The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Attacks on Asian Americans during pandemic renew criticism that U.S. undercounts hate crimes

Protesters attend an End the Violence Towards Asians rally in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park on Saturday. Since the start of the pandemic, violence targeting Asian Americans has risen dramatically. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

A spate of high-profile assaults on Asian Americans has renewed long-standing criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups that the U.S. government is vastly undercounting hate crimes, a problem that they say has grown more acute amid rising white nationalism and deepening racial strife.

The attacks — including several in Northern California over the past month that attracted national attention — followed months of warnings from advocates that anti­-China rhetoric from former president Donald Trump over the coronavirus pandemic was contributing to a surge in anti-Asian slurs and violence.

Although President Biden last month signed an executive action banning the federal government from employing the sort of “inflammatory and xenophobic” language Trump used to describe the virus — such as “China plague” and “kung flu” — Asian American leaders said the recent attacks demonstrate a need for greater urgency in dealing with such threats.

Three Asian American medical providers on the front lines spoke with The Post about the racial discrimination they faced early in the pandemic. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Among other incidents, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old San Francisco resident who had emigrated from Thailand, was killed in late January, in a brazen attack captured on a video that went viral on social media. Antoine Watson, a 19-year-old African American man, was charged in connection with Ratanapakdee’s death and has pleaded not guilty.

Biden administration officials said they are working to address the problem, pointing to a section in the executive memo that instructed the Justice Department to expand its reporting, tracking and prosecutions of “hate incidents.” Officials said those efforts could go beyond hate crimes to include episodes of harassment and discrimination.

During his Senate confirmation hearing Monday, Merrick Garland, Biden’s nominee for attorney general, pledged to support such efforts.

“Hate crimes tear at the fabric of our society. They make our citizens worried about walking the streets and exercising even the most normal rights,” Garland said. “The role of the [Justice Department’s] Civil Rights Division is to prosecute those cases vigorously, and I can ensure you that it will if I am confirmed.”

A 1990 federal law mandates that the FBI collect data specifically on hate crimes each year, but the effort has long been plagued by incomplete and inconsistent data provided by the nation’s estimated 18,000 state, municipal and tribal law enforcement agencies.

The administration is in the early stages of identifying strategies to compel broader participation. Among the ideas advocates have pushed for is tying federal funding from the Justice Department’s extensive grant programs to increased training and reporting on hate crimes.

In 2019, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report recommending Congress adopt legislation to provide funding for incentives and calling on local police to establish dedicated hate-crime units. Catherine E. Lhamon, who chaired that commission, now serves as deputy director for racial justice and equity on the White House domestic policy council.

At a news conference last week, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chair of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, said she is requesting a meeting with Justice Department leaders to discuss what she called a “crisis point” for the Asian American community in dealing with “an alarming surge of anti-Asian bigotry across the nation.”

Chu added that the 1990 law on reporting of hate crime data “doesn’t have any teeth” because it does not compel localities to comply or to do so in a consistent and thorough manner.

Last fall, the FBI reported 7,314 hate crimes nationwide in 2019, the most in a decade — but experts said the statistics were woefully inadequate because too few local law enforcement agencies fully participate in federal data collection efforts.

The FBI said that 15,588 law enforcement organizations participated in the 2019 hate crimes study, but just 2,172 agencies reported the total number of incidents contained in the report. Civil rights advocates called that scenario implausible, pointing out that the entire state of Alabama reported no hate crimes to the FBI in both 2018 and 2019.

“The FBI reports help us identify trends, but their data is so woefully inadequate that it can’t be relied on for much,” said civil rights lawyer Arjun Singh Sethi, author of “American Hate: Survivors Speak Out.”

Some big-city law enforcement agencies have publicly reported an increase in bias attacks against Asian Americans. For example, New York City’s hate crimes task force investigated 27 incidents in 2020, including 24 tied to the coronavirus, a ninefold increase from the previous year.

But experts said local police agencies lack training and funding to properly investigate hate crimes, and many treat it as a low priority. Some conservative Republicans have opposed more stringent reporting requirements to determine whether crimes are motivated by hate, arguing that such measures are redundant.

Yet advocates have pointed to a 2013 study from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics that found an average of 259,700 violent and property-related hate crimes from 2003 through 2011 after assessing data from the annual National Crime Victimization Survey of American households.

In a statement, the FBI said participation in its data program is “voluntary.” The agency added that it anticipates the reporting methods would improve in the coming years as a greater percentage of local police agencies transitions into the National Incident Based Reporting System, which requires more detailed and consistent data.

In a bipartisan vote last year, the House approved the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act, which aimed to bolster federal aid to localities for hate-crime training and reporting. The GOP-controlled Senate refused to vote on it.

The legislation is named after Khalid Jabara, a man of Lebanese descent shot to death by a White neighbor in Oklahoma in 2016, and Heather Heyer, a counterprotester killed at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Neither of their killings was included in the FBI’s hate crime reports.

With Democrats in control of both chambers, Chu said she hoped to revive the legislative effort. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said he expects to gain bipartisan support for a letter to the Justice Department’s new leadership team similar to the one he sent last year with 150 co-signers from both parties asking then-Attorney General William P. Barr to “forcefully condemn anti-Asian bias.” Barr did not respond to that letter, Lieu’s office said.

Advocacy groups have sought to fill the breach through websites and hotlines that allow Asian Americans to self-report hate incidents, projects that share similarities to efforts from Muslim American groups to document bias crimes after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Stop AAPI Hate, a West Coast-based collective founded last spring in response to the pandemic, reported 2,808 “hate incidents” nationwide aimed at Asian Americans from March through December 2020. For months leading to the November election, Trump sought to deflect blame over his management of the pandemic response by blaming China and using xenophobic and racist language to describe the virus on social media, in televised interviews and at campaign rallies and White House coronavirus task force briefings.

The group said verbal harassment made up 71 percent of the incidents, while physical assaults made up about 9 percent. Organizers said the effort has helped raise media awareness and drawn celebrities to amplify the message, but some experts cautioned that the data is largely unvetted.

“It’s incredibly important for organizations to provide those kinds of narratives about the impact of hate, but at the end of the day it’s anecdotal and cannot displace the onus on our government to provide accurate data,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, which helped draft early versions of the No Hate legislation.

John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, which has collected self-reported incidents of anti-Asian bias since 2017, said his group also has tallied a spike in the past year. But he acknowledged that it is difficult for advocacy organizations to adequately analyze such information.

“Some recent incidents, whether they are anti-Asian or something else, is hard to tell,” Yang said. “As the pandemic has worn on, the economic disparity has really played out and the physical and mental anxieties are playing out as well, and it’s probably all contributing.”