Dec. 29, 2007, 2:24AM
Hate crime statistics show tolerance in Texas, Houston
Incidents were down here in '06, but rose nationally
By CINDY HORSWELL
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Recently released FBI "hate crime" statistics suggest Texas and its largest city, Houston, could be growing more tolerant than many other parts of the country.
While nationally the number of hate crimes climbed in 2006 to the highest number in five years, the FBI reported Texas' hate crimes fell to the lowest level in seven years. At the same time, Houston had the lowest per-capita number of hate crimes of the nation's 10 largest cities, the report showed.
That does not mean that acts of prejudice are nonexistent in the Lone Star State, as evidenced by intimidating nooses being displayed at a refinery in Baytown, an oil field equipment manufacturer in Houston and a high school campus in Pearland this year.
And the League of United Latin American Citizens points to the hate crime last year that ended with the suicide of a Hispanic teen from Spring, who had a swastika carved on his chest and was beaten and sexually assaulted by two attackers screaming "white power!"
The FBI report identified 7,722 crimes in the United States last year, including 245 in Texas, that were motivated by prejudice against race, religion, sexual orientation or a disability.
The numbers represent nearly a 7 percent increase from the year before in the United States, but a 6 percent drop in Texas.
At the same time, the report indicates Latinos in particular are becoming the target of hate crimes nationwide.
The report shows a 35 percent increase in such crimes nationwide in the past four years, as debate over illegal immigration has intensified.
However, in Texas, the number of ethnic hate crimes was actually lower in 2006 than in 2004, the data show.
Many crimes unreported
Yet despite concerns about hate crimes being underreported, a pattern does emerge from the data that suggests a more tolerant attitude in Texas and Houston, said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociology professor who studies Houston trends.
Jack Levin, a sociology professor in Boston who grew up in Houston and wrote one of the first books on hate crimes, agrees.
"Houston has become much more diverse over the decades and seems to be more accustomed and respectful of differences," said Levin.
"Friendships are crossing racial and ethnic lines like never before. The statistics reflect it."
FBI's hate crime authority in Houston, Al Tribble, and the Houston Police Department's hate crime coordinator, Lt. John Silva, say that Houston's and Texas' numbers are low when compared nationally.
"Whether we have more harmony here, I don't know," said Silva.
"But people seem to be used to one another and playing together here."
Houston has been dramatically transformed over the past two decades from a Southern city dominated by white men to one of the most diverse cities in the state, experts say.
Growth laid to immigrants
The percent of Asian residents has grown to 7 percent from 2 percent, while the black population has dipped slightly to 18 percent from 20 percent.
Before the oil bust in 1982, Klineberg said, Houston grew mostly because Anglos moved here from other parts of the United States.
Now, he said, the population is being expanded mainly by immigrants.
Dena Marks, the Anti-Defamation League's associate director in Houston, said it is difficult to quantify why hate crime numbers are the lowest they have been in Texas for the past six years.
"But my own personal observation is that people are not as isolated here," she said. "I think maybe they interact with each other more. They are also more spread out and don't get in each other's way. We're not as concentrated as some other parts of the country."
Carol Galloway, Houston's NAACP president, notes that Houston has been historically more tolerant than other large metropolitan areas.
"During the civil rights movement, we did not have the big race riots that others did,"she said.
The 2006 FBI hate crime data shows Houston — Texas' largest city with 2.07 million people — reported 20 hate crimes. This is much less than other Texas cities that are 40 percent smaller than Houston, such as Dallas, which recorded 39 hate crimes, or San Antonio, with 28.
The report also showed Northern states were often recording the most hate crimes.
The Southern Poverty Law Center blames the "raging" national debate over immigration for the rise in Latino hate crimes nationally.
"We're seeing a rising hatred for immigrants and expect that trend to continue," said Heidi Beirich, the center's spokeswoman, "because of Congress' failure to pass any comprehensive immigration reform."