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Will a new law to tackle hate crimes make Asians in America safer? | Pro/Con

A sociologist debates a lawyer: Will hate crime laws help stop violence, or drain resources?

Thea Sem of North Philadelphia holds a sign reading, “Hate is a Virus,” during the Stop Anti Asian Hate Vigil at FDR Park on April 3, 2021.
Thea Sem of North Philadelphia holds a sign reading, “Hate is a Virus,” during the Stop Anti Asian Hate Vigil at FDR Park on April 3, 2021.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Last month, President Joe Biden signed legislation focused on tracking and responding to hate crimes, with an emphasis on stopping anti-Asian violence. The law aims to make hate crime reporting more accessible, directs the Department of Justice to task someone with focusing on hate crimes related to COVID-19, and approves grants to state and local governments for crime reduction.

Introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii), the legislation gained overwhelming support in both chambers of Congress and support from groups like Stop AAPI Hate, which documented a spike in hate incidents toward Asians in America during the pandemic. But opponents of the legislation say further criminalizing violent acts won’t address the racism behind them or give communities enough support. To tap this debate, The Inquirer turned to a sociologist and a lawyer: Is this law a win for Asians in America?

» READ MORE: After a year of increased anti-Asian hate, I finally feel some hope | Opinion

Yes: It’s a milestone to improve hate crime reporting and awareness.

The passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is a significant milestone in the country’s effort to combat hatred, racism, and xenophobia. This legislation is not only symbolic in its significance in recognizing the devastating impacts of a recent surge in hate incidents against Asian Americans — it also conveys a strong message that hate crimes against any groups will not be tolerated.

This bill provides a strong counter-narrative to the hateful, incendiary, and stigmatizing rhetoric that has incited violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. It acknowledges racial bias and discrimination as key factors behind the waves of hate crimes that rippled across many communities. It memorializes the eight victims of the recent Atlanta spa shooting, six of whom were women of Asian descent, such that their names shall never be forgotten.

Given the long history of invisibility and silencing of Asians in America, this law elevates their experiences, amplifies their voices, and renders them more visible. The bill publicly acknowledges Asians’ emotional pain, while also praising their contributions to “the diverse fabric of American life.”

Although the urgency of hate crimes against Asians during the pandemic spurred Congress to action, the impact extends to victims of all hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and disability.

For one thing, the law addresses a long-standing data gap in our broader national effort to combat hate crimes. Under the 1990 Hate Crime Statistics Act, the FBI compiles and publishes hate crime statistics based on the data submitted by local and state agencies through the Uniform Crime Reports system. Yet despite this Act, hate crimes are still vastly undercounted, as exemplified by the murders of Khalid Jabara in Tulsa and Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. Both murders were prosecuted as hate crimes, yet neither was reported as such in official statistics.

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Thankfully, the new law includes the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, which supports data collection under the National Incident-Based Reporting System that replaced the Uniform Crime Reports system in January 2021. Instead of aggregate monthly tallies of hate crimes, this new system reports on every single incident, including details on victims, offenders, arrestees, relationships among them, and location and timing of incident.

This law additionally improves data collection by providing guidance and support to local law enforcement. Most importantly, it establishes a system of online reporting of hate crimes that will be available in multiple languages to be inclusive of immigrants with limited English ability, and must be accessible to people with disabilities.

By removing barriers to reporting and enforcing strict confidentiality, this law enhances data accuracy, coverage, and quality. This new reporting system not only provides crucial data for research, but also informs policies in the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of hate crimes.

By removing barriers to reporting and enforcing strict confidentiality, this law enhances data accuracy for hate crime reports.

Van C. Tran

Major advocacy groups — including the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and Stop AAPI Hate — welcome the passage of this new law, including its “community-centered” approach to increase awareness of such hate incidents. Yet they also note that meaningful investment in impacted communities is crucial in stemming hate crimes in the long run.

The bill does not address the root causes of hate crimes — because that is neither its intent nor focus. To be sure, no single legislation can put an end to hatred, racism, xenophobia, or homophobia. This new hate crime act is no exception, but it is a very important first step in that direction.

Van C. Tran is an associate professor of sociology and deputy director of Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

No: Investing more in law enforcement will not prevent racist hate.

Many Asian Americans are celebrating the passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. Why do over 100 Asian American and LGBTQ groups oppose the same legislation?

This new law raises visibility of anti-Asian attacks. It also allows our elected officials to show that they recognize the serious and pervasive nature of this violence. But here is the challenge: It’s more of the symbolic same and fails to substantively and materially make our communities safer.

Historically, hate crimes laws have existed since 1968. They have been expanded time and again to include more categories of people and to allocate more resources to the criminal legal system. As a legal matter, hate crimes laws criminalize already criminalized acts — murder, assault, and so forth. There is no evidence these hate crime laws, in and of themselves, serve any additional deterrent effect.

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Hate crimes laws increase resources for law enforcement agencies. But the trillions of dollars spent on our criminal legal system only take resources and dollars from communities that need investment instead of prisons. These laws and carceral strategies are reactionary and do not prevent hate crimes from happening in the first place, as they do not address the root causes and conditions that give rise to racist violence. The racism that pervades these horrific attacks runs much deeper than interpersonal bias and individual blame. This racism is rooted in American culture and history, colonial wars, and state violence.

Black and brown trans women continue to be murdered, and Asian Americans continue to be killed in white supremacist attacks. The police and prosecutors show up after the attacks have happened. Yet upon closer inspection, many of these attacks have occurred in the most heavily policed locations on the planet, such as in NYC’s Times Square. The truth is the police did not prevent any of these attacks, not in Atlanta or Indianapolis this past year, nor have they saved the lives of Vincent Chin in 1982, who was beaten to death in Michigan, or the lives of 19 immigrants — lynched and shot in Los Angeles — in the Chinese Massacre of 1871.

Not only do hate crimes laws not prevent anti-Asian violence — they do nothing to remedy the harms after the violence occurred. After each attack, victims and their families are left to crowdfund to pay for health care, funeral expenses, and loss of income. Hate crimes laws are narrowly focused on punishment and punishment alone.

“Not only do hate crimes laws not prevent anti-Asian violence—they do nothing to remedy the harms after the violence occurred.”

Jason Wu

In tandem with hate crimes is the reality that approximately 1,000 people are shot and killed every year in the U.S. by police — including 13-year-old Adam Toledo, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, 19-year-old Christian Hall, and 20-year-old Tommy Le. When we talk about racialized violence and gun violence, we have to confront the reality that police violence falls in those categories too.

We have to move beyond raising awareness of what we already know to be true. Racist violence pervades our society — we don’t need more statistics to corroborate this. While data collection can be important, and can be done separate from law enforcement, the real question is: What will be done with this data? If it’s used to call for more policing, prosecutions, and prisons, then we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past.

It’s time to transform the root causes of white supremacy and violence. We need systemic strategies and solutions, which require solidarity across groups and real investment in our communities through social services, housing, health care, education, and community-based programs. Hate crime laws offer none of that.

Jason Wu is a legal services attorney in New York City, and organizes with GAPIMNY — Empowering Queer & Trans Asian Pacific Islanders. @CriticalRace

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