Expert Commentary

Covering anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents: Tips and resources for journalists

Racist acts against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, including harassment and violence, have been on the rise throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are several tips and resources to help you cover this topic.

Anti-Asian violence
Rally to protect Asian communities, McPherson Square, Washington, D.C., March 21, 2021. (Micki Jourdan via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Violence against Asians made national headlines on March 16 when police say a gunman killed eight people at three spas near Atlanta. Six victims were women of Asian descent. To assist the news media, the Asian American Journalists Association on March 17 issued guidance on covering the shootings, driving so much traffic to the AAJA website that it crashed for the first time in nine years.

Racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, including harassment and violence, has been on the rise throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, research and law enforcement records show. In March 2020, advocates and academic researchers joined forces to launch a website and initiative to track hate incidents and crimes in the wake of the pandemic. Stop AAPI Hate is a coalition formed by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) in Los Angeles, Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) in San Francisco, and San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department.

Stop AAPI Hate tallied nearly 3,800 self-reported incidents against Asians between March 2020 and February 2021. These reports came from all 50 states as well as a few from outside the U.S. California, where the initiative’s organizers are based, accounted for nearly 45% of the reports. Far more incidents go unreported, researchers say.

Here are several tips and resources for journalists covering racism against Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S.

1. Note that Asians are experiencing more racist incidents, and children are among the targets.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2020 found that 31% of Asian adults in America say they were subject to slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity since the COVID-19 outbreak began. A majority of Asian adults, 58%, said it was more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about people who are Asian than before the pandemic. The survey had 9,654 respondents, 278 of whom were Asian.

The survey was conducted in English and Spanish so likely does not capture Asians with low English proficiency.

A November 2020 study in the journal Pediatrics shows a high proportion of incidents of racism against Asians was associated with poorer mental health.

In a survey of 543 Chinese American parents and their 230 children aged 10 to 18 years, more than 91% of the children and 88% of the parents said they had witnessed COVID-19-related racial discrimination in person. The survey was conducted from March 14, 2020 to May 31, 2020.

About 76% of Chinese American parents and children reported experiencing at least one incident of COVID-19-related racism online. Approximately one-fourth of parents and youth said they experienced online and in-person racial discrimination nearly every day.

Researchers at the University of Maryland focused on Chinese Americans in their study, but they recommend further research on other Asian ethnic groups since Asian Americans in general have been targets of racism.

The survey was nationwide, but respondents were mostly foreign-born mothers in southern parts of the U.S., particularly Maryland and Washington D.C., who were “well employed, and college educated,” the researchers report. More than half identified as professionals or large business owners. The average age of youth respondents was 13 years old and most were born in the U.S. The survey was conducted online in English and Chinese.

The study recommends public health and education strategies to decrease discrimination against Asian Americans, as well as to bring more attention to issues related to their mental health.

2. Note the difference between hate crimes and hate incidents — and keep in mind many go unreported.

There is often confusion about the difference between hate crimes and hate incidents. Hate crimes have higher criminal penalties than hate incidents and they have different legal definitions. A narrow definition of hate crime is “a crime for which you can be arrested and where bias was observed,” according to Stop AAPI Hate.

The federal definition of a hate crime includes incidents “committed on the basis of victims’ perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which adds, “In the simplest terms, a hate crime must include both ‘hate’ and a ‘crime.’”  

Hate crimes often are violent crimes such as assault, murder, arson, vandalism or threats to commit such crimes. They may also include “conspiring or asking another person to commit crimes even if the crime was never carried out,” according to the Department of Justice.

To be classified as a hate crime, there must be evidence of racial bias or another type of bias, such as hate language or hate symbols used when committing the crime.

Hate or bias incidents are acts of prejudice but are not classified as crimes and do not involve violence, threats or property damage. The most common examples of hate incidents are racial slurs, notes the National Asian Pacific Bar Association. For instance, yelling a racial slur without committing a crime or threatening one, is likely an “incident.”

Hate crimes come with harsher penalties because they have a broader social impact than most crimes. “Hate crime victims include not only the crime’s immediate target but also others like them. Hate crimes affect families, communities, and at times, the entire nation,” according to the Department of Justice.

However, if possible, all incidents, such as verbal harassment or refusal of service, should be reported to law enforcement, officials say. “Even if non-criminal acts occur — words, epithets — it is absolutely critical that hate incidents must be reported,” said Beatrice Girmala, assistant chief and director of operations at the Los Angeles Police Department, in a live video conference with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Michael Garcetti on March 19. “People must have the courage and bravery to report.”

Reports of any incidents help law enforcement “focus, track and provide extra attention to areas to prevent those incidents from escalating into crimes of violence or reportable criminal acts,” Girmala said.

Girmala acknowledged some people may be afraid or reluctant to interact with law enforcement. The Los Angeles Police Department is working with community-based organizations and non-profit groups to encourage people to report hate incidents through various channels like Stop AAPI Hate or local community groups.

 “Experts estimate an average of 250,000 hate crimes were committed each year between 2004 and 2015 in the United States,” the Department of Justice states on its website, referring to its June 2017 special report on hate crime victimization. However, the majority of hate crimes were not reported to law enforcement agencies. 

About 54% of hate crime victimizations were not reported to police between 2011 and 2015, according to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nearly 25% of hate crime victims who did not report during that period “believed that police would not want to be bothered” or that getting involved “would cause trouble for the victim,” according to the agency. Almost 20%  of victims said the incident was not important enough to report to police.

3. Keep track of the anti-Asian incidents reported by Stop AAPI Hate.

Stop AAPI Hate began collecting and tracking self-reported incidents of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in March 2020. The coalition’s latest report, released last week, found that of the 3,795 incidents reported over the past year, 68% were verbal harassment, 20.5% included shunning or avoidance of Asians, and 11% were physical assault.

Women reported hate incidents 2.3 times more often than men. More than 35% of incidents happened at businesses such as stores, followed by 25% on the street and nearly 10% in parks. 

Yet these figures are “a fraction of what’s happening,” says Aggie Yellow Horse, a Stop AAPI Hate researcher and assistant professor in Asian Pacific American Studies at Arizona State University. 

People can log reports at Stop AAPI Hate’s website in 10 Asian languages in addition to English. They include Japanese, Korean, Khmer, Tagalog, Hmong, Punjabi, Hindi, Thai, Vietnamese and simplified and traditional Chinese.

However, 90% of incidents are reported in English, says Yellow Horse. This suggests that language or culture remain a barrier to reporting. Note that while people can report incidents in other languages, the general background information and FAQs on the Stop AAPI Hate website are written in English.

Although people can report incidents to Stop AAPI Hate anonymously, some might be reluctant or unable to report because of language and cultural barriers, lack of access to the internet or digital skills, immigration status and other reasons.

For some victims, “processing the event itself is so overwhelming, they don’t think about reporting,” says Yellow Horse.

The Stop AAPI Hate report includes several anecdotal accounts of hate incidents.

One report from Vancouver, Canada reads: “Two white, middle-aged men, who have been my neighbors for over fifteen years, approached me threateningly on the street, pulled down the corners of their eyes and said, ‘Go back to Wuhan, b**ch and take the virus with you!’ When I called them vile, they then called me a ‘Thai wh*re’ and threatened to beat up my husband.”

Some adult children have reported incidents on behalf of parents who tend to have more cultural, language and generational barriers. Asian Americans born in the U.S. have “stronger views on race” than their immigrant parents, says Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of A3PCon, one of Stop AAPI Hate’s partners. Members of the older generation are more likely to endure racism while those born in the U.S. “see it for what it is,” she says.

In general, respondents cited civic duty as the top reason for reporting to Stop AAPI Hate. They also acknowledged anxiety, depression and strain on mental health, Kulkarni adds.

Another person reported to Stop AAPI that on the Metro in Washington D.C., “a man repeatedly punched my back … he circled back toward us, followed us, repeatedly shouted “Chinese b**ch” at me, fake coughed, and physically threatened us.”

4.  Note the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, even as official reports of hate crimes overall have declined.

Reports of anti-Asian hate crime in 16 of the largest U.S. cities increased 145% from 2019 to 2020, even as overall hate crimes declined in those areas, according to an analysis from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. The analysis is based on preliminary police data. A full report is scheduled for release later this month.

The first spike happened in March and April 2020 “amidst a rise in [Covid-19] cases and negative stereotyping of Asians relating to the pandemic,” according to the preliminary report.

Cities in the report that saw the largest increase in anti-Asian hate crime reports included San Jose, California, Dallas, Texas and Houston, Texas. The three cities respectively showed a rise of 162%, 100% and 88% in 2020 compared with 2019.

But reports of overall hate crimes declined in the 16 cities, likely due to people having limited interactions on public transportation and in schools, workplaces and events amid the pandemic, according to the analysis.

Reports of anti-Asian hate crimes dropped in some cities last year. New York City and San Francisco showed declines of 38% and 19%, respectively. However, there were 23 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City already this year, from January 1 to March 22, 2021. There were 29 in all of 2020, according to the New York Police Department.

Those figures do not include violent crimes against Asians that were not classified as hate crimes.

The analysis from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism only includes hate crimes, and not hate incidents. However, verbal harassment can also be a hate crime if it includes an “actionable threat as opposed to offensiveness,” according to the center’s report.

For more information, see our roundup of research on how journalists cover Asian Americans.

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