By: Janet H. Vo
More than a year after the murder of six female Asian workers at an Atlanta spa, many members of the Asian American community still live in fear of hate-motivated violence. The FBI’s 2020 data already reflected a 73 percent increase in hate-motivated crimes against Asian Americans, but after the Atlanta shootings in March 2021, one third of Asian Americans reported living in fear of physical violence, and a majority believed that violence against them was rising. In fact, hate-motivated violence has continued to escalate to unprecedented levels nationwide, with anti-Asian hate crimes increasing by 339 percent as compared to last year.
Though violence and bias against Asian Americans is not new in this country’s history, the rise in hate-motivated incidents has garnered nationwide attention. At the forefront of the discussion on how to address hate-motivated violence is how to achieve justice for victims and impacted communities when the current criminal legal system has been ineffective in preventing these crimes. A bigger question for the Asian American community is how to advance the fight against anti-Asian prejudice when the very same criminal legal system perpetuates violence and discrimination against communities of color.
Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric and Harmful Stereotypes
The recent string of hate crimes and anti-Asian rhetoric continues a long history of exclusionary laws, systemic anti-Asian discrimination, and scapegoating of Asians, including for the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-Asian hate is deeply rooted in anti-immigrant sentiments, reflected in the “Yellow Peril” trope, the perpetual foreigner stereotype, and the model minority myth. These characterizations perpetuate xenophobic images of Asians as an existential threat to the Western world as well as the alien “other” whose enviable success can be used as a wedge against cross-racial solidarity and conveniently negates the role of oppression and violence in the continuing struggles of communities of color.
Stereotypes which erase the diversity among Asian Americans also dehumanize and reduce individuals to caricatures, rendering Asian American women and the elderly as especially easy targets of hate crimes. They also ignore the diversity among the 22 million Asian Americans who comprise the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. with unique migration histories, varying immigration status, different language proficiencies, color, culture, education, income, and levels of assimilation and achievement.
Reframing Justice and Accountability
Solutions to address hate and violence vary by how justice is defined. As part of this country’s racial reckoning in recent years, more community members are challenging the traditional approach to addressing hate crimes which equates justice with punishing the perpetrator. That traditional reliance on prosecutorial approaches and law enforcement agencies to resolve hate crimes is problematic insofar as it relies on the same criminal legal system that has systematically discriminated against marginalized groups and communities of color.
Shortly after the Atlanta attacks in March 2021, the federal COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act (“Act”) became law. The Act aims to improve data collection on hate crimes related to COVID-19 and increases funding to law enforcement for investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, however, more than 85 nationwide community-based groups, including those serving Asian Americans, opposed the legislation for failing to address what many saw as the underlying cause of anti-Asian hate and for ignoring the history of police violence against communities of color (e.g., where Black and brown people are overrepresented in prosecution for hate offenses although the most common perpetrators of hate crimes are white). Within the Asian American community, approximately 16,000 Southeast Asians are subject to final orders of deportation under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 due to prior criminal records resulting from over-policing practices targeted at impoverished communities of color where many Southeast Asian refugees were resettled. The Act overlooked how the fear of detention and deportation deters both undocumented and documented non-citizens from interacting with police to report hate crimes. Prosecutorial responses also focus on heightened punishment and increasing law enforcement power, mainly against communities of color, but those strategies are not proven to be as effective in deterring violence and fail to address the needs and concerns of communities impacted by hate crimes.
Community Strategies to Addressing Hate Crimes
Unlike other violent crimes, hate crimes are motivated by bias and prejudice, which means the targeted individual is not the only victim. Rather, hate crimes send a public message that the victim’s membership group as a whole is unsafe and unwelcome. In addressing hate crimes, therefore, it is important to understand the effects of the hate crime not only on the targeted victim but also on the victim’s membership community.
Understood in this context, community-based solutions outside of the criminal legal system likely offer better support to the individual and communities in addressing trauma and safety concerns. This past year, the family of a hate crime victim contacted Asian Outreach at Greater Boston Legal Services for support. The family sought help for community-based aid centered on public housing assistance, social services, and mental health resources instead of concentrating on punishing the perpetrator.
Justice for victims and communities cannot solely be achieved through prosecution, as the residual impact, trauma and fear of hate crimes remain. In the Commonwealth, access to state and local funding to help individuals and community-based organizations providing direct aid to hate crime victims is essential. The Massachusetts Victims of Violent Crime Compensation Fund (“Fund”) aims to provide such support but is not sufficient, as it requires a victim to navigate all possible financial and social service options before accessing aid through the Commonwealth. A victim must also report the violent incident to the police within five days to receive assistance from the Fund. Because communities with longstanding distrust and fear of police are less likely to report hate-motivated violence immediately, access to the Fund is often limited without the necessary in-language support and outreach resources. Through the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, the Attorney General’s Office can also enforce civil penalties to provide alternative relief to victims without relying on criminal prosecution.
Turning to community-based strategies to combat anti-Asian hate crimes is critical because community groups serving Asian populations are best equipped to provide the necessary support to victims based on their front-line response system and culturally appropriate network of resources. By shifting the reliance from enforcement and incarceration to more community-based solutions, communities can heal without feeding into the same systems of violence. In 2021, the Massachusetts Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights proposed the following non-police and prosecutorial alternatives to address hate crimes:
- Invest in community-based restorative justice programs;
- Improve data collection through mechanisms for victims to report violence anonymously;
- Increase access to culturally competent and linguistically appropriate mental health services;
- Secure additional funding for social services, community-based legal assistance, and bystander training;
- Integrate ethnic studies into the education curriculum to understand the history of racism; and
- Promote data equity to dispel harmful stereotypes and ensure equitable allocation of resources based on community needs.
The fight against anti-Asian hate must adopt holistic solutions that look beyond the current criminal legal system and center around more community-based solutions, financial relief, and legal support to address the direct needs and concerns of the Asian American community. Most importantly, the movement against anti-Asian hate should not create a wedge but instead become a source of solidarity with other marginalized groups and communities of color.