Since the shooting of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC earlier this month, a string of fires have burned at at least seven Southern churches, most of them predominantly black.
Federal officials have launched investigations into the fires to determine if they are hate crimes. Authorities suspect that natural causes, like lightning, might have caused some. Others are clearly cases of arson, they say.
If any are ultimately deemed to be hate crimes (which is determined by many complicated factors) it would suggest a significant uptick in racially motivated arsons in the American South.
In the South between 2009 and 2013, there were a total four cases of arson against places of worship recorded as hate crimes, according to Fusion’s analysis of the FBI’s most recent data. The database is compiled by the agency through reports filed by local law enforcement. None was deemed to have come from an anti-black motivation.
Three of the South’s reported hate crimes took place in North Carolina, and one took place in South Carolina. Three were recorded as crimes against minor religious groups, and one was driven by an “anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender” bias, according to the FBI’s data.
Across the country during that period, only one arson at a place of worship—against a church in Bakersfield, California, in 2013—was deemed to be burned out of an anti-black bias. In that case, a historically black congregation was the victim of two fires and racist graffiti.
Data shows that Southern California and New York were the capitals of arson aimed at places of worship between 2009 and 2013. California had 19 cases of arson aimed at a place of worship. New York had eight cases, all of which took place in New York City.
Here's the data, seen in a heat map:
In total over that period, there were 53 reported hate crime arsons against places of worship, a category that can include churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.
Minor religions were the most targeted out of any group. Arson attacks against places of worship that had an “anti-other religion” bias made up 22 of the 53 total attacks.
Prior to this year, crimes against many minor religions were tracked with that generic term. For example, the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Michigan, that left six dead is listed by the FBI as being driven by an “anti-other religion” bias. Starting in January of this year, the FBI began specifying crimes against all the major religions identified by the Pew Research Center and the U.S. Census Bureau, including the addition of an “anti-Sikh” bias type that is not reflected in the data Fusion reviewed.
There were 14 arson attacks with anti-Jewish or anti-Protestant biases between 2009 and 2013—seven each. Most of the anti-Semitic attacks took place in New York and New Jersey, while the anti-Protestant crimes happened across the map, from Utah to Oregon and Maryland.
Little is known of the offenders who commit hate crime arsons, as police and witnesses were unable to identify the race of 70 percent of the perpetrators by the time the crimes were reported.
Of those that are known, almost every perpetrator during that period was white. There were only two case in which whites alone were not responsible for the crime: an Asian man who set fire to a building in New York, and a “Group of Multiple Races” that set fire to a building in North Carolina.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.