By Kristen Clarke and Vanita Gupta
Editor’s note: Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Vanita Gupta is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
(CNN) — With hate crimes increasing in the past year throughout the country, too many Americans are fearful they will become the next target of violence simply based on their race, religion, gender, disability, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.
While President Donald Trump’s new nominee to be the next director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Christopher Wray, will no doubt face questions during Wednesday morning’s hearing about how he plans to address matters of national security, Americans also deserve to know how he will ensure that the FBI prioritizes civil rights enforcement and will investigate hate crimes.
Hateful rhetoric and the violence inspired by such rhetoric makes us less safe. Those that carry out hate crimes seek to tear communities apart. This occurred recently in the city of Portland, Oregon, when a man started hurling virulent anti-Muslim words of hate at two teenage girls, including one teen who wore a hijab. When a few brave observers stepped in to help the young women, two were killed and another seriously wounded. This tragedy rocked the city of Portland and the entire nation.
In recent months, white supremacists and others filled with hate toward people they perceive to be different have been newly emboldened, and their actions have brought pain to and instilled fear among many. This past weekend, white supremacists marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of Confederate statues in the city. The Southern Poverty Law Center has said the number of hate groups across the country has increased in the past year and is growing to “near-historic highs,” while the FBI reported a rise in hate crimes in 2015.
The spike in hate groups and hate incidents makes clear that we must combat the root causes of these crimes. But we cannot stop there. Victims, survivors, and witnesses need support — from law enforcement, and from service providers. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, immediate crisis intervention is crucial for victims who have been the target of a hate crime. Without this support, victims can experience nightmares, flashbacks, and even memory problems that can interfere with their health, ability to work, and ability to support their family.
Inspired by the work done to combat hate across the country, 19 national nonprofit civil rights and legal organizations joined to launch Communities Against Hate in March. This initiative provides a way for survivors and witnesses of hate incidents to document their stories. It also connects individuals in communities across the country to the critical support systems they need as they face the uptick in hate. The initiative offers access to legal resources and social services to support victims of hate incidents. It includes a resource hotline (1-844-9-NO-HATE) with a focus on serving the needs of organizations working to combat hate incidents in their respective communities.
While we are proud to join that effort through the Communities Against Hate initiative, we also need to see real leadership at the federal level. That begins with the consideration of Trump’s FBI director nominee. This week, Senators must ask Wray how the bureau will prioritize combating hate crimes and whether he will publicly condemn the scapegoating and demonizing of immigrants, religious minorities, and other groups historically targeted by hate violence. Wray must also answer whether he will ensure the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit and agents across the country have sufficient resources and support to thoroughly investigate hate crimes.
The spirit of community and of fairness that prompted three brave men to act in Portland must not be forgotten. We must all join together to stand against hate. We must ensure that the new Director of the FBI is prepared to lead an agency dedicated to fully investigating hate crimes and the domestic terrorism of white supremacist groups.
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