A violent assault on a Chinese woman outside a New York City bakery in February made headlines. It sparked pleas for greater awareness of attacks on Asian Americans. It ultimately resulted in an arrest — but not on hate crime charges.
A spate of other incidents targeting Asian Americans has had a multiplicity of effects. Community groups are organizing to bring attention to and guard against animus the Asian American Pacific Islander, or AAPI, community is facing, particularly in the time of the coronavirus, even as experts caution against a rush to call every such incident a “hate crime” under current law. And elected officials are pressing for a federal law to better track these crimes, which can be under-reported by victims wary of dealing with the police.
All the while, the reports of disturbing incidents keep on coming — as do questions of how best to track and tackle them. Long-term solutions are complicated, but non-governmental groups are trying to bridge the gap between what we know about the true scope of the problem and what we don’t.
The nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate launched on March 19, 2020, and has since been on a mission to be the “the leading aggregator of anti-Asian hate incidents,” allowing people to self-report encounters — without involving the police — in 12 Asian languages. Through December 2020, Stop AAPI Hate received more than 2,800 reports of racism and discrimination, with an update coming soon, and just received a grant of $1.4 million from the state of California to continue its work.
The consortium of the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action, and San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department is also a clearinghouse for information about anti-Asian bias, and it advocates for policy changes to bolster civil rights protections. “We’re [also] calling for ethnic studies and education [and] restorative justice,” co-founder and San Francisco State Professor Russell Jeung said, and this stems “from our broader definition of hate incidents.”
Importantly, Stop AAPI Hate’s data shows the vast majority of the reports it received about bias incidents in 2020 involved verbal harassment, shunning, or avoidance — not physical assault. Still, the encounters have real costs, including emotional trauma.
Stop AAPI Hate Co-Founder Manjusha Kulkarni, who’s also executive director of the A3PCON, said that while it’s true that “law enforcement, unfortunately, does not always identify and label crimes that do involve hate as such,” given that 90 percent or more of incidents don’t involve a formal crime, “we want to see better infrastructure created on the civil side.” That can involve everything from reporting to human and civil rights commissions, public education campaigns, and direct people to either nonprofit or government resources to deal with the aftermath of trauma.
“Of the police departments that do participate [in the hate crime reporting program], 89 to 90 percent report zero hate crimes every year,” one expert said. “I do think we need to increase accountability. [Given] the scale of victimization numbers that we see and given the rate of zero hate crimes reported every year from police departments, it’s just hard to reconcile that.”
Asian Americans Advancing Justice is also collecting stories of hate-fueled incidents and making them available to the public online as part of its Stand Against Hatred program. People tell of being taunted to “go back where you came from” or accused of being “diseased.” Many say witnesses did nothing to intervene — a show of disregard that can be as isolating and painful as the incident itself. The accuracy of the stories is not vouched for; one stated goal of the project is “to educate about the environment of hate around the country.”
Among those who think the collection of bias incident data outside of official channels is helpful: Frank Pezzella, associate professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and co-author of “The Measurement of Hate Crimes in America.”
“Hate crimes overall are going up, especially [in] major cities, [and this] is significantly under-reported,” Pezzella said. “When you look at the [federal] Uniform Crime Report [and] then you look at the National Crime Victimization Survey, [you] see this massive difference between one source reporting 8,000 hate crimes a year and other one reporting almost 252,000, of which 100,000 say they actually talked to the police. So either we don’t have hate crimes or we’ve got a systemic problem. I think we have a systemic problem.”
To that end, Pezzella makes it a point to monitor not only anecdotal news accounts, but bias-incident statistics compiled by organized non-governmental sources, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center: Although unofficial, he says, those groups have historically “actually predicted the spikes” in hate crimes against certain demographics. (The Uniform Crime Report for 2020 isn’t yet publicly available; official annual stats for 2019 show 7,314 hate crimes nationally, including 158 anti-Asian incidents.)
Hesitance among minority groups, including because of race and immigration status, is certainly a factor in the undercount of bias incidents, Pezzella said. At the same time, there’s not enough reporting by local law enforcement agencies into central databases that help draw the big picture. Of the roughly 18,000 police departments in the U.S., “only maybe 75 percent even participate in the hate crime reporting program, [so] we start out with a statistical disability — 25 percent are not reporting,” he notes.
“Of the police departments that do participate, 89 to 90 percent report zero hate crimes every year,” he said. “I do think we need to increase accountability. [Given] the scale of victimization numbers that we see and given the rate of zero hate crimes reported every year from police departments, it’s just hard to reconcile that.”
Given the lack of participation and the fact that the Uniform Crime Report — which is annual — provides fairly general information, Pezzella said there’s a shift to use of the National Incident Based Reporting System, “a more refined version of the Uniform Crime Report [that] gives you victim characteristics, offender characteristics, situational characteristics of the crime... With that, I understand, comes a commitment to report hate crimes as well.” (The transition from the UCR to NIBRS reporting, however, is not without controversy.)
Data compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, Santa Barbara, shows hate crimes in many major U.S. cities actually dropped from 2019 to 2020 — but also found an increase in the percentage of anti-Asian crimes. Pezzella said theoretically, it makes sense that crime would be somewhat down because the pandemic has limited how much people are moving around and interacting. At the same time, he said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see AAPIs being scapegoated and targeted by wrongdoers because of rhetoric related to Covid-19 — much, he said, as Muslim Americans were singled out after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Experts say there are a lot of reasons why AAPIs are hesitant to report hate crimes or incidents: concerns about immigration consequences; language barriers to filing a complaint; a sense of shame for having been targeted; or a belief that it’s a waste of time because police are biased or apathetic toward Asians and won’t take reports seriously.
In terms of under-reporting, Michael Alcazar, a Filipino American who retired from the NYPD as a detective after 30 years of service — said it’s commendable that New York police have organized a task force to address anti-AAPI incidents, but more can always be done.
“They should just make the Asian community feel more comfortable about speaking to the police because historically, Asian communities are reluctant to report crime,” said Alcazar, who’s also a member of the John Jay police science faculty. After three decades of policing, he said, “I can count [on] my one hand how many complainants I had that were Asian. That’s crazy. Does that mean crime’s not happening? Of course it’s happening. It’s just not being reported.”
Experts say there are a lot of reasons why AAPIs are hesitant to report hate crimes or incidents. These can include Asian Americans’ concerns about opening themselves up to immigration consequences by approaching authorities; language barriers to filing a complaint; a sense of shame for having been targeted; or a belief that it’s a waste of time because police are biased or apathetic toward Asians and won’t take reports seriously.
In addition to trying to “bridge the gap” with AAPI communities through meetings, hotlines, and other measures to confront those problems, Alcazar said he would also “absolutely deploy more police” in areas where hate crimes are surging: “You would have more omnipresence [to] make the people in the community feel better and the criminals to feel [less] comfortable walking around,” he said. “Bad guys, criminals, [can't] be comfortable walking around with weapons [or] assaulting people.”
Although they’re certainly concerned about violent crime, groups like Stop AAPI Hate to some degree are deemphasizing law enforcement-heavy solutions to the broader issue of anti-Asian bias.
“The education, the civil rights enforcement, the working with businesses [and] government, to me, all come before the better law enforcement,” said Kulkarni of AP3CON.
“I’m just going based on the data: [If] we put law enforcement first, what is that going to change? It’s going to change at best three to five percent of the incidents,” Kulkarni said. “I would put the other things as a priority first and then say, yes, also law enforcement can be trained and better equipped, [but] alongside that, [we] need restorative justice practices. We don’t need more people incarcerated.”