentage of all widely reported hate crimes.
I’ll read another few sentences from a 2019 article in Commentary magazine he wrote:
Our nation is not racked with hate crimes. When people in positions of power or visibility say that it is, they should be rebuked for it. […] It’s difficult to think of a more compelling task for American scholars than to point out the dangerous lies behind this invented crisis.
If you’re politically liberal, there’s a good chance you’ll disagree with some of what Reilly has to say. But I think this is an important topic and I hope you’ll listen to this episode. I was reading Reilly’s work as research for my depolarization book, because, when it comes to depolarization work, trying to correct our distorted perceptions is a big part of that work. And Reilly is correct that many of us do have some very distorted perceptions about the state of this country, and about “the other side.” And he’s right that the media is often irresponsible in their coverage of race-related topics. That’s something I’m currently writing about in my depolarization book, and it’s something I’ve tackled in past episodes: for example, see the episode titled “Are a majority of Americans actually racist?” One can believe all of that while still believing racism and hate crimes exist and are problems: Reilly’s work is attempting to show that it’s not as big a problem as some people believe it is, and arguing that it’s important that journalists and the media take a more nuanced and responsible approach to these topics.
I’d also say: even if you wholeheartedly disagree with a lot that Reilly says, hearing his points will help you better understand conservative points of view, and that alone is worthwhile and depolarizing. Hearing Reilly’s points will help you understand why many conservatives perceive liberals as being hysterical and divisive on issues of race, and you can understand that perspective even while disagreeing with it. When hearing the points Reilly makes, some liberals will have an instinctive reaction in thinking that such views are due to malicious motives of some sort and I think this is related to some basic polarization dynamics: we have an instinctive urge to get upset and judge people harshly when they say things that don’t align with narratives that are sacred to us or our group. But I think it’s important to attempt to see the rational and well meaning concerns that are driving people’s beliefs on these issues. When we see their perspective, we better understand their frustration and anger, and we can better engage with their ideas.
I’ll give a specific example of hate-crime-focused news coverage I noticed that struck me as very bad and irresponsible. A 2021 CNN article was titled As attacks against Asian Americans spike, advocates call for action to protect communities. That article discussed four incidents and, from a quick read of the headline and the article, you’d probably get the impression that these incidents were linked to bigotry in some way. But after doing some research on the incidents in that article, I found that none of those incidents were known to be linked to bigotry or anti-Asian sentiment. Here are some of the stories it included:
- A Thai man was pushed down by a young man in San Francisco. The police later said that they didn’t believe the attack was racially motivated; they thought the young man was having some sort of mental episode.
- A 64-year-old Asian woman was robbed in San Francisco. This seemed to be a typical robbery; at least from what I could find, there was no evidence it was related to race.
- In New York City, a Filipino man was slashed across the face after objecting to the man pushing his bag. The offender was never caught, and there’s no evidence the attack was racially motivated.
- A 91-year-old Asian man was pushed to the ground by a man who had also been caught pushing down several other elderly people. He had psychiatric problems, and was charged with elder abuse.
People of all races are randomly attacked in big cities on a regular basis, some of it due to mental illness and some of it due to crime, and it’s possible that some of the attacks categorized as anti-Asian hate crimes are not any different than some of those kinds of attacks. It’s also possible that the more attention is drawn to hate crimes, the more the media and citizens are likely to filter things through that lens. For example, people may hear about a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes and then, if they experience or witness non-hate-related violence, they may be more likely to perceive it and report it as a hate crime. So there can seem to be a lot of nuance and feedback cycles in these areas.
I could give many more examples of this kind of thing, and Reilly includes many examples in his Hate Crime Hoax book. Hopefully you can see why these kinds of media behaviors strike people as irresponsible and divisive. Hopefully you can see why people like Reilly can see it as an important endeavor to try to bring more nuance to these areas. The left talks a lot about fear mongering by the Right, but it’s possible for people to perceive a lot of fear mongering from liberal-leaning media also.
One reason I think this is such an important topic for depolarization purposes is that, for many liberals, they will name race-related violence as one of the things that make them so concerned about Trump and conservatives. People are very scared, and fear for their safety and other people’s safety, and they blame Trump and conservatives for that. For example, they see a link between the rhetoric of conservatives and the mass killings done by far right extremists, like the 2022 Buffalo New York shooting where 10 black people were killed, or the shooting in El Paso, Texas where 23 people were killed. Or they are afraid of various forms of lesser bigotry-caused violence, like people being attacked randomly in the street. And this fear and anger can be hard to get past. It can be an obstacle to people seeing the value of depolarization work. And so, for the purposes of depolarization, I think it’s important to examine that fear and ask: how much is that fear really justified? Because in this area, as in many areas, there’s a lot of nuance, and many distorted perceptions. And so reducing fear and examining nuance is one of the ways we aid depolarization.
A little bit more about Wilfred Reilly: he teaches at Kentucky State University, which is a historically black college; towards the end of the podcast I talk to him about what kind of reaction he gets for his work at his school. He’s also the author of the book Taboo, in which he argues that certain race, gender, and class issues can no longer be discussed in mainstream American society. One interesting detail about Reilly I’ll read from Wikipedia:
On April 21, 2016, Reilly participated in a regionally televised debate against alt-right personality Jared Taylor. Reilly argued for the social value of diversity, contending that it makes life “more interesting, civilized, and fun,” and using published research to point out that mono-racial societies (like Bosnia and Somalia) are often no more peaceful or less conflicted than multi-racial societies, due to the greater prevalence of tribal in-fighting within them.
Reilly did that debate as part of demonstrating his philosophy of debating ideas openly, and not trying to shut down debate.
Reilly is active on Twitter, too, if you want to keep up with him there.
Just a heads up before we start: this podcast has some ads. If you want to subscribe and get an ad-free version of this podcast, and get a few other features like collaborating on upcoming episodes, getting a free copy of my depolarization book, and more, you can learn more about that by going to behavior-podcast.com/premium. Aside from any benefits, you’ll be supporting me in making this podcast better, and in promoting it, so if you’ve thought my work on this podcast has been interesting or important and you’ve enjoyed all the free content I’ve put out, maybe you’d consider signing up.
Okay here’s the talk with Wilfred Reilly…
Zachary Elwood: Okay, here’s the talk with Wilfred Reilly. Hi, Will, thanks for coming on the show.
Wilfred Reilly: Glad to be here.
Zach: Maybe we can start with one of the things I’ve experienced in trying to research the hate crime topic for my depolarization book. I’ve just had a problem trying to even understand how hate crime statistics and reports are compiled, and you just see such a range of different stats and interpretations of the stats used by people from across the political spectrum. Some people say they’re under counted, some people say they’re over counted, and it just seems really hard to get to the bottom of what’s going on there. Maybe you can talk a little bit about, for somebody who wonders how do we get accurate data about those statistics, what would you say to people seeking that information?
Wilfred: Well, I’d say that’s a problem with crime stats in general. As you probably know, there are two primary data pools when it comes to American crime data. There’s the FBI itself, which is, if I recall the initialism correctly, the UCR. But that’s a database where police departments, especially in large cities, report the number of crimes and number of felony crimes and so on that occur in their area to a central storing house that’s run by the Federales. There are a lot of problems with this, though. The first is that cities definitely try to play games with this data. I mean, as we’ve seen murder increase recently, we’ve seen very large cities like Chicago just sort of be behind the ball with their FBI data for a particular year. But a bigger issue is just that the majority of crimes aren’t reported. It’s important to keep this in mind. And this isn’t really something where my political position, which is kind of center right, comes into play at all. It’s just a reality. If you’re talking about sexual assaults or rapes, for example, there are a decent number of false accusations but there’s also the reality that only one accusation in three or whatever it is– a feminist scholar would probably have a better grasp on that– is reported at all. The FBI stats are one of the tools you can use when you look into crime data.
The better data warehouse is what’s called the BJS, the Bureau of Justice Statistics annual reports. And that, really, I think is some of the better social science out there. What they do is take pretty well-trained, usually same-race interviewers, and have them reach out and contact about 160,000 people and just ask about their experience with crime. Worded not like, “Did someone try to kill you?” but, “Were you in a situation where X, Y, and Z happened this year?” It’s introduced upfront as the goal of this is to reduce crime in the USA, the response rate is in the ’90s across all racial groups, but kind of getting to the point what the BJS annually finds is that there are about twice as many crimes as those that are officially reported to the PDs and then to the FBI. And you can play a lot of games with this data. For example, we’ve seen the claim that Black men are 6% of the country but make up 60% of the violent crime. That’s essentially just bullshit. That comes from a one-year UCR figure where a lot of big cities reported and a lot of smaller cities in poor, White communities frankly didn’t. So for one point, I believe it was 60.4% of the reported violent crimes in that database had a Black perp. But if you expand out to the BJS and you look at the total number from that enormous sample of 160 or whatever thousand, they can calculate the actual crime rate throughout the United States. I mean, you’re never going to get a better survey sample than that. And if you actually look at all of the violent crimes that occurred or likely occurred in a typical year, that number is going to be something like 10 million. When I broke down that data for one of my books, the Black crime rate was two to 2.5 times the White crime rate, but there was no one ethnic group that made up a giant majority of criminals or anything like that. So you can dig into these multiple data resources and on either side of this debate, you can cite to something that looks very professional and say, “This is the crime data.”
And there’s a lot more of this in social science than people like to admit. There’s an entire book called The Attitudinal Model that just makes the point that if you’re a judge, a professor, what they call a solo leader, there are generally going to be sources on your side. And that’s how a lot of these debates continue for decades. But in the hate crimes space, all of the same problems arise first of all. A large number of crimes are not reported. I’d call that the first problem with crime data, much crime is not reported. Second, as I famously said in the book, a number of the reports are fake or at least they’re overstatements. This is also a problem with data in a number of cases, men reporting domestic violence and this kind of thing. So you have these two problems upfront. But in terms of what you do to get the data, it’s the same as any other crime data compilation. I mean, a lower order local police department will gain knowledge of a case involving, say, a Black guy and a White guy involved in a violent brawl that has the potential characteristics of a hate crime, they’ll investigate that and they’ll decide whether to press hate crime charges. And if a hate crime is reported at that level, it is passed on– without further verification, by the way. But it is passed on to the FBI, to the central governmental database as this is a situation where a hate crime has occurred. So, criminal data collection at the simplest level, unless you’re doing very high-end BJS stuff, is just the police arresting a guy, charging him with a particular crime, and as the case moves forward, sending that up to the Feebies as an example of crime X or a robbery. That is how you get that data.
Zach: Yeah, it seems like for this and for so much of the things we talked about, there’s just so much ambiguity in the data itself, which lends itself to people making a wide range of arguments as you say. Yeah. Maybe we can talk a little bit about the factors that make some of this data ambiguous. And one thing that comes to mind is just the nature of categorising something as a hate crime. Have you seen a lot of that vary in different regions or different police departments, like what even constitutes a hate crime and how do we define that?
Wilfred: Absolutely. One of my first articles on this, this wasn’t quite an academic journal piece but it ran in Quizlet about 10 pages long, but I actually looked at this remarkable surge that they’ve had in hate crimes in the city of Seattle in Washington. And the way this was presented in the media is hate crime is out of control, there’s something going on out there maybe, diverse gentrifiers of all backgrounds are being attacked by working class locals. There was a lot of discussion of this. What had actually happened is that the city had hired someone in a position that I think you can honestly call hate crimes commissar. And they had put a great deal of focus into sort of clarifying this is a hate crime, and if you encounter any situation with these characteristics, we want at least an initial hate crime prosecution. I forget the exact numbers but there had been hundreds of hate crimes reported in this one city as versus the entire state of Florida, for example, I had about a third as many. I’m actually pulling up the article right now. So when I looked into these hate crimes, what I found was very much not gangs of Klansmen roving around beating up Black dudes, or even Black guys New Panthers or something like that attacking Whites or attacking Jews. Most of the hate crime perpetrators were just crazy homeless people. I’m not going to use the racial words, but if some bum frankly was like– hopefully that’s not an offensive term– but was like, “Get out of the road, you bleep bleep whatever,” that might be in that one city pursued as a hate offence. So when you looked at the data set for the hate crime defendants, 25% of them were drug or alcohol addicts, 40% of them– again, that could be off by a bit, but were quote-unquote “living unhoused, they’ve gone beyond homeless as a PC term out there. So they were taking this so seriously, that they were arresting crazy people for any incident where a racial slur was used during a fight outdoors, for example.
Zach: Small note here. It’s been a recent tendency for some people on the left to act as if mental problems won’t influence someone to say racist things, as if we can morally judge mentally ill people who say racist or sexist things. But this is quite clearly wrong, and not just wrong, but a wrongness that exacerbates the stigma of mental illness and mental episodes. I examine this topic in a couple of past episodes. In one incident, a clearly mentally ill woman in California said some bigoted things and was caught on video and that video went viral. In my interview with Rob Tarzwell about his emergency room psychiatric work, he said that this woman was almost certainly suffering from mental illness and said that that can cause someone to say all sorts of antisocial things, things set to shock, saying taboo things and things like that. For that incident in California, there was actually a protest that people held because of that woman’s behaviour, which we can see is related to some of the same hysteria that Reilly is referring to in this episode. Okay, back to the talk.
Wilfred: And then there were other states that have a much more Matthew Shepard-James Byrd let’s-be-serious-about-this approach to hate crime. So again, we’re getting into these core problems with criminal data. I mean, number one is just, do people report? In Black or poor White communities, are people going to the cops like that? Number two is if they do report if you’re looking at domestics or a number of other areas, are they lying? Now, obviously, you want to take the victim very seriously at first but we found that in the hate crime space. And then number three, I guess would be how hard is the police department trying. How broadly are they casting their net? And generally, when you see hundreds of hate offences– on a college campus, they’re called Bias Incident Reports, BIRs– when you see hundreds of big cars within, you know, Oberlin, you kind of start wondering is there really that much hate there? Or are you just taking everything possible to create jobs for the office on point? So yes, the policing approach also dramatically affects the numbers. If I can say one more thing there about how we got the hoaxes, that itself is also pretty contested. There are people, and I’m actually not one of these guys who’s very critical of everyone that disagrees with him, but there are people like Barry Levin that are solid social scientists. They will argue that there are very few hate crime hoaxes. And they’re not lying. But what they’re doing is using this very technical definition where a claim is made and it goes to the feds– the police, then it goes to the feds. And then it turns out that the exact person who claimed they were attacked is revealed conclusively to have been a liar and the feds and the police, as I understand, both update their databases.
So when you go through that, like step 1, 2, 3, yeah, sure, there aren’t very many such cases. What I found for hate crime hoax is that there are a massive number of cases where the following pattern occurs, which is that an incident is reported nationally or internationally as an act of hate. For example, there’s a news found on a college campus. And then it turns out absolutely conclusively, I didn’t put maybe cases in the book, that there was no hate there at all. That one of several things could have happened, the original victim could have just made this up as a sort of prank or to gain attention. Two, someone else could have made this up as a prank or to gain attention. Or three, nothing happened at all. For example, a construction site left a GI rope hanging over a tree. I mean, you can have that debate. Like, is [00:22:09 unintelligible] is that a narrative collapsed? Does that fit my broad definition of a hoax and so on? But what we can say conclusively, and I didn’t count that as a hoax, but what we can say conclusively is that it didn’t happen. Anyway, step three in my book, the collapse also has to be documented in a national or regional news media source. I could have doubled the list if I’d go on with college kids contacting me and saying, “Hey, we all know this didn’t happen. This was the Pikes, the fraternity playing a prank.” But when you get into a hate crime, it’s just reported to the police, reported to the feds. And a hate crime hoax, if you’re using a narrow definition, is reported to the police, reported to the feds, proven to be a hoax by the person who initially made the claim, and then admitted as that by the police and by the feds. If you just look at the broader level of absolutely collapsed and usually the original victim did it, there were hundreds of these within a pretty narrow window.
Zach: Yeah, and what you were saying with the places reporting being more likely to report hate crimes and it just seems like there’s so many factors involved in that too. For example, when Trump was elected, it seems like more people were going to filter things through the lens of racism, for example, homeless people saying racial slurs or something in the past that might have passed without comment. Or we would say oh, they have some problems and now people would be more likely to view that as a serious threat that needed to be handled. So, just in that sense. And the ambiguity also of, say, somebody attacks their wife’s lover and yells a racial slur in the process. Is that qualified? Would people categorize that as a hate crime? I think many people would say that’s just a crime with a side of bigotry or something, but some people might disagree and classify that as a hate crime. Is that part of it too? Does a racial slur being present… Would some people categorize that as a hate crime?
Wilfred: Yeah, that was one of the specific issues that came up in Seattle. For me if I had to think about this– and I don’t really think the idea of hate crimes makes all that much sense. I mean, I have the standard kind of just over-the-Republican-line male view, which is that there aren’t that many crimes of love. If you beat someone up because you think lawyers are shysters, you don’t like poor Whites or you don’t like dentists or Democrats or whatever, that’s not a hate crime at all. If you beat someone up because they’re White, regardless of income, or because they’re Black, then that’s a hate crime. I don’t really see that is being worse than the first set of attacks that are political, for example, or that might involve sexual violence against women. But yeah, if you’re going to have the category at all, I guess the most logical cut off would be a crime primarily motivated by hate. Not where someone’s race played a tertiary role, but where you’re attacking the person because they’re Black. But yeah, you can expand on all of this. A legal statute would say something like considerable role for race orientation etc, and you could take that as you wish. That’s up to you, or that’s up to the decision maker who’s making that call. So yeah, we see wildly variant numbers when it comes to the range of potential hate offences that are actually treated in practice as hate crimes. I think it’s fair to say that.
The other point you made, which is almost funny, is about a big orange Julius Caesar Donald Trump. During the Trump administration, there was a frantic attempt to link Trump to rises in racial tension. Which actually rose at least there sharply under Mr. Obama when he started coming out and saying, “My son would look like Trayvon. You can think that Obama was a better more coherent president, although I don’t necessarily, but you can’t really say he improved race relations. But there was a real focus on Trump being the guy at fault. One of the worst pieces of social science I’ve ever seen, at least in terms of how the media presented it, was a study that was invariably presented as hate crimes increased 206% after Trump rallies. This ran in the Washington Post. The idea was that counties that had had a Trump rally had seen this massive surge of 200% in these violent incidents, Blacks and Whites fighting, and that’s what Trump was, he brought that kind of evil. And when I actually looked at the methods for this, and the author’s themselves aren’t even necessarily at fault, but what they had found was that counties that hosted Trump rallies saw a 2% increase in hate crime and counties that didn’t saw a 1% increase in hate crime. And since two is 200% of one, the press was able to spin this into there’s a 200% surge wherever that that orange bastard goes, if that makes sense. So, you saw a lot of things like that.
There was another claim, I think this is 2017 in the second year Trump was in power, hate crimes increased by more than a thousand. But when I and other researchers started looking at that, I still haven’t broken this down county by county to see if this explains the entire change, but what became apparent pretty rapidly is that as police departments and the feds started formalising their their violence numbers in response to BLM and in response to a government inquest, that particular year you also saw a thousand more police departments report hate crimes in the first place. So again, tell me if I need to clarify any of this, but there was an increase of a thousand hate crimes. There was also an increase of a thousand reporting departments. So, each department would have had to report one hate crime to explain the entire increase. I personally offhand would say Trump was probably correlated with a 2% increase in racial tensions or something like that, but there’s a big difference between saying that kind of minor negative and saying what people actually did. Like, “He almost brought us a race war,” and this kind of just complete nonsense.
Zach: Getting back to that hate crime as a designation, I’ve even seen progressive philosophy or writing about why the hate crime designation is not a good one for reasons of, you know, people who are more poor and have more disadvantages are more likely to be charged with hate crime designations. For example, like the example you brought up of homeless people who have mental issues who are more likely to say things like that, or just poor people in general who may be more prone to those kinds of things for lack of education and things like that and so they’re more likely to have more adverse judicial punishments and things like this. And getting back to the idea of… It’s not clear to me that the hate crime definition should exist, it seems like a very debatable argument. I just wanted to throw that in there.
Wilfred: Yeah, I’d agree with that. One of the things that was really surprising when I looked at who commits hate crimes– and this data is easily available online. I mean, if you just Google USA hate crimes 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, you get an FBI publication containing either online or hardcopy breakdowns of all of those years. So there’s nothing that you or I are saying here that’s contested. But when I looked started looking at who commits hate crimes, I suppose I’d been bamboozled a little bit by the media even after my research on interracial crime and Black Lives Matter, and I expected it to be mostly kind of trench coat White guys and maybe fraternity through gamer demographic. That’s not at all the case, actually. The two groups most likely to offend in the hate crime space were Blacks and then I think Samoans, Pacific Islanders. Blacks were very heavily over represented. We make up about 12% of the country, we make up well over 20% of the hate criminals, usually 25-plus. So there are a lot of hate crimes against Blacks in the limited sense that there are a lot of hate crimes at all. I mean, there were fewer than 7000 hate crimes in a typical year. Again, if you go through those BJS index reports, there are about 20 million serious crimes of violent and serious property crimes in a typical year. So hate crime is not a massive arena of crime, we get along fairly well. But of the hate crimes that do occur, there quite a few against Blacks, sometimes almost 2000 in a year. But it’s worth remembering that they’re also almost a thousand against Whites, there were 700 in the most recent year on record, and they’re about 1200 against Jews. So the attacks on the two Caucasian populations are generally about as common as frequent as the attacks on the Black community, and then you get both Whites and Blacks attacking gays and so on down the line.
For hate crime to make sense, if you’re really trying to crack down on that old devil of White supremacy or something like that, you would have to be pursuing mostly Klansmen and people in that space. In fact, yeah, if you’re a young Black guy and you’re involved in a racial conflict with a Latin gay, or you’re offended by a gay guy in your neighborhood– not that that’s an acceptable excuse but you launch an attack there– you are very likely also going to get the hate crime enhancement. I would say that virtually any criminal law is going to disadvantage poor people. Because poor people are younger, broker, they have worse lawyers, and they’re more likely to be criminals. So this again is the kind of help that we often see from the left. I mean, I grew up in a working class community where it’s this stupid shit like, “Let’s take the cops off the streets because they’re sometimes abusive.” Well, yeah, but if you take the cops off the streets, then the neighbourhoods are run by gangbangers. Similarly, if you enhance the penalties for certain crimes, selling certain varieties of drug and hate crime and so on, you might reel in some serious pushers or the occasional White guy who comes to those areas to do violence. But you’re also taking a whole bunch of young poor men and throwing them in jail for a really long period of time. I mean, a hate crime enhancement can make a misdemeanor fight into a serious felony.
Zach: Right. When I mentioned the progressive arguments I’d seen against the hate crime designation, that was part of the two with how disadvantaged racial minorities are also. Getting into the ambiguity caused by the purposeful hoaxes, what did you see as the main emotions and goals for the people that had done these pretty blatant hoaxes like the ones on college campuses that you talked about a lot? What did you see? How did you make sense of those cases and why people were doing that?
Wilfred: Well, one of the most notable things about what you just said is that if you go to a reputable website that looks at this, like www.fakehatecrimes.org– I think my own datasets even better but again there are multiple datasets containing hundreds of these– what you’ll find is that on the first 10 or 12 pages of the site, more than a third of the cases– and I found a slightly higher figure myself– take place on a collegiate campus; a college, university, dormitory, prep school, that kind of thing. So that in and of itself is telling when we get into motivation. Overall, I think there are two basic categories of motivation for something like this. One is just the ordinary mundane reasons that ‘MFs commit crimes’. It’s the phrase that came into my mind. But insurance money, that kind of thing. I mean, in Chicago, the famous Velvet Rope Ultra Lounge case where a guy burnt down this after-hours bisexual nightclub that was really popular and wrote these slurs like fag throughout the building, he did that simply to collect a check. Owing people money in the nightlife business in Chicago is not always a good idea, he wanted to get an insurance payout, okay. But what we more often see in the college campus cases is– although I don’t know if this guy was tied into anyone negative, he just wanted money– but in the college campus cases, I think what you’re seeing is the power of victimization that we’ve given to people and especially to these kids. So in a lot of these cases where something happened, I’m thinking of the UChicago hoax where a graduate student named Derek Caquelin claimed that an entire hacker group which he called the UChicago Electronic Army was sort of chasing him around campus threatening him every time he logged onto his machine with anal rape and abuse because it was campus activism, the goal of that was very specific. As I recall, they wanted a Chicano Student Centre. There were editorials and a collegiate but still widely read paper about this. There often were parades through campus, you know, hate has no home here.
So I think that because we’ve created this idea where it’s good to be a victim, you know, we want the bi-part perspective to be a big part of this meeting and this kind of college stuff, it’s very encouraging to try to speed forward and debate by providing quote-unquote some evidence of what Oberlin view is really like. And we’ve seen large-scale examples of this. Like the University of Missouri, about four or five years back there were all these student protests going on. And people were claiming these crazy things; the president hit one of the protesters with a car probably for racial reasons, there was a swastika written in human shit on the wall of one of the bathrooms… Although that one actually is the most debatably possible of them. But just on and on down the line, there were five or six of these crazy claims that Ku Klux Klan had been spotted on campus in full warrior fig. The specific purpose there was a series of demands as Missouri approached its 150th anniversary or something of that nature. So the college campus cases are almost always “Look at me and look at what this place is really like, and then let’s build a Black center.”
Zach: One motivating thing there for the hoaxes and just in general the hoaxes kind of tied to the victimization thing, I guess, it seems like there can be a belief that if someone’s a true believer that we live in a brutally racist society, then it becomes more acceptable in someone’s mind to draw attention to that by faking it. It’s like if you really believe that it’s true, then more and more options become available to you in the service of making that known even if you have to fake, if that makes sense.
Wilfred: Yeah, I think that’s pretty much exactly correct. One of the things I found to be notable writing about college pretty often for the past couple of years, I’ve worked with people in The College Fix and I don’t know if I’ve submitted an article there, but I’ve written about The 1619 Project, my next book’s about education, it’s a pretty serious book. So down the line, conservatives often tend to think that the people in the campus world are just kind of shrieking, hyperbolic, narcissistic liars. You think of your most emotionally abusive lover is a much younger person, they’re just making this up for gain. That’s true for some people. But I also think that a lot of people truly believe this stuff. I mean, you’ve been reading Ibram Kendi since the eighth grade if you attend any well ranked school in the USA.
Zach: A small note here. I think this is a very important point that Reilly makes. In my depolarization book I’m working on, one of the things I focus on is how polarization makes many of us suspect that people on the other side are being deceptive about their beliefs, that they’re not being genuine. Because we become less and less able to understand the other side, they become more and more alien and weird and creepy to us, and so we become more likely to basically think they couldn’t possibly believe these things. So therefore, we’re more likely to call people liars and deceivers and cynical manipulators. And that in turn makes the other side more angry, who are then more likely to do similar things to us and so on. So I believe that unless we’re quite sure someone is lying, we should take people at their word and try to act as if they really do believe what they’re saying they believe. Okay, back to the talk.
Wilfred: So I think that when I’ve talked to people in these situations, a starting assumption is well, of course, there must be some subsurface violence here at Yale. You know, the campus is named after a slave master, people will say. The problem with that, of course, is that in fact there almost never is. The American upper middle class is one of the most successfully integrated groups of people in the world. Interracial crime for both Blacks and Whites is a tiny percent of crime. We commit more of it, by the way, it’s 70% or 80% Black on White. But in an enormously rare thing, the person most likely to kill you is your wife. So going through a normal life, you’re not going to encounter any of this stuff. A great phrase I heard once talking about one of my cases is it must be tempting to create some. I mean, you’ve talked all the time about these revolutionary crises, of course, they don’t exist. Well, what are you going to do about that? Are you just going to admit that you’re a well-adjusted upper-class Black woman from Cleveland and go major in business? Well, not always. What you frequently see is a couple people that probably test pretty high on dark triad making something happen. And then you see the rest of the campus almost joyously falling in line behind that. Like, “Yes, this still occasionally happens, my degree wasn’t a total waste of money,” and now we get to fight it together. You know, our beautiful POC and our White allies and our strong leadership community. But again, the reality, when a very high profile hate incident occurs on our campus, I would say there’s virtually no chance in many cases that it is real. This is very different from like, I could have a serious conversation about what percentage of actual hate crimes or ass kickings outside country bars are real. I think that there’d be some real points made from the other side there. But when you look at these incidents involving prep school and college students, I mean, Covington Catholic, although that wasn’t exactly a crime, but Yasmin Seweid and the torn hijab, people following a Black student at Bowling Green and tossing rocks, all of the nooses, there have been dozens found over the past decade. You know, [key ???] in college with the death threats, Wisconsin Parkside with the signposts with the names of all the Black students, Drake University, Duke University, Goucher College, literally none of that turned out to be real. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence taken from a mischosen selection of schools. I think that there’s not a great deal of racial violence at top 1000 colleges, and essentially, you’ve got a moral people making it up.
Zach: In your book, you talked about your views that overly pessimistic liberal side ideas about race and racism are holding Black people back and you talk about the kids at your college and those views holding them back. Can you talk a little bit about how you see that happening and maybe why progressive people should care about that?
Wilfred: We hear a lot about QAnon, or have recently, and I’m using that as a general term for these wild beliefs on the right. Yeah, I’m on the right but I don’t believe Venezuelan voting machines stole the fucking election, excuse the language, all this crazy stuff. But I’ve noticed as I do research that there’s just as much BlueAnon. And a couple of academics on my side of the aisle were able to actually get that term into a few dictionaries this past year. But just crazy beliefs that are very widely shared among left-wingers and particularly minorities that are really damaging to a friendly national conversation. Just to give one example, and I’ll say this in one sentence so I might be misrepresenting the data a tiny bit, but the average liberal believes that about 10,000 unarmed Black men are killed annually by cops. This comes out of a very well done large end study from skeptic research center that dropped seven or nine months ago by now. But what they found is that among people who identified not even as leftist but just as very liberal, ordinary strong liberals, I think it was 27% of them believe that the number of unarmed brothers that are killed annually by police– no, it’s 38%– believe that the number of unarmed brothers that are killed annually by police is about a thousand. Another 15% believe that the number of unarmed Black men killed annually by police is about 10,000. And then you’ve got eight or 9% that believe it’s substantially more than that. If you average those figures together, you’d have to have a range of between five and 10,000, the individuals that are unarmed that are Black, the average lefty thinks are killed by cops. This continued, by the way, for just standard liberals, which is like everyone over to the center, the center-left people. In that category, 26.6% of people thought the annual toll was about a thousand. 7% thought it was about 10,000 and 7% thought it was more than that. To put this in context, in the year in question if you’re talking about like 2020-2021 where they’re getting the data, the total number of unarmed Black people shot by the police was 17. So it’s these wild misstatements of the level of danger in society. And I will note that for a specific group, which is upper middle-class liberals, especially women, this goes well beyond racial issues. 41% of liberals and leftist think that if you get COVID, you’re just going to be hospitalized. To put this in proper form, your risk of being taken into the hospital as an inpatient is 50-plus percent. That’s 41% of them.
Zach: A note here. I’m pretty sure Reilly is referring here to a 2021 Gallup survey that found that 41% of Democrats believe that unvaccinated people had a 50% chance of being hospitalized if they got COVID, which, of course, is extremely distorted. The chance of being hospitalized is significantly less than 1%. Back to the talk.
Wilfred: And this just goes on and on. 60% of very liberals, I don’t want to confuse them with liberals, think that Russia directly hacked the 2016 election. You can talk about Trump’s election denial, and I don’t I have no brief for that at all, but you’ve got to remember Hillary Clinton also said the election was illegitimate in a primetime speech, and 60% of her followers believe her. But anyway, what do attitudes like this, especially the racial attitudes, do? They have the effect that you would predict. If you’re just looking at this logically, if you’re looking at that belief in 10,000 killed every year or some of these beliefs about the evils of Whites, many people that are very mainstream on the left… A Professor Crump comes to mind, a lot of the staff of The Root comes to mind. He doesn’t have serious writing that I won’t throw Ibram Kendi in there but some of the things he said, Whites are aliens, come pretty close. A lot of people in the mainstream absolutely accepted left believe things that are crazier than anyone on the right, except actual alt-rightists believe. And this is just sort of ignored. A total double standard is just accepted. But what effect does that have? For example, I’ve asked large classes of students in what are normally feeder fields like political science, would you become a cop or a prosecutor? I mean, you’d enter just a bit below the detective level or you’d get a free path through law school. 95% of people will say no, because this is an oppressive system. And these are kids I love by the way. That this is an oppressive system that’s holding us down, that’s killing 10,000 of us every year. So belief in this kind of nonsense which has been spread very, very widely by the mainstream left is extremely problematic.
Zach: When you correct some of people’s distorted views on some of these statistics, do you see some changes in in beliefs just from that? Or do you feel like the emotions and the narratives in other ways are so constructed from other things that even correcting some of the core statistics is not enough to change people’s feelings?
Wilfred: Well, I think that when I really get in there, especially with young men, and start spitting facts… One of the things I’ll do is pull up the Washington Post database of police shootings, and we’re talking about policing, and say, “Look, Blacks are a little overrepresented. We make up 14% of the population, we make up 23% of the shooting victims in year X” You can view that gap as due to racism if you want to, I view it as due to higher crime rates quite bluntly. I mean, we’ve already explored the Black crime rate is twice the White crime rate. But even if that’s true… I mean, you’re in Kentucky, you have a whole bunch of Appalachian friends. 70% or 80% of the people that are killed by police are White or Hispanic Caucasians, you can’t deny that. And people will be like, “Yeah, yeah.” And then you’ll say, “Name one,” and no one ever can. So I think when you make these hard-bodied points like 80% of the people shot by the cops aren’t Black, there’s not a lot of denial. I mean, people will defend themselves. They’ll say, “Well, maybe those cases are slightly different.” And actually if you look at the data, that’s arguably true. But people will then start moving toward a more centrist normal position. Yeah. There are also, by the way, just crazy beliefs on the left that are very difficult to change. Like 26% of brothers or Black men believe that AIDS was created in a lab to kill Black people. I’ve never been able to make anyone change that belief. Again, we talk a lot about crazy beliefs on the right. I’ve found crazy belief to be far more entrenched on the left, but it is far more socially accepted. If you said something that’s at that Marjorie Taylor Greene level that’s equivalent to the stuff that I hear all the time about how the first Jews were Black and so on, if you said the world is 6000 years old, you’re going to be laughed off the stage. If, on the other hand, you recommend Hebrews to Negroes on a prominent social platform as a bunch of people dead after the Kyrie Irving issue, nothing will happen. Anyway, extremism is a problem. But I think that extremism in this racial space helped along by these public like racial meltdowns like, “But what about Trayvon Martin? What about Michael Brown? What about Jacob Blake? What about Amy Cooper?” It causes some siloing and it makes it harder to talk to people. Yeah.
Zach: It seems like we started out talking about the amount of data and the ambiguity in the data, just the fact that there are so much data to choose from lends itself to people being able to create whatever narratives they want, right? Like, in a country of 330 million people with a 300-year history, you can pick and choose all sorts of things to make a narrative about. You can make a positive narrative, you can make all sorts of negative narratives. Do you see that as… That’s part of the core problem, I feel like, when it comes to polarisation dynamics in general is just how easy it is for us to pick and choose the things to form whatever narrative we want.
Wilfred: Yeah, I think cherry-picking is a problem, obviously. Yeah, I think so. But I think there are different levels to this. It is true that there are many negative episodes of American history to put it mildly. And if you’re Black or native, that could lead you to a greater level of hostility toward the country that wouldn’t be common for Whites. Even there, I don’t necessarily think that makes sense. The United States of America basically engaged in slavery and in semi-genocidal war when those were universal human practices. That doesn’t excuse them, but also at a certain level, ultimate morality is probably not real. That’s one of the basic arguments of modern philosophy, you discuss that in the church house. But if you’re talking about the behavior of nations and in particular era of time, you can predict how all nations in that era of time would behave. The great Indian tribes, Mexico, our European rivals, the African coastal states, all behaved as we did in this period. So I think that the basic fact that the USA engaged in conquest when everyone did, the right of conquest wasn’t repealed as law. That was the international rule until 1954. I mean, Haile Selassie had some things to say about that and so on. That doesn’t really cause me any great moral pain.
But nonetheless, you can definitely come up with a negative of American history where you apply modern morality to things that really did happen and say, “Well, that’s bad.” I don’t really know what to do about that, I think that’s a problem in diverse societies. What you really have to do there is sit down and talk and work out what the narrative is going to be going forward. Who writes the history books? But I think the issue with a lot of this is that what we’re talking about that’s causing hostility on the left, and for that matter in the alt right, is storylines that aren’t real at all. The idea that the majority of people believe that between 1,000 and 10,000 unarmed Black men are killed every year by police is a huge cause of racial tensions. But it’s just not true. The total number of people killed every year by the police is a bit under a thousand. Of those, about 250 will be Black, of those, about 17 will be unarmed, of those, about eight will be unarmed and shot by White cops. That’s the real issue. So I definitely think it’s hard to get through siloing and get everyone to the table but I think that the prevalence of bullshit in our society makes that more difficult. Many people believe things that just are not true. And this is true on the right as well. Apparently there’s a widespread belief that immigrants have a higher crime rate than American groups like Southern Whites or Blacks, and that’s not true at all. So I think that a first step would be to try to use media and academia to say things that are essentially correct. And you can pick a narrative from among the correct things, but that gives you considerably less range to go crazy than the ability to pick a narrative from any set of real or made-up facts ever would have.
Zach: One thing I was curious about was your teaching at Kentucky State University, which is a historically Black college, and I was just curious what kind of reaction responses does your work get in that environment.
Wilfred: Well, I’m asked that constantly and I think people have an image of kind of Peter Boghossian at Portland where people are throwing explosives at the door and so on. No. Actually, I haven’t had that reaction. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m seen as a cool guy. I consider myself kind of nerdy but I’ll go to the gym, play basketball, run laps. I golf a bit. I get along with my colleagues, my colleagues are genuinely pretty nice. I don’t know if it’s because there’s a broader range of thought that’s acceptable in successful Black institutions. Again, Kentucky State is a state university. Again, top couple hundred college, pretty good educational value, good college. But almost all of the leadership team is Black. The most recent president, Chris Brown, the guy who hired me into my executive role focusing on teaching, that was a strong Black man, his replacement as president has been. So if you’ve got an executive council that’s entirely Black guys who are probably worth in the low seven figures, it’s a little harder to blame the White man for things. So the fact that two or three of the Black guys in the room will be Republicans or Libertarians, that’s not really taken as bizarre at all. The people that are most frenzied about this kind of thing in my experience are purple-haired Antifa White girls. And I think there’s a lot there. Do many of those people come from families that they view as guilty of historical sin? Is there a sense of youthful rebellion? Probably. And you don’t get any of that with a 55-year-old Jamaican-American college president.
So, I haven’t seen a lot of issues maybe because I’m socially normal, which is not universal among academics, maybe because I’m in a Black school so I’m considered like a somewhat heterodox Black executive, as versus being a White standout in a White institution that’s far left. But I think another thing is also just that most people aren’t that crazy. When we talk about higher education, we tend to talk about a few bespoke schools that no one really attends like Brown University and the Claremont Colleges, these are great schools. But I mean, small student bodies even relative to Northern Kentucky, generally coastal locations. And I’m pretty sure that if you went to the Claremont Colleges and you’re a moderate Republican, you’d have a lot of issues. But it’s worth remembering that there’s a whole heartland of these institutions. Like all of the historically Black colleges, there are I think 137, I don’t want to get that figure wrong. But I mean, all of the A&Ms like Texas A&M, Florida A&M, the agricultural and mechanicals which are designed to teach the country’s best engineers, very STEM focus, all the military academies going beyond West Point to the Citadel and so on, all the community colleges, I mean, that’s where a lot of bright young people that don’t want to put up with full campus drama end up making a solid 60 a year go into the conferences. So I think if you’re in any of those settings, you’re probably experiencing a lot less of the craziness than you’d be experiencing at… What’s the joking school in Animal House?
Zach: I can’t remember.
Wilfred: Let’s call it Mary Shelley university. If you go to Mary Shelley University and teach in the humanities, it’s like anything else. It’s like joining the Marines, you’re going to be surrounded by a bunch of aggressive male bros. If you go into that environment as a conservative, you should really reconsider what a social fit that’s going to be for you. But going into certainly the coaching side of academia, but more specifically going into academia itself in any of the five categories of colleges I just gave, I don’t necessarily think that’s going to have the same level of intense pressure. Someone might ask you as part of a 200-page application to write a six-sentence diversity statement. That’s about the level that we’re talking about here.
Zach: All right, this has been great. Well, thanks for coming on. I appreciate your time.
Wilfred: Sure. Thanks for having me.
Zach: That was Wilfred Reilly, author of the book Hate Crime Hoax and the book Taboo. If you want some links to resources discussed in this podcast, including Wilfred’s books, you can check out the entry for this episode at my site behavior-podcast.com. This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, I hope you’ll check out some of the other political polarization-related episodes in the back catalog. You can find a link to all the politics-related episodes on my site www.behavior-podcast.com.
And just a reminder you can subscribe to this podcast at www.behavior-podcast.com/premium.
Thanks for your time and interest.