As of Wednesday, the U.S. Senate is set to advance the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bipartisan effort to address and fight hate crimes against Asian Americans. The legislation would designate an official from the Department of Justice to expedite reviews of hate crimes related to COVID-19 and help local law enforcement respond to these incidents, as well as establish an online database. Several Republicans, including Sens. John Cornyn, Mitch McConnell, and Chuck Grassley, agreed to support the bill after some amendments.
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono and New York Rep. Grace Meng, both Democrats, first introduced the legislation after last month’s shooting in Atlanta, which left eight people dead, disproportionately harming Asian-American women. The act would also issue guidance on reducing “racially discriminatory language” related to the coronavirus.
“Before this pandemic started, I urged everyone — including elected officials — to not blame Asian Americans for the virus,” Meng said. “My words were not heeded. The former president and his Congressional Republican enablers trafficked racist, bigoted terms to describe COVID-19. In doing so, their language stoked people’s fears and created an atmosphere of intolerance and violence, which persists even today.”
The legislation — which raises awareness about the horrific, targeted crimes against the Asian American community and addresses the very real connection between these recent incidents and former President Donald Trump’s harmful language — is a step in the right direction, and suggests that leaders on both sides of the aisle care about mitigating anti-Asian racism.
However, activists warn that the bill could have adverse effects, especially since it centers law enforcement. “It has been proven time and time again that police response to violence in marginalized communities and police ‘intervention’ in marginalized communities is not an effective mode of ‘curbing the violence’ that is occurring in that community,” Wu, a sex worker and core organizer with grassroots collective Red Canary Song, previously told Refinery29. “And in actuality, the police force is the one that is instigating a lot of the violence that they claim to be curbing.”
After Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, opened fire at three Atlanta spas, police departments across America ramped up patrolling in predominantly Asian neighborhoods. But these efforts disregard the police’s history of ignoring, abetting, and perpetrating violence. In 2014, for instance, 84-year-old Kang Wong was attacked by members of the New York Police Department after jaywalking. In 2017, 38-year-old massage parlor worker Yang Song fell four stories and died while running from law enforcement in Flushing, Queens.
In Georgia, we saw a clear connection between police and anti-Asian racism: After Captain Jay Baker, a spokesperson for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, infamously said that Long had just “had a bad day,” The Daily Beast discovered that Baker himself had previously promoted anti-Asian apparel on Facebook.
Further, the hate crime bill doesn’t necessarily account for the difference between misdemeanors, felonies, and discrimination — all of which must be addressed, but aren’t the same. “Measures against hate crimes have been used to increase the power of the carceral system, responding to violence through more violence, including harsher sentencing, mandatory minimums, and the death penalty,” the Asian American Feminist Collective wrote in September, after the NYPD announced an Asian Hate Crime Task Force. The AAFC argued that the task force was really an “operation to get more cops in Asian communities” under the guise of ending racist violence.
We also know that, whenever law enforcement is involved, some perpetrators will likely face worse consequences than others. Black Americans, specifically, are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans, even though they’re also more likely to be unarmed. And according to The New York Times, the only person in New York City who has been persecuted for an anti-Asian hate crime this year was also Asian. (He was a Taiwanese man accused of writing anti-Chinese graffiti.)
Wayne Ho, president of the Chinese-American Planning Council, a social services agency, told the Times that many of his Asian colleagues have faced verbal harassment since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, but opted against reporting these incidents to the police. They worried, Ho explained, that “the perpetrators, who were often people of color, could be mistreated.”
But make no mistake: There are plenty of ways our government can take measures to combat anti-Asian violence and racism. Russell Jeung, chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, told Insider that community outreach and anti-racism education should take priority over increased police presence. The AAFC has pushed for multilingual resources and institutional support for street vendors, nail salon workers, and other vulnerable members of the Asian American community.
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act shows us that the Senate is finally starting to get serious about trying to dismantle the racism embedded in America and the anti-Asian violence exacerbated by the pandemic. But nothing will change in a substantial or positive way when police are the driving force behind the change. We need community-based solutions, education, and support for Asian Americans. And, most importantly, we need to listen to the people who are most impacted by the violence we’ve seen.