For the past year, faced with a spike in violence against Asian Americans, lawmakers and activists from around the country have pushed for stronger anti-hate crime legislation, with mixed results. Now, in the aftermath of the deadly Atlanta shooting that killed eight people, demands for immediate change are growing louder.
Democratic lawmakers have proposed policy fixes to address the rise in hate crimes in the wake of the pandemic. Last Thursday Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) announced plans to reintroduce legislation bolstering law enforcement’s response to hate crimes against Asian Americans. The bill would appoint a Justice Department official to expedite reviews of hate crimes and provide guidance to local law enforcement on accurately reporting Covid-19-related hate crimes.
Hate crimes are difficult to prosecute, partly because they’re underreported and difficult to prove, which ultimately makes it harder to track them — and eradicate the problem.
Another bill is in the works to transform the way hate crimes are reported in the U.S., with efforts led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on Asian American and Pacific Islander violence on Thursday. And advocates in and outside the Beltway are demanding more action from the Justice Department, such as opening investigations into incidents that traumatize Asian Americans — such as yelling racial slurs — but legally can’t be categorized under hate crimes.
But advocates are also seeking a culture shift. They point to former President Donald Trump’s anti-Asian comments at the onset of the coronavirus as the catalyst for the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes over the past year. Trump and his allies often called the virus the “Kung Flu” and “China virus,” alluding to its origins in Wuhan, China. Their rhetoric led to a 900 percent surge in anti-Asian Twitter traffic. The former president continued to use “China Virus” in an interview with Fox the night of the shooting.
“This is the aftermath of a whole year of Donald Trump’s using the terms ‘China Virus’ and ‘Wuhan Virus’ and creating hatred,” said Rep. (D-Calif.), who is chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told POLITICO.
“It’s clear that the individuals were targeted because they are amongst the most vulnerable in our country: immigrant Asian women,” she later said about the shooting in a weekly press conference.
Curbing these crimes is an important first step, advocates say. But, they say, congressional leaders will also need to address the environment that gave rise to the violence.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Asian American advocacy organization Stop AAPI Hate has reported 3,795 cases of hate incidents. Of those, 35 percent occurred at Asian-owned businesses. Another analysis released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found a nearly 150 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 of America’s largest cities, with particularly drastic surges in New York City and Los Angeles.
Tuesday’s fatal shootings at three Atlanta-area spas are the culmination of a long-history of racism and misogyny against Asian Americans, misinformation about the virus and the president’s divisive rhetoric, advocates and lawmakers say. A majority of the victims were women; at least four were of Asian descent. The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 21, is white and as of this writing, has been charged with at least four counts of murder.
Atlanta police on Wednesday suggested the alleged gunman’s self-proclaimed sexual addiction could have played a role in his decision to target the spas, rather than racial bias. One police officer said the suspect “had a really bad day.” Those remarks added to frustrations from advocates who say that blaming the suspect’s mental state on his actions distracts from the larger dynamics at play.
“Racism isn’t necessarily an individual harming another person. It’s a systemic issue. It’s societal,” said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. “We need to stop legislating reactively, which is basically putting Band-Aids to situations that pop up, and start digging deeper to address root causes.”
Among them is a history of over-sexualization of Asian women, which several advocates cited as a contributor to Tuesday’s violence. Long-held stereotypes about Asian women as docile or submissive, Choimorrow explained, makes them more vulnerable to harassment. Stop AAPI Hate’s national data showed that Asian American women were more than twice as likely to report hate incidents than men.
“It’s gone from a racial slur to provocation to a point where you have multiple Asian American women being killed,” said Madalene Mielke, president and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.
During a Wednesday morning press conference, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Tuesday night’s shootings were an outgrowth of growing racism and violence against Asian Americans across the country.
“It is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop,” Bottoms said. “We’re hearing the stories. We’re seeing them on television, we’re seeing them on social media.”
A slew of public officials decried the violence in Atlanta on Wednesday, including New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“This speaks to a larger issue, which is the issue of violence in our country and what we must do to never tolerate it and to always speak out against it,” Harris told reporters at the White House. “We’re not yet clear about the motive. But I do want to say to our Asian American community that we stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people.”
Meng, the sponsor of the original Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act from last year, said language has consequences. She believes her legislation could counter anti-Asian rhetoric among those that have been using racist language due to misinformation. A segment of the bill calls on the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the White House Covid–19 Health Equity Task Force and community-based organizations to band together to compile guidance on how to avoid racially discriminatory language when describing Covid-19.
“We were shockingly disappointed when our own president started using words like ‘Chinese Virus’ and ‘Kung Flu.’ And I was very nervous, as were many people at the time, because he obviously had a very wide platform in a time of fear,” Meng told POLITICO.
“We were really scared of how people might react to a leader like him using those words,” Meng said. “And we’ve literally seen in this past year how his constant use of phrases like this has contributed to these violent attacks across the country.”
Meng’s bill will also designate an official within the Justice Department to expedite hate crime reviews and facilitate access to hate crime reporting by creating an online platform in multiple languages. The bill would also improve data collection. And her bill isn’t the only one lawmakers are queuing up in response to the rise in Asian American violence: Later this month, Democratic lawmakers also plan on reintroducing The No Hate Act, a bill that could revamp hate crime reporting infrastructure in the U.S.
The current hate crime statistics, collected by the FBI, barely scratch the surface of the actual number of cases: Out of about 18,000 local law enforcement departments, 15,588 sent in their hate crime data to the FBI, and 86.1 percent responded with zero hate crimes, according to the agency’s most recent report.
Even major cities with a population of over 500,000 — such as Houston, Baltimore and Philadelphia — didn’t report a single case. It’s unlikely that hate crimes aren’t happening in urban areas, advocates say. But police departments fail to properly identify hate crimes due to lack of training and have little incentive to nail down the numbers, especially without any oversight from the FBI or the Justice Department, according to Chu.
The No Hate Act would be able to address these issues by providing grants for training and establishing hate crime hotlines, according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who sponsored the original Senate version of the bill. And although it died in Congress last year, he thinks its fate will be different this time around.
“Tragically what may well drive this legislation more urgently than before is the deplorable uptick in hate crimes that we’ve seen against groups like Asian Americans, Muslims, immigrants generally,” Blumenthal told POLITICO.
“The surge in hate crimes is directly connected to violent extremism driven by white supremacists and others who are involved in hate crimes,” Blumenthal said. “And the surge that we’ve seen is a cancer that tears at the fabric of our whole society.”
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee will host a hearing on Thursday to address the discriminations that Asian Americans have faced during the pandemic to raise awareness and collect experts’ opinions on potential solutions. Members will interview Chu, Meng, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) , who are all Asian American lawmakers, along with a slew of Asian American activists and academics.
Action is also brewing outside of Congress. Chu said members of CAPAC have already met with Kristen Clarke, the nominee for the DOJ’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, last week. The group discussed the challenges of proving racial bias or intent in hate crimes and how that impacts data collection.
Chu said there’s no way to track anti-Asian attacks/incidents — unlike hate crimes that are monitored, albeit poorly, by the FBI — that aren’t technically a crime, such as aggressive intimidation, but are traumatizing, a void that Clarke “pledged” to address, according to Chu.
The push to accurately catalogue hate crimes is crucial to combat them, said Beyer, who sponsored the house version of the No Hate Act last year.
“All of this goes back to this sort of basic idea that you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Beyer told POLITICO. “If you have no data, what do you make a decision on? Or how do you know if you’re making any progress?”
Sarah Ferris and Marianne Levine contributed to this report.