By Marshall Wong 黄道正
Editor’s note: Understanding of volatile issues—such as anti-Asian hate crime—must be driven by factualdata. Marshall Wong is an administrator with the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. He is the Commission’s Hate Crime Coordinator and principal author of the agency’s annual Hate Crime Report. Wong has an MSW from UCLA, and author of GSJ’s special tribute to Judge Delbert Wong, his father. Special thanks to Stan Yogi for his help on this article.
Anti-Chinese Rhetoric and Propaganda Enflames Hatred
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a wave of harassment and violent attacks on Asian Americans spread across the nation, fueled, in part, by former President Trump blaming China for the disease and repeatedly using terms like “China virus” and “Kung Flu.”
After elected officials and Asian Pacific American leaders chastised Trump about the consequences of his rhetoric, he denied his statements were inflammatory and continued to use scapegoating language. Blaming the COVID crisis on Chinese was part of Trump’s anti-Chinese demagoguery. Prior to the pandemic, Trump had bashed the Chinese government over trade. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he attacked Joe Biden Jr. as soft on China.
Throughout the pandemic, other leaders joined former President Trump in spreading bigoted conspiracy theories. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, for example, embraced the idea that Chinese scientists developed the coronavirus as a biowarfare weapon. Then White House trade advisor, Peter Navarro, accused China of sending “hundreds of thousands” of their citizens abroad to “seed” the virus around the world. In addition, videos went viral depicting various Asians eating bat soup. These fed the belief that Chinese people are barbaric because they consume insects, rodents and snakes and that caused coronavirus.
Amid tragedy, fear, anxiety and anger, deeper questions demand to be answered: Where do Asian Americans fit in America’s racial hierarchy? Do Asian Americans view themselves as people of color with much in common with other racial minority groups or as persons who identify as similar to White Americans or are “White adjacent”?
Polls have shown that in 2021, one in three Asian Pacific Americans report being fearful for their safety. Asian Americans express fear of going outside at night. Asian Americans have urged their parents to stop taking walks, or have bought pepper spray and tasers for them. Cases of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed.
What National Data Show
It is important to note that official records for the number of hate crimes in any given year are probably just the tip of the iceberg. The Department of Justice estimates that only half of hate crime victims report the crimes to police. Many factors, such as a victim’s fear of retaliation, cultural and linguistic isolation, immigration status, unfamiliarity with the law, and mistrust of law enforcement prevent people from reporting hate crimes to the authorities.
Institutional factors—such as lack of training for police, and pressures for a school, city, or region to not be seen as a hotbed of hate crime—contribute to an undercounting of hate crimes. Although the FBI requests hate crime data from every law enforcement agency in the country, 85 percent do not reply or report they have had no hate crimes.
To obtain more accurate data on anti-Asian hate crimes, several community-based organizations collaborated to launch a website, Stop AAPI Hate, in March 2020. Between 19 March 2020 and 30 June 2021, 9,081 incidents of anti-Asian hate were reported to Stop AAPI Hate. The most common types of occurrences were verbal harassment (63.7%) and shunning (16.5%).16 But physical assaults constituted 13.7% of the total. By far, Chinese Americans were targeted most frequently (43.5%), followed by Koreans (16.8%), Filipinos (9.1%), Japanese (8.6%), and Vietnamese (8.2%).
California, which has the largest population of Asian Americans, reported the largest number of incidents (38.6%), followed by New York (16%), Washington (4.9%), Texas (3.6%), and Illinois (3.3%).
California and Los Angeles County Statistics
The Office of the California State Attorney General documented that anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 more than doubled over 2019, from 43 to 89. The Attorney General’s report also showed that the rate of violence in anti-Asian crimes steadily rose between 2016 and 2019.
The Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations documented that reported anti-Asian hate crimes rose 76% in 2020 over 2019, from 25 to 44 cases. This is the largest number since 2001, when there were 80 anti- Asian racial hate crimes, of which 38 took place after the September 11th terrorist attacks and whose victims were mostly South Asian.17
In about a third of the crimes, perpetrators used specifically anti-Chinese slurs, followed by crimes using language targeting Japanese (9%) and Indians (9%). In the remainder of the anti-Asian crimes, no specific ethnic group was singled out. Specific anti-immigrant slurs (e.g. “Go back to where you’re from”) were used in 11 (25%) of the anti-Asian hate crimes. This percentage is similar to the previous year. In ten of the anti-Asian crimes (23%), the suspects explicitly blamed the victims for COVID-19. It is impossible to know if more suspects held such views but did not verbalize them. Fifty-nine percent of the victims were male and 41% were female. The previous year only 29% of victims were female. In 2020, female victims tripled from five to 15. The ages of the victims were identified in 34 of the cases. The median age of victims jumped from 30 in 2019 to 41 in 2020. Half of the victims were over 40, including two senior citizens. The previous year, no victims were older than 40.
The most frequent criminal offense was simple assault (45%), followed by intimidation (20%), vandalism (16%), aggravated assault (9%), disorderly conduct (7%), and a single case of robbery. The distribution of criminal offenses was very similar to the previous year. The rate of violence was 77% compared to 76% the previous year, and up from 58% in 2018.
In cases in which a suspect was identified, 42% were White, followed by Latinos (36%) and African Americans (19%). There was a lone crime in which the suspect was an Asian man who asked the victim if she was Indian and then snatched the hijab off her head. The previous year the largest number of suspects in anti-Asian crimes were Latinos (42%), followed by Whites (32%), and Blacks (26%). This is significant because nationally, there has been speculation that African Americans were most frequently suspects in anti-Asian crimes. This has been a particularly painful topic for many Asian American and other civil rights leaders because discussions of tensions between Asian Pacific Americans and African Americans might impede their desires to build solidarity among communities of color and revisit difficult chapters when intergroup tensions erupted, such as the during the L.A. Riots of 1992 and the current debate about affirmative action in college admissions which has deeply divided many Asian Americans.
In response to the wave of anti-Asian violence, protesters took to the streets in cities across the country. The protests involved people of different ages and ethnicities, including many non-Asian supporters. There has also been unprecedented media coverage of acts of anti-Asian hate. Government agencies, corporations, and foundations have made grants to Asian American community-based organizations working to combat anti-Asian hate. At a grassroots level, on-line fundraising campaigns to assist victims of anti-Asian hate crimes as well as civil rights organizations documenting and combatting hate crimes proliferated. In one example, after a 75-year old Chinese grandmother was punched in the face in San Francisco, a GoFundMe drive raised more than $1 million. The victim announced that she would donate all of the money to Asian American organizations that combat racism.
Federal Government Responses
In an unusual demonstration of bipartisan agreement, Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act (Public Law No. 117-13, May 2021). The law directs the Office of the U.S. Attorney General to:
• Designate an officer to expedite the review of hate crimes. • Provide guidance to local law enforcement agencies on how to (a) accept online reports from hate crime victims, (b) collect data disaggregated by ethnicity, and (c) expand public awareness campaigns about hate crimes.
• Make grants to state and local governments to train personnel to identify and classify hate crimes for inclusion in the National Incident Reporting System and to establish hate crime hotlines.
• Encourage courts to consider alternative sentencing for hate crime offenders that could include taking classes about the impact of bias motivated offenses or performing community service as conditions of their release.
A common question today is what can be done to stop this wave of hatred, besides protesting in the streets? No one has the magic answer. What follows is a compilation of common proposed solutions, some of which are controversial and have divided anti-hate crime advocates and the larger society.
• Make reporting hate crimes to the U.S. Department of Justice mandatory, not voluntary. Proponents of this strategy argue that more robust data will provide a more accurate and complete portrait of hate crimes nationally.
• Enact stricter gun control laws, such as waiting periods and background checks. Especially in the aftermath of the Atlanta area Asian spa serial homicides, some Asian American advocates have joined the chorus of other voices, worried that it is too easy for persons who are mentally ill to purchase lethal weapons. On the other hand, instead of gun control, some Asian Americans believe that armed self-defense is needed. The National Shooting Sports Foundation conducted a survey of retailers and found that during the first half of 2020 gun sales to Asian Americans rose 43%. One Asian American website referred to the Second Amendment as the community’s “best friend.”
• Multicultural education/ethnic studies requirements. There is both growing support for and organized opposition to making ethnic studies courses mandatory. In August 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB1460 requiring students of the California State University system to take at least one ethnic studies course. Weeks later, he vetoed a similar requirement for public high school students, claiming reservations about the model curriculum that had been developed. Some criticized the curriculum for not including the history of Jews and people of Middle Eastern descent, while others regard ethnic studies as inherently racist against White people.
• Provide extra patrols of neighborhoods where attacks have occurred. Some Asian American activists oppose policing, fearing it will lead to increased racial profiling of African Americans and Latinos. Others consider it completely reasonable to ask for greater protection for Chinatowns and other vulnerable communities in the same way that colleges increase night patrols after sexual assaults on campus.
• Install signs on public transportation and key locations that security cameras are activated and hate crime perpetrators will be prosecuted. Many cities have promoted public service messages on buses and subways that promote appreciation for cultural diversity, inclusion, and respect for differences. Others wonder whether these messages discourage the actions of bigots, and if it would be more effective to publicly communicate the consequences for hate crimes and intolerant behavior. There is a small but vocal number of Asian Americans who oppose any cooperation with law enforcement and argue that prosecuting hate crime offenders does not address the roots of racism. They believe that convicting and punishing offenders is part of the prison industrial complex.
• Provide alternative sentencing/restorative justice programs for low-level offenders to discourage re-offending. This has become a popular goal for many who desire rehabilitation over incarceration. However, there is a scarcity of data to confirm that offenders who undergo classes or other forms of education or perform community service are less likely to re-offend than persons who go to jail.
• Monitor social media and demand that hateful messages be removed immediately. Some believe that over time, public hate speech gives permission to haters to not just express their intolerant views, but to act on them, with horrific consequences. This proposal raises red flags for First Amendment absolutists who believe that such actions amount to censorship and endanger freedom of speech. Others believe that it is virtually impossible to wipe hate speech from on-line platforms and it will simply reappear elsewhere.
• Investigate organizations that use algorithms to promote White supremacist and anti-immigrant content. Again, while many fear that extremist beliefs are being fomented by disinformation campaigns, some are skeptical that in the information age this can be controlled.
• Improve training of law enforcement. Law enforcement training most often focusses on how to identify and classify hate-motivated offenses. Some training provide an understanding of the larger statistical profile of hate crimes and how to build trust with victimized communities. In rarer arenas, curricula address how to interview and communicate with hate crime victims and witnesses with cultural sensitivity and compassion. As mentioned earlier, some Asian American activists view law enforcement as an institution that cannot be reformed and oppose any strategies that include policing.
• Increase public education about hate crime. The divisions occur over what is the message and who is the messenger. Traditionally, governmental messages express outrage about bias-motivated offenses, encourage the public to report hate crimes, and promise serious punishment for the perpetrators. Others believe that law enforcement agencies themselves are guilty of committing hate crimes and should not be trusted. There are others who seek a middle-ground.
• Fund Asian American community-based organizations to conduct educational campaigns and assist victims of hate crime. Since the inception of the pandemic-era upsurge in anti-Asian hate, funders from many sectors have provided support to API nonprofit organizations. Their work has primarily focused on increasing reporting of hate crimes, linking victims with services and promoting positive messages about multiculturalism. Some advocate funding programs that intentionally promote greater coalition-building among diverse communities fighting for common goals (e.g. voting rights, immigration reform, organizing for the rights of low-wage workers) that would spark deeper connections and solidarity.
• Train Asian Americans and allies how to how to intervene without placing themselves in danger. Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a national consortium of civil rights legal advocacy groups, has been training thousands of people how to intervene. Again, a small number of Asian Americans would support interrupting racial harassment but would oppose calling 911.
• Volunteer to accompany senior citizens or engage in community patrols. A successful example of this occurred In Orange County where a Chinese immigrant family was being harassed by local youth who vandalized their home and woke them up in the middle of the night. A group of their neighbors organized patrol shifts all night long to discourage this malicious behavior. Some people wonder if this model be replicated and sustained on a volunteer basis.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in unprecedented death, economic ruin, and suffering worldwide. The wave of anti-Asian hate crimes, acts of discrimination, and non-criminal expressions of bigotry have been nothing less than acts of domestic terrorism. But in the midst of such tragedy, there is also hope and opportunity. Pandemic-motivated hate has sparked a new generation of Asian Pacific Islander activists of diverse ethnicities, ages, and walks of life. Tens of thousands of other people, perhaps more, have been moved to act in solidarity with Asian Americans. The #StopAsianHate movement has also been a decisive step in dismantling the persistent and insidious model minority stereotype that Asian Americans have overcome their minority status through education and hard work, and no longer face racism or other obstacles.
History has taught us that movement-building is messy. Asian Americans continue to debate among ourselves and with others about the appropriate demands, strategies, tactics, and forms of organization to effectively combat institutional and individual racism. But the very fact that so many people are debating and are engaged is perhaps the greatest reason for hope during these dark times. In the future, we may look back on this difficult period as the birthplace of a new, invigorated upsurge of Asian Pacific American courage, compassion, and camaraderie.
16 “Shunning” implies avoidance or isolation based on race. For example, to avoid contact with an Asian, someone may leave an elevator, move their seat, or cross the street.
17 Following the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks in 2001, there was a nation-wide backlash against Muslims, people of Middle Eastern descent, and “people who looked like the enemy”. In Los Angeles County, nearly a quarter of the victims were South Asian. It was the worst year by far in terms of Asian American hate crime victimization in L.A. County.