As a persistent crisis within a crisis, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have been the targets of nearly unimaginable amounts of discrimination worldwide since the onset of COVID-19. The initial exponential rise in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) -related hate crimes, in America especially, has ceased remediation over the course of this last year, and may have gotten worse. In these last few weeks alone, reports of the cruelties occurring primarily in major cities not only seem more frequent in themselves, but maintain the picture of rampant, countrywide fear and suspicion surrounding those of Asian descent. Although the continuous escalation of this hateful situation may actually just be a mirage of various, mutually reinforcing factors, the ever-culminating records of abuse can just as easily reflect that it’s not. Despite the frequency and severity of these attacks, many of them have not been designated as “hate crimes’’ in accordance with the term’s legally codified understanding, in which reports of acts that don’t lead to criminal convictions remain functionally ignored. While our government has taken some strides in trying to correct this lethal development for such a substantial portion of the population, the actions may do little to influence the less visible anti-Asian sentiments ingrained in much of our societal, cultural and individual biases.
To better contextualize this far-reaching and targeted change in American criminality, studies have found that in comparison to anti-Asian offenses reported in 2019, official reports to state and federal authorities as well as “unofficial” ones to independent reporting centers have all increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic. Not too long ago, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino released a report which documented the changes in hate crime patterns across 16 of America’s largest cities from 2019 to 2020. Between the cities analyzed, the Center found that the total percentage of anti-Asian hate crimes rose 149 percent in the span of a year, as the number jumped from 49 documented cases in 2019 to 122 cases in 2020. In certain areas like Philadelphia, Boston and certain parts of California like Los Angeles and San Jose, the specific number of incidents reported to police more than doubled. In New York City, the amount of Asian-specific hate crimes in 2020 was over nine times that of 2019. The Center additionally discovered that the increase in hate crimes against Asian individuals in 2020 coincides with a comprehensive decrease in the total amount of hate crimes reported against all groups in 2019. Put differently, as the amount of Asian-specific hate crimes were skyrocketing, the overall percentage of hate crimes reported in America’s 16 largest cities dropped 7 percent in 2020, from 1,845 cases in 2019 to 1,717 in 2020. Essentially, this information highlights the fact that hate crimes, along with similar tactics of intimidation and discrimination, are systematically targeting those of Asian descent in contemporary America.
To extend statistical observation to 2021 as well, a nonprofit organization called Stop AAPI Hate has been recording, in detail, the incidents continually received by its reporting center over the course of the pandemic. While broadly tracking all cases of discrimination against AAPI in America, the organization has recently published a national report detailing the hate incidents received by its reporting center from the period of March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021. Their findings cover the 3,292 different incident reports received in 2020, with 503 occurring in 2021, for a total of 3,795 discriminatory events reported. Organized along the lines of state divisions, sites and types of discrimination, as well as the ethnicity, gender and age of respondents, there are quite a few discoveries worth mentioning. For one, in regards to which states had the most reported incidents, California trumps the rest with an incredible 1,691 reports, followed by New York with 517, Washington with 158 and Texas with 103. In terms of the site of discrimination, out of all the incidences reported, most occur in businesses at 35.4 percent, followed by public streets and sidewalks at 25.3 percent, as well as online at 10.8 percent. In relation to the types of discrimination reported, the overwhelming majority consists of verbal harassment and name-calling with 68.1 percent, followed by deliberate avoidance and shunning at 20.5 percent and then physical assault at 11.1 percent. Lastly, out of all the respondents, 42.2 percent are Chinese, 68 percent are women and the highest-targeted age group is 26 to 35 years old at 31 percent, although they’re closely trailed by other age groups: 36 to 45 years old (20 percent), 18 to 25 years old (16 percent), 46 to 60 years old (14 percent), 12 to 17 years old (12 percent) and 61 to 75 years old (6 percent). Possibly most jarring are the results related to respondents’ age, as this horrifyingly illuminates the fact that children are no safer than adults when it comes to targeted hate, from ignorance to wholly inescapable attacks.
Despite the extensive information presented by Stop AAPI Hate, thoroughly illustrating the degree of vulnerability Asian populations face in America, the report still emphasizes that the number of hate incidents reported only represent a fraction of those that actually occur. While this situation is partially due to a lack of self-reporting, their information remains valuable nonetheless for its all-inclusive understanding of discrimination, which stands in direct contrast to the government’s narrow application of a hate crime. For general reference, a “hate crime” is a traditional offense with the added element of bias. The FBI specifically defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.” Dually significant and restrictive, this standard definition forwards the notion that hate, even when acted upon in some capacity, is not a crime in and of itself, unless another explicit criminal activity is involved. As a result, all the discrimination, harassment and general racist and hateful acts thrown toward America’s Asian population simply cannot lead to a criminal conviction against the perpetrator, as well as a remedy for their victim(s).
Unfortunately, lately it seems as if even anti-Asian hate crimes involved with added criminal behavior like unwarranted physical assault and great bodily injury may not be correctly designated as such, if even charged at all. Last month in Manhattan’s Chinatown, a 36-year-old Chinese man was walking home when he was abruptly stabbed in the back by a stranger, which put him in critical condition for several days before he stabilized. However, as the 23-year-old perpetrator hadn’t said a word to the victim before the attack, prosecutors claimed there simply wasn’t enough evidence to prove there was a racist motive involved. Though the New York Police Department originally said the attacker would be charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime, court records show no hate crime charges were filed against him. He was ultimately charged with attempted murder, completely separate from a hate crime. The trend of abuse against those of Asian descent has revealed that nothing is an isolated event anymore, and the recent attacks which took the lives of eight people in Georgia, six of whom were Asian women, may only be surprising for its scale of fatality. The event stands as the latest example of both the continued strength of anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic as well as much of the public’s hesitation and authorities above all to call even lethal attacks against the Asian community “racially motivated hate crimes.”
In regards to this latest publicized attack, 21-year-old murderer Robert Aaron Long explicitly denied his motivation is based on racial biases and has instead told officials that the shootings were essentially an effort to curb his “sex addiction.” While Atlanta Police Department has begrudgingly acknowledged that other people have called Long’s actions a hate crime, they’ve continually stressed, along with the other authorities on the case, that they’re still too “early in the investigation” to finalize a motive. As of now, Long has only been charged with eight counts of murder and homicide and one count of aggravated assault. This shooting, along with nearly every other recent attack targeting the Asian population, highlights the difficulties involved in claiming a perpetrator is driven by a racial motive. While always influenced by subjectivities to some extent, without “strong,” tangible evidence, such as witnessed or recorded hateful verbal statements or incriminating social media posts, proof of an attacker’s racial discrimination can be easily denied. More important now than ever, the debate over what legally qualifies as anti-Asian bias is hindered by the multifaceted ambiguity such a bias represents. Aside from slurs and other derogatory phrases, there isn’t a symbol of anti-Asian hatred “comparable to that of a swastika or a noose.” In the words of Lu-in Wang, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, there isn’t a “recognizable prototype” for anti-Asian hate crimes like there is for those “often more clear-cut” attacks on Black, Jewish and LGBTQIA+ lives.
Although the threat posed by anti-Asian hate crimes within America reached widespread recognition almost immediately into the pandemic, it seems as if this situation has progressed in a way that goes beyond mere consistency. While this hate-fueled development may be unwavering in the sense that it’s far from improved today, when looking at the data available, it also seems realistic to say that it’s gotten worse. The truth of its further deterioration can plausibly be related to the influence of former president Donald Trump’s infamous rhetoric on the American public. As he arguably coined the term “China virus,” of course with the help of fellow GOP lawmakers, Trump proceeded to weaponize the narrative from his nearly untouchable presidential position. However, anti-Asian attacks could simply seem to have worsened due to a higher number of older, first-generation immigrants more confidently and frequently reporting hate crimes. As a national standard, many first-generation immigrants, especially older groups, have been found to report their criminal abuses considerably less than younger, successive generations of immigrants. Often faced with tricky language barriers, the incredibly justified fear of having their immigration status questioned or even facing retaliation from the perpetrator, victims of anti-Asian discrimination often stay quiet rather than trying to report a crime. Furthermore, adding to the guise of ever-increasing severity, the media may finally just be giving the wrongdoings committed against Asian populations the attention they’ve always deserved but didn’t receive several months ago.
Ultimately, whether or not the dangers facing Asian immigrants and AAPI in America today are getting worse, it’s an incredibly real and fatal issue continuing to plague our nation. Given that this country has a rich history of xenophobic and particularly anti-Asian discrimination, the present situation is understandable to say the least. Accordingly, modern-day prejudice can be seen as an extension of long-standing biases against the Asian community that have persisted since the first generations of Asian immigrants arrived here. While the hateful rhetoric peddled by higher authorities no doubt added fuel to this fire over the course of the pandemic, it arguably would not, and could not, have had the influence it did without the messages’ ties to powerful myths. This sentiment is echoed by Janelle Wong, an Asian American studies professor at the University of Maryland. She said that despite the contribution the language of political leaders has had, “I don’t think we would have seen the spike in anti-Asian bias without a pretty strong foundation rooted in the ‘forever foreigner’ stereotype.” The “forever foreigner” stereotype Wong referred to, according to Li Zhou for Vox, is a narrative that has been utilized for decades to continually “other” Asian populations and cement a distinction between an “American” and a “foreigner.” The stereotype perpetuates the notion that Asian groups living within America are fundamentally foreign, regardless of their citizenship and birthplace, and can never be fully American no matter what they do.
Traditionally, this ignorant type of thinking has produced profound consequences, influencing everything from the creation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Asian Exclusion Act included in 1924’s Immigration Act and the Japanese “internment” camps deemed necessary during World War II. Despite the evident ethnic distinctions in these acts, many of us already know that they contributed to the racialization of several Asian ethnicities outside these specific targets. As a result, they comprehensively affected all people of Asian descent with their legalized discrimination and sanctioned bias by policymakers and the public alike. Today, however, at least some solace can be taken in the fact that more and more people in power are not only reflecting America’s diverse reality, but understand progressive action must be taken to correct long-standing inequalities. According to NBC News, this year in January, President Biden attempted furthering racial equity by signing a memorandum denouncing the recent discrimination against the AAPI community. The memo is said to be “part of a group of racial equity-focused executive orders, memorandums and actions, and in part issues guidance on how the Justice Department should respond to the heightened number of anti-Asian bias incidents.” Earlier this month, New York State Senate’s Finance Committee passed the Hate Crimes Analysis & Review Act in an effort to improve the state’s ability to monitor and respond to hate crimes, as well as collect and release hate crime data. Specifically, the act would require New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services to “maintain and make public statistical data about hate crimes, while… [offering] a more robust analysis of the hate crimes that are occurring in New York state,” according to the New York State Senate.
Most recently, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was introduced in Congress by Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), which broadly aims to “increase Justice Department oversight of coronavirus-related hate crimes, provide support for state and local law enforcement agencies and make hate crime information more accessible to Asian American communities” according to CNBC. NBC News reports that the first goal is specifically thought to be achieved by “[dedicating] an official at the Department of Justice to review and prioritize hate crimes reported to federal, state and local law enforcement.” Further, the legislation “[issues] guidance for state and local law enforcement to establish online reporting of hate crimes and incidents in multiple languages, [expands] public education campaigns that are both culturally competent and linguistically appropriate, as well as [collects] data on hate crimes.” Although legislation itself obviously cannot fix the xenophobia and racism so deeply embedded in American society, it’s a valuable step in the right direction in the fight against injustice. Besides simply garnering attention for this tremendous issue, those who truly and intimately care are striving to fill the gaping holes in legal protections so fervently exposed this past year by our most vulnerable groups. Better late than never, this clearly emerging counter-trend to quell the unfounded hatred against Asian populations in America proves that the cries of victims and their allies will not remain passively ignored.
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a senior majoring in political science.