The Chapel Hill Murders & Hate Crimes

In this post, Mediha Din explores what a hate crime is, types of hate crimes, and sociological explanations of prejudice.

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha
Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

On the evening of February 10th, calls started coming in to police of shots fired in a neighborhood just off of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. When police arrived, Craig Stephen Hicks was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (all of whom were Muslim Americans). Police believe Hicks was angry about an on-going parking dispute. The victims’ family members however, feel that the murders should be investigated as a hate crime. According to CNN, Craig Hicks has a history of parking disputes with neighbors. He also allegedly identified himself on Facebook as an atheist and ridiculed different religions, including Christianity and Islam.

From a sociological point of view, a hate crime is an unlawful act of violence motivated by prejudice or bias. It is a crime that in whole or in part is connected to hatred of a particular group. According to the FBI, a hate crime is “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias.” The bias can be based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or other factors.  If a crime is determined to be a hate crime, the punishment can be more severe. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, explains that it can be difficult to prove a hate crime because there is often no evidence of a criminal’s motive or state of mind. Potok also notes that not all states have laws protecting the same groups from hate crimes. Some states for example, do not prosecute a hate crime based on sexual orientation.

Why Do People Commit Hate Crimes?

Motivations for hate crimes can vary, but they are often categorized into three groups using a typology created by Levin and McDevitt (1993) that has since been expanded (e.g. McDevitt, Levin, and Bennett 2002).

  1. Thrill Hate Crimes (offenders attack victims for the “fun of it”).
    Example: In 2011 Daryl Dedmon, a teenager from Mississippi, admitted that he and a group of his white friends were at a party when he suggested they find a black man to harass. The teens drove to the town of Jackson because of its majority African-American population where they found James Craig Anderson, a 49 year old African American man, who they viciously beat before they ran him over with a truck. Prosecutors stated that Dedmon and others had targeted African-Americans for harassment previously, usually preying on homeless or drunk people who weren’t likely to report the attacks to the police.
  2. Defensive Hate Crimes (offenders attack victims to send a message).
    Example: Hate crimes against Middle-Eastern Americans (and Sikh Americans mistaken for Muslims) post 9/11. According to Southern Poverty Law, hate crimes directed at Muslims and Arabs shot up by more than 1,600% immediately after the Al Qaeda attacks. On September 12, 2001 in Huntington, New York, a 75-year-old man attempted to run over a Pakistani woman in the parking lot of a shopping mall. The man then followed the woman into a store and threatened to kill her for “destroying my country,” according to police reports.
  3. Mission Hate Crimes (offenders have committed their lives to bigotry).
    Example: The klu klux klan and terrorist groups. Active chapters of the Ku Klux Klan still exist in in 41 U.S. states, with between 5,000 and 8,000 active members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Frazier Glenn Miller, founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina . He is charged with capital murder for killing three people in April 2014 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kansas. ABC News reports that an arresting police officer testified that Miller yelled “Heil Hitler!” after asking how many Jews he had killed.

Prejudice Theories & Hate Crime

We can also use four sociological explanations of prejudice to analyze hate crimes. Cultural Transmission Theory, Group Identification Theory, Personality Theory, and Frustration Aggression Hypothesis, all attempt to explain prejudice and discriminatory behavior.

Cultural Transmission Theory: states that prejudice is transmitted through culture from generation to generation through family, peers, and media. Children learn stereotypes from their surroundings and grow up with prejudice.

Group Identification Theory: states that prejudices are tied in with an individual’s group memberships. According to this theory, groups come together based on common backgrounds and interests, but pride in their own group can become excessive.

Personality theory: states that those with authoritarian personalities have higher tendencies of holding prejudice beliefs.  This includes people with very rigid views, those who are uncritical of authority, preoccupied with power, or raised by excessively harsh parents. Their close-minded characteristics can lead to intolerant views of other groups.

Frustration-aggression hypothesis: states that prejudices develop in response to a person’s need to cope with the frustration in their daily lives. Certain groups can become scapegoats for an individual’s frustrations in life.

The Case Against Craig Hicks

In the case of Craig Hicks, police in North Carolina have searched Hicks’ computer but do not believe they have sufficient evidence to prove a hate crime. On what is believed to be Hicks’ Facebook page, an unverified post that has been attributed to him states “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I.”

The father of two of the victims believes his daughters’ hijabs (head scarves that would likely identify them as Muslims) fueled the dispute. “Daddy, I think he hates us for who we are,” Abu-Salha said his daughter Yusor Mohammad had told him after moving into the condominium complex. According to CNN, Deah’s Barakat’s brother, Farris Barakat, said Hicks had repeatedly harassed Deah about parking rules. Deah checked with the condo office more than once, and was assured Deah was following the rules. “They gave him the clear and said, ‘If Mr. Hicks bothers you again, please call the police.’” Hicks has yet to be charged with a hate crime, but the prosecution has made it clear they will seek the death penalty.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Read the details about the crime in Chapel Hill here. Which of the four sociological explanations of prejudice discussed above do you think best applies to the Chapel Hill case if any? Explain why, include details from the article to support your ideas.
  2. View the link to see a map of the United States hate crime provisions. Click on California, Wyoming, and Georgia. Which of these has the most and least protection? Click on the state you live in (if it is not one of those three) to find out which categories of hate crimes have legal protection where you live. What do you think about the protection the law offers in your state?
  3. Read the CNN article “When Is A Crime A Hate Crime?” What are three points made in the article that stand out to you? Do you think the Chapel Hill attack could be a hate crime? Why or why not?
  4. Find a news article about a recent crime in the news that is reported as a hate crime. Summarize the crime (who, what, where, when). Which type of hate crime would you categorize it as (Thrill Hate Crime, Defensive Hate Crime, Mission Hate Crime)? Explain your thinking.


  • Levin, Jack and Jack MacDevitt. 1993. Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed. New York: Springer.
  • McDevitt, Jack, Jack Levin, and Susan Bennett. 2002. “Hate Crime Offenders: An Expanded Typology.” Journal of Social Issues 58(2):303–17.