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Citing recent killings in Arkansas, Kansas and the nation’s capital, Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said new hate crimes law were needed to stop what he called “violence masquerading as political activism.”

The attorney general’s call for Congress to act came as a civil rights coalition said there has been a surge in white supremacist activity since the election of the first African-American president and the economic downturn.

“Over the last several weeks, we have witnessed brazen acts of violence committed in places that many would have considered unthinkable,” Holder told the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

He cited separate attacks over a two-week period that killed a young soldier in Little Rock, an abortion provider in Wichita and a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Federal agents and prosecutors already are involved in the local investigations of each attack.

The violence, Holder said, “reminds us of the potential threat posed by violent extremists and the tragedy that ensues when reasoned discourse is replaced by armed confrontation.”

“We will not tolerate murder, or the threat of violence, masquerading as political activism,” he said. “So let me be clear. The Justice Department will use every tool at its disposal to protect the rights ensured under our Constitution.”

Holder said that to stop such violence, Congress should pass an updated version of hate crimes legislation in order to more effectively prosecute those who commit violent attacks based on gender, disability or sexual orientation.

The growing number of hate crimes against Latinos also shows the need for tougher laws, Holder said.

In recent years Republicans, including then-President George W. Bush, have opposed Democratic efforts to expand the hate crimes law, saying it was unnecessary because current laws on the books provide for effective punishment and prosecution.

Separately Tuesday, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund issued a report saying white supremacist activity online spiked after Barack Obama‘s election victory in November, and hate groups now use social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to spread their message.

The report reviewed hate crimes over nearly two decades.

“In the nearly twenty years since the 1990 enactment of the Hate Crime Statistics Act, the number of hate crimes reported has consistently ranged around 7,500 or more annually — that’s nearly one every hour of every day,” the report said.

Hate crime statistics are compiled by the FBI.

The Center reported in February that the number of hate groups had risen by more than 50 percent since 2000, from 602 to 926. It attributed the growth mainly to fears about nonwhite immigration, but said Obama’s election and the downward economy also were factors by early this year.

The report found:

— African-Americans remain by far the most frequent victims of hate crimes. Of the 7,624 hate crime incidents reported nationwide in 2007, the most recent year available, 34 percent were perpetrated against African-Americans.

— In the five years from 2003-2007, the number of hate crimes reported against Hispanics increased nearly 40 percent, from 426 in 2003 to 595 in 2007. Of all hate crimes reported in the United States in 2007, 7.8 percent were committed against Hispanics.

— In 2007, there were 969 reported hate crimes committed against Jews, constituting 12.7 percent of all hate crimes reported and 69 percent of religious bias hate crimes reported.

— Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 2001, the number of hate crimes directed against Arab-Americans, Muslims and Sikhs escalated dramatically. In 2001, those groups were victimized in nearly 5 percent of the total number of hate crimes reported that year, 481 out of 9,730. While the number of reported hate crimes against the groups declined from thepeak of 2001, it remains substantially above pre-2001 levels.

— Reported hate crimes committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation increased in 2007 to 1,265, the highest level in five years. Of all hate crimes reported in 2007, the proportion committed against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals rose to 16.6 percent, also the highest level in five years.

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