A recent report released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, showed that while hate crimes in 2020 decreased by 7 percent overall, those targeting the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community increased by almost 150 percent. Further, last August, the United Nations issued a report describing an increase in racist attacks and other xenophobic incidents against Asian-Americans in the United States, including being blocked from public transportation, discriminated against in the workplace, and shunned and assaulted as “responsible” for the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar trends were observed in Canada, with Vancouver experiencing a 717 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.
However, such staggering figures almost certainly underestimate the true scope of violence against the AAPI community, as data on hate crimes in the US is incomplete and underreported. This article explores some of the various issues underlying the difficulty in capturing the true severity of the attacks on Asian-Americans, and the importance of improving data quality to fight.
The Challenges in Collecting and Reporting Accurate Hate Crimes Data
One of the primary barriers to accurately accounting for hate crimes targeting the AAPI community stems from the hesitancy of victims to report such incidents to the police. This has led several organizations, such as AAPI Data – a policy and research nonprofit group founded by Dr. Karthik Ramakrishnan – to take it upon themselves to correct this information gap. One of their most recent surveys reveals that while Asian-Americans have experienced hate incidents at a significantly higher percentage than the general population, they were also among the least likely to say they are “very comfortable” reporting hate crimes to authorities. The survey results point to fear of retaliation, as well as a concern over whether justice will be served, as reasons behind the hesitancy to report. Furthermore, because enforcement authorities often don't provide translating services or help in navigating complex criminal justice systems, many members of the AAPI community tend to distrust law enforcement or doubt its effectiveness.
But even if victims’ reporting were to increase, data would still be far from accurate, due to various administrative, legal, and operational hurdles. The most comprehensive source of data on hate crimes in the United States comes from the FBI. Under the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, the United States Attorney General is required to annually publish a Uniform Crime Report that includes data on “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender and gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.”
Unfortunately, the data for this report comes from individual states, counties, and cities that have varying interpretations of how to apply this definition. According to the FBI’s Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines and Training Manual, “Due to the difficulty of ascertaining the offender’s subjective motivation, bias is to be reported only if investigation reveals sufficient objective facts to lead a reasonable and prudent person to conclude that the offender’s actions were motivated, in whole or in part, by bias.” The disparities in both how and by whom – in some jurisdictions, local prosecutors rather than the police – crimes are interpreted can lead to undercounting hate crimes and failed categorization.
On top of this classification hurdle, underreporting is exacerbated by administrative and legal challenges. While 30 states have hate crime laws, 17 of them do not require data collection of hate crimes specifically (which could help allocate support and resources to areas in need), and three (Arkansas, South Carolina, and Wyoming) presently have no hate crimes laws whatsoever. This translates into entire states being excluded from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. For example, in 2019, over 3,000 individual law enforcement agencies did not submit crime statistics, and of those that did submit data, only one in seven reported any instances of a hate crime. This has led many experts to question whether the lack of reporting is reflecting an actual absence of hate crimes, or simply an absence of data. In this sense, national hate crimes data is better thought of as a floor, rather than a reliable and accurate total.
The usefulness of the existing, national hate crimes data in informing public policy is also challenging due to timing. Regular crime data is reported at the end of September each year, while hate crimes data is released in mid-November. This means that to examine (and take action on) official FBI data for 2020, decision-makers will need to wait until November 2021, creating a delay and disconnect between all other relevant crime data and policies.
The Importance of Organizations to Fill the Gaps
These data shortcomings have led organizers and activists to take on their own data collection efforts. One such organization is Stop AAPI Hate, which was created in March 2020 as a coalition between the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University. In March of this year they released their 2020-2021 National Report, which covers the 3,795 incidents received by the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center.
Organizations like Stop AAPI Hate are also helping bypass geographic asymmetries: larger cities are more likely to have advocacy groups and resources for victims while smaller cities and rural areas often lack those resources. By having an online system, individuals across the country can utilize their reporting mechanism when and where they are comfortable, without involving law enforcement, and in multiple languages. Through this platform, Stop AAPI Hate aggregates anti-Asian hate incident reports, offering multilingual resources for impacted community members, and supporting community-based safety measures as well as restorative justice efforts.
Importantly, they also account for hate incidents, as not all occurrences can be legally categorized as crimes. For example, yelling racist slurs, though an incident, would not be a crime. This is especially important as verbal harassment (68.1 percent) and shunning (20.5 percent) (i.e., the deliberate avoidance of Asian Americans) comprise the two largest proportions of the total incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021.This data would never be reflected in official statistics if it weren’t for organizations that are interested in a broader and more precise analysis of the surge in xenophobic episodes in the US.
Activist leaders have been vital in helping solve some of the shortcomings in data availability and reporting, and in bringing attention to anti-Asian racism. For instance, Stop AAPI Hate’s most recent National Report shows that many respondents submitted incidents from 2020 months later. Russell Jeung, the group’s co-founder and chair of the San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department, has mentioned that the shootings at three Atlanta-area spas in March that led to the deaths of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, likely had a significant impact on people’s understanding of anti-Asian attacks and therefore the reporting of such incidents.
The shootings also brought into mainstream media how intertwined racism and misogyny have long affected Asian-American women. Once again, the data collected by Stop AAPI Hate helps shed light on the interconnectedness: while FBI reports indicate that the victims of most violent hate crimes are men, the Stop AAPI Hate Report explains that out of nearly 3,800 incidents recorded in 2020 and 2021, more than two-thirds came from women. The fact that the perpetrator of the Atlanta shootings was charged with eight counts of murder but not a hate crime shows systemic gaps in the understanding of how racism and misogyny together especially target AAPI women. There is still a long way to go before the justice system can reflect how inexorably these types of incidents are layered and interconnected.
Nick Sung, co-chair of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Caucus at the Harvard Kennedy School, pointed out that it’s time for this connection to be taken seriously by policy-makers and the justice system: “Why does it take an entire year to bring sexual harassment into the conversation? We have been talking about anti-Asian racism and misogyny this entire time, but no one listened.” He also pointed out that many of these voices are silenced in the media, which impacts how people understand the complexity of these issues and reinforces a binary perspective (i.e., either racism or sexism, but not both), calling it “a double silencing.”
The Path Forward
On May 20th, President Biden signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to address the rising rate of anti-Asian attacks. This statute, sponsored by Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Representative Grace Meng (D-NY 6), designates an official at the U.S. Department of Justice to expedite reviews of violence and hate crimes related to COVID-19. It also provides resources and guidance for state and local law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes, expand public education campaigns, and issue guidance to combat discriminatory language in describing the pandemic.
While a step in the right direction, some organizations, including Stop AAPI Hate, have warned that further action will be necessary to address the "root causes of systemic racism and oppression.” In a statement posted after the House of Representatives passed the bill, they explained, "Because the Act centers criminal law enforcement agencies in its solutions, it will not address the overwhelming majority of incidents reported to our site which are not hate crimes, but serious hate incidents." It will also run into the same issues around language and cultural barriers that prevent reporting.
For any local leaders looking to address anti-Asian hate crimes and the issues around reporting, below are some recommendations.
- Engage with trusted community members and organizations: it is crucial that local governments and law enforcement work with communities to build trust and mutual respect, such as with a neighborhood ambassador program as in San Francisco.
- Conduct forensic audits: borrowing lessons from Indigenous experts who are working to obtain accurate data on their missing and murdered relatives (often women and girls), audits of law enforcement data can help reveal trends and correct inaccuracies, especially when done with the assistance of an outside auditor who is a member of the affected community.
- Pursue and document civil rights violations: as stated above, hate crimes, and therefore hate crime data, fall under a narrow definition. However, Stop AAPI Hate points out that while there is a difference between a crime and an instance of discrimination, the two should both be documented and pursued. In Los Angeles, city councilmembers are seeking recommendations “to strengthen the city's oversight, mitigation and response to street harassment that occurs in public spaces and city-administered transit systems,” which would help address instances of discrimination that don’t rise to the level of a crime.
- Understand and “proof” for gender disparities: this article has already outlined the gender differences in crime reporting, with more men reporting violent crimes to law enforcement yet women reporting two-thirds of the incidents gathered by Stop AAPI Hate. Across genders, women are less likely to report sexual crimes, but research shows that having female officers makes a significant difference in overall crime reporting, as female victims are more likely to come forward when there are more female police officers in the district. Knowing this, cities and police departments can focus on having more female officers help in interviewing victims and helping them file reports.
- Provide resources equitably: Cities should ensure that information and resources are provided in multiple languages for their communities. Finally, documentation and/or immigration statuses should not be a barrier to victims reporting hate crimes.
- Focus on local action: Mayors and other local officials play an important role in addressing anti-Asian racism in their own cities, by connecting with community organizations, sharing city-specific resources, and speaking out at press conferences to reiterate their support for their local AAPI communities. For example, New York City launched a Stop Asian Hate toolkit with city-specific facts, victim information, graphics, and educational resources.
Solving the various issues around data collection and reporting is a necessary first step in capturing the true scope of anti-Asian violence that still prevails in the US in order to lead to more informed conversations and policy plans to eliminate racist hate crimes.