As any mother who has lost a child knows, there are no words to adequately convey the sense of loss and pain. We spend our lives focused on our children — protecting them, watching them grow into adulthood, celebrating their successes, comforting them during difficult times, and reveling in their drive and passion. We loved our children, and our inability to protect them from the violence that took their lives is not something from which we will ever fully recover. August 12 is a date forever ingrained in both of our memories. It’s when our children, Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer, were murdered in hate crimes — one year apart from each other: Khalid in 2016, on the doorsteps of his family home in Tulsa, Okla.; and Heather in 2017, on a crowded street in Charlottesville, Va. The fates of our children were linked in an additional way. While their murders were prosecuted as hate crimes in court — neither was reported as a hate crime in official government statistics. In the eyes of the government, they were not even data points.
Khalid was shot to death by a next-door neighbor, a man known to law enforcement for his persistent targeting of our family because we are Arab-American. The perpetrator terrorized our family for years and had already resorted to violence, having run me over with his car months earlier. We had no idea he would kill Khalid months later in a rage of hatred one summer afternoon. Just a year passed before hate filled the streets of Charlottesville, when white nationalists descended on the city for a two-day rally. Heather joined friends and fellow peaceful counterprotesters in support of justice and equality. She was walking down a side street when a man purposefully plowed his car into the crowd — a crowd he had targeted because of its racial diversity — killing Heather and wounding many others.
Both murders were prosecuted as hate crimes. In addition to first-degree murder, state hate crime charges were brought in Khalid’s case while Heather’s was prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 — a law that honors two fellow victims of hate-inspired violence. So why weren’t they included in the federal government’s count of hate crimes? Why did these high-profile cases slip through the cracks?
We’ve learned that, under the Hate Crimes Statistics Act (H.C.S.A.) of 1990, the attorney general is required to collect data on hate crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation publishes annual hate crime statistics based on data submitted from state and local law enforcement. In almost every state, law enforcement agencies submit hate crime data to the state government, which then forwards the data to the F.B.I. All of this is done using a standardized reporting system known as the Uniform Crime Reporting (U.C.R.) program, which allows for better analysis across jurisdictions on a national level. To get the best data possible, the F.B.I. provides law enforcement agencies with instructions and guidelines for reporting crimes, including hate crime, through the U.C.R.
Additionally, many states require law enforcement agencies to submit data on hate crimes within their jurisdictions. This is the case in our respective states of Oklahoma and Virginia, and yet the murders of Khalid and Heather were not reported in the F.B.I.’s hate crime statistics. Despite the U.C.R.’s standardized format, the reporting system is complex, and we are still trying to get an answer for exactly how and why the omissions happened.
But we know two things for sure. First, under federal guidelines and the relevant state laws, the murders should have clearly been reported as hate crimes through the U.C.R. If such overt acts of bigoted violence aren’t reportable as hate crimes, it’s hard to imagine what would be. This leads to the second thing we know for sure: These omissions are not the exception, but rather dramatic examples of the chronic underreporting of hate crime in this country. Experts have told us the great majority of hate crimes goes unreported — missing entirely from the data — just like the murders of Khalid and Heather.
While nothing can fill the gaping holes left in our lives, the discovery that Khalid and Heather’s murders were missing from the official data has prompted action among lawmakers to address the well-documented problem of underreporting. In June, the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act was introduced in both houses of Congress. It is bipartisan legislation that would improve the accuracy of federal hate crime statistics while providing state and local authorities with additional resources to prevent, address and respond to hate crime.
We, along with Democrats and Republicans in Congress, are deeply concerned about the increase in hate crime and the accuracy of federal hate crime statistics. A doctor cannot address a disease without an accurate picture of the symptoms and a diagnosis. Accurate data on hate crime informs that diagnosis and sets policy. We need it today more than ever. We did not seek to become advocates or experts on hate crimes. For both of us, tragic incidents on Aug. 12 changed that forever. Today, by advocating for passage of the Khalid Jabara-Heather Heyer NO HATE Act, we are working so that no family has to bear the loss of their child and the realization that a tragic murder was not counted. Congress can join us in this fight against hate by passing this important legislation.