'A historic surge': Anti-Asian American hate incidents continue to skyrocket despite public awareness campaign

Violence against Asian Americans and Asians has grown despite increased national attention and political action against anti-Asian hate, experts said. 

There was a more than 164% increase in anti-Asian hate crime reports to police in the first quarter of 2021 in 16 major cities and jurisdictions compared with last year, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

More than 6,600 hate incidents have been reported in the year after the pandemic began in the United States, Stop AAPI Hate announced this week. More than a third of those incidents were reported this March alone, according to the organization founded last year in response to increased targeting of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic.

The new data comes after several high-profile attacks. A man was arrested Tuesday for allegedly stabbing two Asian women in an unprovoked attack in downtown San Francisco. Over the weekend, two Asian women were attacked in New York City by a woman who demanded they remove their masks, then struck one of them in the head with a hammer, according to police. 

The assaults are the latest in a series of brutal crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, including the fatal shootings in March of eight people in Atlanta, that left six women of Asian descent dead. 

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., center, is joined by U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., third from left, at a news conference to discuss an Asian-American hate crime bill, Monday, April 19, 2021, in New York.

"It's not going to be likely to decrease any time soon unless we are very vigilant about it," said Van Tran, an associate professor of sociology who studies the experience of Asian Americans at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. "We have yet to create and engender institutional change and behavioral change at the largest scale."

Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said it's hard to tell from his data whether hate incidents are occurring at a higher rate or if the community is reporting more incidents because of increased awareness and media attention. 

"I think the racism is pretty deeply felt and anger directed towards Asians is still pretty high," he said.

Despite federal action, rise is 'accelerated and sustained'

The uptick in anti-Asian violence was first reported in March 2020 as COVID-19 began spreading across the nation and some politicians, including President Donald Trump, blamed China for the pandemic.

Since then, lawmakers have advanced legislation, police departments have created task forces and hotlines, and community members have organized demonstrations and neighborhood watch programs.

Rally against Asian hate crimes in 2021 in Chicago.

Last month, the Senate passed legislation aimed at fighting hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders with overwhelming bipartisan support.

If the House passes the law, it would be a "very strong first step," but more structural changes are needed to eradicate the racist attitudes underlying these crimes, Tran said. He noted there are already hate crime laws that need stronger enforcement.

President Joe Biden signed an executive action condemning racism and intolerance against Asian Americans and has repeatedly expressed concern about the rise in violence.

Biden’s change in tone from the previous administration “probably” helped, but political rhetoric is not enough to quash the rise, according to Brian Levin, author of the CSUSB report and a professor of criminal justice.

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“Even with President Biden and Congress making admirable efforts, there’s still a subculture that is vulnerable to either a shallow level of prejudice or a very deep level of prejudice,” he said. “Even people with low, shallow prejudices can act violently based on situational factors.”

Levin, who has tracked hate incidents for nearly 30 years, said the rise in anti-Asian hate crime reports may get worse as COVID-19 restrictions lift.

“We had a 146% increase in 2020, and that is now being accelerated and sustained,” he said. “This is a historic surge and it requires immediate action by civic leaders, educators and policymakers and law enforcement particularly in the area of outreach.”

Better data needed to combat 'massive underreporting'

Although solving the issue requires a "whole society" approach, Levin said, the "most urgent" issues lie with law enforcement. Although part of the increase he's observed may be due to increased reporting, there is “massive underreporting” of hate incidents. Better data is needed to evaluate the scope of the problem.

Fewer than half of the victims of a hate crime report it to the police, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

Levin said some places such as New York City, which created an Asian Hate Crimes Task Force, do a good job of counting these crimes; in other places, they fall through the cracks. He pointed to Alabama, which was the only state to report zero hate crimes in 2019.

A boy holding a sign takes part in a Stop Asian Hate rally in Oakland, California, on April 3, 2021. (Photo by Wu Xiaoling/Xinhua via Getty)

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"We really have to have concrete data collection," he said. "If we’re getting delays – the FBI data comes out in mid-November – that’s not going to help the communities that are experiencing this now."

The FBI collects national hate crime data, but data for 2020 and 2021 has not been released. In 2019, 216 anti-Asian hate crimes were reported, according to the latest data available.

Levin suggested tying federal funding to data collection. He pointed to a bill in California that would create a permanent commission tasked with creating a yearly comprehensive accounting of hate crime activity statewide and offering recommendations as a possible model.

He said police departments must do a better job of determining when a crime is a hate crime and suggested departments implement a two-tier review system that includes a community liaison or outside board.

'Culturally competent resources' needed for victims 

More needs to be done to educate the community about how to report hate incidents – particularly if they don't rise to the level of a crime – and to connect victims with support resources, said Evangeline Chan, a co-chair of AAPI Affinity Group at Safe Horizon, which provides support to crime victims. 

People stand in solidarity during a vigil and rally against Asian hate crimes, Friday, March 26, 2021, at Chicago's Horner Park. The event is organized by local Chicago organizations led by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar) ORG XMIT: ILSA106

Chan, like many experts, said there may be cultural or language barriers that prevent Asians and Asian Americans from reporting incidents.

She said in New York City, where her organization is based, many community members don't know they can report violations civilly to the NYC Commission on Human Rights or access mental and physical health resources even if they decide not to report.

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“What we would like to see is really a little bit more of education, outreach and awareness centered around the resources that already are available," Chan said.

Chan's organization places victim advocates at police precincts in New York to offer resources in a variety of languages. Because of the pandemic, it lost several of these advocates and some government funding was affected.

"All of this takes funding," she said. "It is really important that there are culturally competent resources invested into dealing with and addressing this issue."

Stopping Asian hate through education and training

One of the many ways to prevent these kinds of crimes is education and "understanding the root causes of racism," Chan said. 

"Violence against AAPI-identifying individuals is really nothing new," she said. "It's been going on way before the pandemic, and it's deeply rooted in this nation’s history."

Part of that education should include teaching students in K-12 and at the college level about the "integral role" of Asian Americans in American history, said Anne Cheng, a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey whose work focuses on race, gender and literature.

 "We are part of this country," Cheng said. "We are part of its history. We have contributed from the 19th century onward."

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Leaders of Stop AAPI Hate advocated for increasing ethnic studies education to prevent crimes, implementing community-based violence protection programs and expanding civil rights protections to end harassment in business.

"We want to get at the long-term solution to the racism, there's no quick fixes," said Jeung, the group's co-founder and a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. "We want to stop the cycle of violence, and we can do that with restorative justice models where we hold perpetrators accountable but we don’t necessarily criminalize them."

Chan suggested more bystander training to help residents and businesses learn what to do if they witness a crime.

She said it was "really disappointing" to see how many high-profile attacks took place in broad daylight, pointing out the two New York City doormen who failed to help an Asian American woman who was brutally attacked last month. 

"We certainly don't advocate for anybody to put themselves in harm's way," she said. "We expect community members, storefront owners to at least step in or call for help."

Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg