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Hate crimes against Asian Americans have been declining for years. Will the coronavirus change that?

Social distancing may reduce opportunities to act on bias

A man wearing a protective mask waits in line at a meat market in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York on April 6. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg News)

Recently, the FBI warned that hate crimes against Asian Americans are likely to increase as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that the novel coronavirus probably originated in Wuhan, China, Asian Americans are not responsible for the disease’s emergence or spread. Nonetheless, congressional Democrats have condemned Republican leaders for having made a point of calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus,” “Wuhan virus” and the “Kung Flu.” And Asian Americans have been reporting being verbally or physically attacked.

Security concerns for Asian Americans have even led to New York’s attorney general launching a hotline for coronavirus discrimination and hate crimes.

All this is new. Anti-Asian hate crime has been on the decline for at least the past two decades, and the FBI has not reported any anti-Asian-motivated murders since at least 2003. Will the pandemic upend that progress?

The 15-year decline in hate crimes against Asian Americans

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2019, more than 20 million Asian Americans live in the United States. Since 2000, Asian Americans — made up of people with origins of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent — have constituted the fastest-growing major racial or ethnic group in the country. Using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data from 2003 to 2017, the rapid growth of Asian Americans has not been associated with a corresponding increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes, either in total numbers or in proportion to the population. In fact, the FBI figures show that in 2017, the count of reported anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States was down more than 56 percent from 2003; and while hate crimes against Asians had made up more than 3 percent of all hate crimes in 2003, by 2017, that dropped to just 1.8 percent.

Compared with other major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, Asian Americans also report suffering far fewer hate crimes proportional to their population. In 2017, less than one anti-Asian hate crime was reported per 100,000 Asian Americans, compared with more than five per 100,000 black Americans, eight per 100,000 Muslim Americans and 17 per 100,000 Jewish Americans.

Where are Asian Americans attacked?

In 2010, nearly half of all Asian Americans lived in the nation’s West, and unsurprisingly, more anti-Asian hate crimes were reported in that region than any other, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of hate crimes against other groups in the region. Fewer Asians live in the Midwest than in any other region, and anti-Asian hate crimes are a smaller proportion of the region’s hate crimes than those against other groups.

The United States includes more than 3,000 counties and county equivalents. Of these, from 2003 to 2017, the five counties reporting the most anti-Asian hate crimes see more than one-fifth of all anti-Asian bias incidents in the country. All five counties are part of major metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. While the distribution of anti-Asian hate crime in Los Angeles and New York City is similar to the distribution of all other hate crimes, the percentages of anti-Asian hate crimes in Boston and Seattle are close to double that of their national contribution to all hate crimes. San Francisco reported 3.32 percent of all reported anti-Asian hate crimes but less than 1 percent of all hate crimes in the United States.

Interestingly, all five of these counties are uniquely suffering the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Will this lead to attacks on Asian Americans living in these areas — particularly in Seattle, the United States’ first coronavirus hot spot, and in New York City, now the country’s hardest-hit area?

Asians are stereotyped as ‘competent but cold.’ Here's how that increases the covid-19 pandemic backlash.

Can we predict the effects of the pandemic on anti-Asian hate crime?

On the one hand, recent research into U.S. hate crimes finds that minorities can suffer because of geopolitical events that others feel implicate them. That’s certainly been true in the United States since the 9/11 attacks, with Muslims and people perceived as Muslims targeted, attacked and killed. So far, self-reported spikes in anti-Asian incidents across the United States — particularly in cities hit hard by the coronavirus — suggest the United States may see a measurable increase in such incidents.

On the other hand, shelter-at-home orders covering the vast majority of the United States may be reducing opportunities to attack Asian Americans, with fewer chances for people to come into contact with one another — especially in the areas hit hardest by the pandemic. While assault (30.68 percent) and intimidation (29.72 percent) constitute over 50 percent of all reported anti-Asian hate crimes since 2003, more than 75 percent of these incidents happened somewhere other than the victim’s residence.

Americans who are biased against Asians are more likely to fear the coronavirus

In other words, ironically, as the coronavirus may be increasing anti-Asian sentiments, it may also be insulating this community from bias and antagonism. That may keep the United States’ downward trend in reported anti-Asian hate crimes from heading too far upward.

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Ayal Feinberg is an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University-Commerce and a senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, specializing in contemporary anti-Semitic hate crimes, the quantitative analysis of bias incidents and diaspora-homeland relations.