RICHMOND, Va. -- A mass shooting in Buffalo, New York brought renewed attention to a concerning trend seen across the United States: a rise in hate crimes.
The pattern has impacted Virginia too, causing some people in Richmond's Black community to be on high alert.
"This is sad for our country. It shows you where we really are," James "JJ" Minor, President of the Richmond NAACP, said.
After ten Black people were shot and killed at a Buffalo grocery store in what authorities labeled a "racially-motivated hate crime," Minor said he's sorting through feelings of anger and devastation.
“It shows you that hate still exists. Racism still exists," Minor said. "White supremacy is here, and these folks who are doing some of the acts, the government really should be focusing on them. They are the terrorists in our country.”
Dr. Will Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice and homeland security at Virginia Commonwealth University, said violence committed by extremists has been rising for the past three to four years.
“The far-right extremist threat is the biggest threat in the United States by a huge margin," Pelfrey said.
He explained there's a difference between far-right extremism and violent far-right extremism in that the latter is a combination of ideology and act.
“Those actions often revolve around perpetration of violence among people who are not a clear threat," Pelfrey said. "They’re people at a shopping mall, they’re people at a church, people at a mosque, people at a grocery store in Buffalo.”
Hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, and ancestry have risen across the Commonwealth from 85 statewide incidents in 2018 to 123 in 2020, an increase of 44.7%, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Dr. Pelfrey said the trend was hard to single-handedly explain, but said many perpetrators are self-radicalized.
"That path usually has a series of steps where you find an ideology that appeals to you, and you also use it as a rationalization for committing bad acts," he said. "And that rationalization usually works around your own disenfranchisement. You are on the fringe, you're a member of a group that wants you because you hate other people. That group membership, either perceived or actual, gives you validation."
However, Pelfrey explained combating extremist ideology remains a challenge for law enforcement for two main reasons:
- It's so widespread on the internet.
- Freedom of speech.
“There's a counterintelligence movement that America has done really poorly," Pelfrey said. "There's no successful active campaign against them. We just accept that some people are going to find it and some people are going to read it and some small portion of those people are going to be empowered by it enough to go out and commit a violent act.”
Meanwhile, Minor said the tragedy in Buffalo served as a reminder to the Black community to be aware of their surroundings.
“Watch where you are. When you get in a car, watch yourself. When you walk in the street to walk your dog, watch yourself. When you ride a bicycle, watch yourself," Minor said.
But he said he'll continue pushing for a future with less racism and invited the community to help in his mission.
“All of us will have to come together to make a change," Minor said.
He said the NAACP is partnering with other community groups to host a prayer vigil in the coming says to honor the Buffalo victims and participate in a discussion about racism. Details on the event will be released soon.