By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) - The number of victims in anti-Latino or Hispanic hate crimes rose over 21% in 2018, the FBI reported on Tuesday, and attacks overall are increasingly targeting people instead of property.
The data coincides with an ongoing debate over U.S. President Donald Trump's hardline immigration policies and follows the August mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, when the suspected gunman told police he was targeting Mexicans.
"We're seeing the swapping of one derided group in the social-political arena for another," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "Attacks against Muslims peaked around 2016 when terrorism was the concern. Now immigration is the No. 1 issue and Latinos are being targeted."
There were 671 victims in anti-Latino or Hispanic incidents in 2018, compared with 552 the year before, the FBI said in its annual Hate Crime Statistics report.
Janet Murguía, head of the Washington-based Latino civil rights organisation UnidosUS, said Trump carries some responsibility for that increase.
"President Trump frequently refers to Latinos in the most hateful and bigoted ways, and words matter," she said. "Having just visited El Paso and hearing first-hand from the victims of the tragic shooting there, I know that hateful words have hateful consequences, and can result in violence and even death."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The FBI said that hate crimes overall fell slightly in 2018 after three years of increases, with 7,120 reported incidents. The agency did not offer a reason for the decrease.
But the 0.77% drop in incidents roughly matches the percentage decrease in the number of police departments that voluntarily sent data to the FBI in 2018.
"DEMOCRATIZATION OF HATE"
Hate crimes targeting blacks dropped to the lowest share since the FBI began publishing the data in 1992, with incidents involving anti-black bias comprising 27% of the total.
That is down from a peak in 1996 when anti-black crimes were 42% of reported incidents.
"We're having a democratization of hate," Levin said. "There is a reshuffling in who is being targeted."
That worries experts who fear attacks will rise this year ahead of a heated presidential election in 2020, and that attacks will increasingly target people and not property in the form of vandalism or other damage.
The latest FBI data shows an 11.7% rise last year in the number of hate crimes that involved the physical or verbal assault of a person, and the number of hate-crime homicides hit its highest level yet at 24 murder victims.
The FBI report showed whites made up 53.6% of the known criminals who carried out the attacks. That is an increase of nearly 3 percentage points. The percent of blacks carrying out the crimes rose, too, jumping by 2.7 percentage points.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)