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Anti-Asian hate incident reports nearly doubled in March, new data says

Among several factors including increased awareness around the issue, the country’s continued opening up as restrictions lifted could have had an impact on the Asian American population, an expert said.
Hate Crime Attacks Targeting Asian-Americans On The Rise
People walk through the streets of Chinatown on March 23, 2021, in New York City.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

New data on anti-Asian hate incidents reveals some startling increases in reports this year.

The reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate released a national report last week, examining incidents that took place over roughly a year during the coronavirus pandemic. It revealed that the number of incidents reported surged from 3,795 to 6,603 in March of this year alone.

Russell Jeung, the group’s co-founder and professor and chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University, told NBC News that among several factors including increased awareness around the issue, the country’s continued opening up as restrictions lifted could have had an impact on the Asian American population.

“What we've always said is that racism could have been dampened because the quarantine has sort of protected us. But now, we've had a year's worth of anger focused on Asians, the year's worth of economic distress, the year’s worth of political rhetoric, vilifying Chinese and Asians,” he said. “And so now that we're beginning to interact and all that anger and fear and racism is getting directed at us more.”

According to the data, which spanned incidents from March 19, 2020, to March 31, 2021, verbal harassment made up the vast majority of reports at 65 percent. Shunning, defined as the “deliberate avoidance of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” was the second most common form of discrimination at 18 percent, while physical assault comprised the third largest category at 13 percent.

The report points to the fact that the apparent spike includes many respondents who submitted incidents from 2020 retroactively. And the shootings at three Atlanta-area spas in March that led to the deaths of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, likely had a significant impact on the people’s understanding of anti-Asian attacks and therefore the reporting of such discrimination, Jeung said.

“We’ve noticed some shifts, and more women and more people are saying gender was a reason for their harassment,” he said. “The Atlanta shootings have highlighted the intersectional attacks on Asian American women.”

He pointed out that a breakdown of the data shows that women made up 65 percent of the reports. And in 22 percent of the overall incidents, gender, language and religion were cited as motivating factors for the incidents.

While previous reports released by Stop AAPI Hate showed businesses as the primary settings for acts of discrimination, the newest numbers reflected a shift toward streets and parks, where 38 percent of incidents, the largest share, took place. Jeung said it further showed how the slow return to normalcy could affect Asian Americans.

“Originally, businesses were the top site of racism, because that's the only place we would interact with people during quarantine — we go out shopping, and then we would interact with people,” he said. “Now we're seeing more incidents in public places like streets and sidewalks. So it seems to me as we come out of the pandemic, everybody is interacting more in the broader public and Asian Americans are experiencing racism there as well as businesses.”

New York and California, with significant Asian American populations, proved to have the highest concentrations of incidents compared with other states at 15 percent and 40 percent respectively. Jeung said that these places have more racially conscious Asian Americans, as well as more journalists in these areas who are more likely to report on the crimes against Asian Americans.

“People may not report as much if you haven't taken ethnic studies and live in Kansas. So that's one factor of why we're getting more reports. On the coasts, you have more Asian Americans who are attuned to and aware of how we're facing discrimination,” he said.

Jeung also noted that in these states, there are many Asian Americans who live in dense, low-income urban areas, that are experiencing high rates of crime in general during the pandemic, which likely corresponds with the higher rates of reporting. In December, Law enforcement reported a 30 percent increase in homicides in Los Angeles, while New York City experienced an almost 40 percent jump from the year before.

Van Tran, a sociologist, previously explained that connections and community building between groups have been negatively affected under the stress of the pandemic, even in diverse cities like New York, something the scholar says is part of the country’s mental health crisis.

"In an environment of fear, mistrust, distrust and anxiety that we have been experiencing over the last year, any moments of conflict often get magnified," he said.

Even when there are interactions between communities, they must be "meaningful contact with those who are seen as equals with each other" to help foster healthy relations and dismantle preconceptions, Tran said. He said communication with Asian Americans often comes in the form of delivery or food service workers, whom many, unfortunately, do not perceive as equals.

While there’s been an increased awareness around anti-Asian incidents, there’s a possibility that the way in which many graphic attacks are circulated could, in part, lead to “copycat” crimes as well as a continuation of these attacks, Jeung fears. He added that it's the media's responsibility to help mitigate such occurrences and instead inspire more unity by including the broader context in which these incidents occur.

“Sadly, some journalists have to grab attention-seeking violent crime that now seems to portray Asians as victims, and others as perpetrators,” he said. “We would appreciate stories that tell more of the context about the individuals and the broader social, underlying factors that lead to a crime or racism.”

Jeung said that there are, in fact, two distinct trends — violence related to the financial and mental burdens of the pandemic and the racist attacks on Asian Americans due to the erroneous association with the group and the virus — that are running concurrently.

He said that while some of the attacks on Asian Americans have been chalked up to the virus and the racist rhetoric around it, those who’ve lived in low-income, denser neighborhoods have always experienced crime. The violence in those areas has been exacerbated by the current conditions, he said.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of demographic data and policy research for the nonprofit AAPI Data, previously said that the combination of financial struggle and opportunity has likely contributed to attacks on Asian Americans. It’s not solely related to racial animus.

“Not everyone reacts to economic deprivation in the same way. And even if someone wants to do something, they might not find the opportunity to do it. So in some ways, Asian elders seem to be softer targets than others for this activity,” he said.

And as shown by the rising homicide statistics, crime has affected not only Asian Americans, but also other groups, Jeung said. Many others in these communities have experienced the effects of economic distress and lack of mental health services, he said. But he said members of the media have been guilty of conflating any crimes involving Asian Americans to anti-Asian racist attacks.

“Asian Americans are part of the victimization of the higher rate of crimes, but it's getting attention, because the broader context of anti-Asian racism makes it a story,” he said. “I'm grateful for the attention, because hopefully, we'll get to the roots of both. … I just want us to be able to address both well and not look for easy fixes, like more policing.”