Since the start of the pandemic, reports to the New York Police Department of hate crimes against Asian Americans have steeply increased.
In 2019, three hate crimes were reported. In 2020, that number jumped to 28.
This uptick in reported incidents, mirrored in national statistics, have put Asian Americans on edge, especially after the massacre in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
As people have taken to the streets, demanding solutions to what many say has been ongoing attacks on their community, elected officials are calling for reforms to hate crime policy.
But some in the Asian community are criticizing calls to strengthen hate crime legislation, saying a reliance on the justice system to stop these attacks might only make the problem worse.
Mia White’s husband had just taken the kids out for donuts when she first heard the yelling.
The family, originally from the east coast, had moved into a new neighborhood in California, and White, a writer and professor, was just getting settled into some work.
“I blocked it out because I'm, like, that has nothing to do with me, right?” recalled White, who teaches environmental studies at The New School. “But it was really persistent.”
After about ten minutes, she said she finally got up and opened the back door to see what the yelling was about.
“And as soon as I opened it, it was like a brick hit me in the face because that's when I realized that the yelling was for me,” she said.
The man was screaming obscenities directed at her, using the “n-word,” and saying things like “go back to Africa,” she said.
“I'm from Queens,” she said. “I'm not a fragile person.”
But White, who identifies as a black woman of African American and Korean descent, said the shock and horror of the situation made her immobile. She had never experienced something like that before.
The man turned out to be a neighbor of hers who read about her family moving in in the neighborhood newsletter, she said.
Even though those slurs were clearly motivated by racist prejudice, this incident was not considered a hate crime under the law. White says she was able to get an order of protection against her neighbor and a disturbance of the peace charge. But the judge didn’t consider his words to be a threat.
For something to be charged as a hate crime, two things need to be established: that a crime occurred, and that the crime was motivated by a bias against a certain group.
Still, the incident traumatized her and her family. She said her son, who was eight years old at the time of the incident in 2014, started wetting the bed again and asking her what certain racist epithets meant.
At the same time, she would not have been comfortable with incarceration as a solution, nor would she feel relief with an added hate crime charge.
“That does not reform—that does not help him understand his whiteness or white supremacy,” she said.
Though reports of bias incidents against Asian Americans have increased significantly over the past year, hate crimes are notoriously tough to prosecute. It requires proving a perpetrator’s intent.
“That's really the challenge of this whole thing—that we have to prove motive,” said Deputy Inspector Stewart Loo, former head of the all-Asian hate crime task force. “Normal crimes, we don't really have to prove motive. We just have to get the evidence to show that it happened.”
In terms of attacks against the Asian community, there are some additional challenges as well.
“We, as a society know what a noose means, that a swastika means anti-semitism and so forth,” said Chris Kwok, a board member for the Asian American Bar Association. “And maybe it's a good thing, but there's no sort of stock symbol of anti-Asian violence and harassment.”
Without any clear visual markers, law enforcement considers things like statements made during the commission of a crime and whether a perpetrator has a history of attacks against a certain group. They may also elicit information proving motive during an interrogation.
In recent weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to widen the definition of what qualifies as a hate crime.
He also has said he wants the NYPD to “confront” hateful conduct and “anything that's not criminal, still follow up on aggressively, so people feel the presence of law enforcement in the city watching them to make sure this does not happen again.”
But Mayor de Blasio isn’t the only elected official pushing for this type of change.
After the attack in Atlanta, President Biden urged Congress to “swiftly pass” the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act. This legislation would widen the Justice Department’s oversight of coronavirus-related hate crimes, provide support for local and state law enforcement agencies, and increase the accessibility of hate crime information.
Though the current rhetoric of law enforcement point to a dedicated interest in combating anti-Asian attacks, victims like White don’t always feel supported.
“It's a brutal process because it makes the person who's a victim feel crazy because now they have to prove that they were hurt and they have to prove—this is the re-brutalizing part—they have to prove that the assailant or the accused intended racial harm.”
And even when a hate crime is successfully charged as such, White doesn’t think it gets to the root of the issue: structural racism and white supremacy.
“A hate crime designation will not help that,” she said. “Maybe some people will feel better through punishment. They will feel their vengeance activated, and it will feel like they’re checking some box, but the reality is, we're going to find ourselves here again.”
Hate crime legislation, expanded or not, doesn’t take into account the myriad ways that Asians are targeted and attacked, experts say.
For instance, many Asian crime victims around the U.S. are historically small-business owners who were robbed. Are these types of attacks simply a crime of opportunity? If so, does the race of the victim matter?
It might if you’re considering the layers of structural racism that significantly impact a person’s life.
For example, the vulnerability of Asian businesses in the pandemic was highlighted after the Atlanta massacre, which occurred at three spas, as Asians are disproportionately represented in publicly-serving businesses. This includes restaurants, hotels and stores, according to a Quartz analysis. This type of work cannot easily go remote, if at all, which indicates a certain level of economic and physical risk.
Increased criminalization of bias incidents doesn’t do anything to alleviate this type of structural inequity.
The focus on hate crime also raises the concern about conflict between different communities of color.
In historically disenfranchised majority black and brown neighborhoods, like Chinatowns across the country, poverty and a scarcity of resources are significant factors when it comes to crime.
“The reason we have a category of hate crime is because we acknowledge the pain and trauma of a racially-charged or racially-motivated form of violence, on not just the individual victim, but on the community as a sort of a psychological trauma,” said Jenn Fang, writer and co-founder of the Asian American blog Reappropriate. “But that doesn't necessarily mean that the attacker conspired with his entire race to go do this.”
Still, by creating an expanded framework for hate crime legislation as well as “aggressively” following up on anything considered hateful, like in Mayor de Blasio’s plan, this can create the idea that one community is under attack by another community.
Essentially, it creates the idea of “crime waves,” which can create fear in communities.
In a lecture for the Asian American Writers Workshop, Tamara Nopper, a Rhode Island College sociology professor whose work centers on race and criminalization, noted how hate crime legislation has historically been used as a successful public relations tool for law enforcement.
“Anytime you’re talking about hate crime law, you’re talking about more legitimacy for the police and you're also talking about, frankly, more funding for the police,” she said.
It’s why she said she’s cautious about the increased calls to recognize and expand hate crime policy.
“It’s helping to contribute, I would say, to this idea of a crime wave,” said Professor Nopper. “And I’m distinguishing between an increase in actual incidents and how something gets messaged as a crime wave in a way that could benefit police, in a way that actually harms communities.”
She also noted unintended consequences of hate crime policies, like the enhanced sentencing often meted out to black and brown people under hate crime law.
In fact, in South Carolina, black people were more likely to be charged under the state’s anti-lynching law, as it was defined as two or more people committing an act of violence against another person, regardless of race. The purpose of the law had been to protect black residents from the state's long history of white vigilante justice.
“We’re kind of being encouraged to see everything through a language of crime,” said Nopper during the lecture. “And I don’t know if I’m prepared to see racism only through a language of crime, partly because I don’t think it can do the work of articulating what I think racism is and I don’t think it can help me deal with the levels of vulnerability I actually have as an Asian person.”
By expanding the definition of hate crimes and increasing police presence in already marginalized neighborhoods, opponents like White, whose neighbor hurled racist epithets at her, argue that it will harm neighborhoods that are already overpoliced and disproportionately represented in the justice system.
“If we really want to save each other, do we really think that locking up the whole world is going be the way we do it?” asked White. “We know what our communities need. Communities need resources.”