Racism and discrimination against New York City’s Asian community proliferated well before the coronavirus outbreak reached a fever pitch in the city and state. Businesses in Chinatown saw declines in customers starting as early as January because of fears of the virus, which initially emerged in China. A man assaulted an East Asian woman wearing a mask in a subway station, referring to her as diseased, a month before the city saw its first confirmed coronavirus case. Reports and complaints about attacks and ongoing bias toward Asian people and Asian Americans continued for months, though reported hate crimes have recently declined.
Despite the surge in racist behavior targeting Asian people, the City Council entirely defunded a $1 million initiative to prevent hate crimes. The program allowed various nonprofit organizations to take reports of hate crimes from residents who might not otherwise feel comfortable calling the police. It also funded organizations to provide education and outreach on what resources were available.
“We helped educate the community about some of the remedies that were there,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, which received money through the initiative. “We helped to highlight and provide avenues for folks who are victims of hate crimes.”
Deborah Lauter, executive director of the city Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, which was created last year, also expressed disappointment at the program’s elimination. “It’s definitely going to hurt our efforts overall,” she said.
Alexander Rosemberg, deputy regional director for New York and New Jersey at the Anti-Defamation League, also said it was difficult to evaluate the program’s success given how little time it was in place. “I don’t feel that you can tell what the full effects of the policy are after only a year and a half of having been implemented, especially when so much of it was preventative,” he said.
Having organizations informally compile reports of hate crimes and bias incidents can also play a big role filling in a knowledge gap for officials, particularly given the underreporting of such crimes to police. More than half of all hate crimes committed between 2004 and 2015 weren’t reported to law enforcement, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“It helps us get a sense of what the real numbers are much better,” Lauter said. “If we know 10 calls are going to (an) organization, then we can try to figure out, why is this group being targeted? What kind of resources are there?”
Although the NYPD reports only two anti-Asian hate crimes occurring from January through early June, the department reported 20 other hate crimes fueled by the coronavirus, the second-highest category behind anti-Semitism.
About 37% of all 389 coronavirus-related incidents reported to the city Commission on Human Rights from February to the end of May involved anti-Asian sentiment. The 145 complaints also represent a tenfold increase in anti-Asian complaints filed compared to the same period last year, which had only 12. This encompasses many bias incidents that don’t necessarily rise the level of a hate crime, such as being called a racial slur. The Commission on Human Rights also responds to other discriminatory behavior, such as landlords kicking out Asian residents they accuse of having the coronavirus. The Asian American Federation, which represents nonprofits supporting the Asian community, has also collected 371 of its own reports of bias incidents from January through July 15.
And as lockdown restrictions are lifted and more businesses reopen, city officials are already fearing a resurgence in hate crimes and other discriminatory behavior as residents come into contact with one another more often. Overall, hate crimes were down by 34% as of late May compared with the same period last year, according to Mark Molinari, the NYPD deputy inspector and commanding officer of the Hate Crime Task Force. Other crimes were also down because of the stay-at-home order earlier this year.
“I worry as we go into the long hot summer, where we generally see an increase, because there’s been so much tension and community unrest, it could manifest into hate violence,” Lauter said. “How to approach it is a real challenge.”
New York’s law enforcement does have some advantages in its strategy for investigating hate crimes however. “They have the best approach for dealing with hate crimes that I found,” said Jeannine Bell, an expert on policing and hate crimes with the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “Specialized detective units work best,” she said. “Anyone who knows about hate crimes will tell you that.” These specialized units have more experience with hate crimes, know what evidence to collect for successful prosecution and are given the authority to investigate.
The degree to which that investigation can happen, however, is limited by how many victims report the crime. Victims may not trust police. Some may be worried about being scrutinized on their immigration status. Others may simply be ashamed or embarrassed.
“A lot of the Asian Americans, we come from countries where action with law enforcement is something really scary and dangerous,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation. “So people avoid law enforcement altogether.”
City officials have hosted virtual town halls in partnership with Asian community leaders and launched an ad campaign in various languages to inform New Yorkers – particularly those of Asian or Pacific Islander descent – on what resources are available to them if they face hate. “Very much at top of mind for me is always thinking about, would my parents, would my relatives be reporting these incidents?” said Carmelyn Malalis, commissioner of the city Commission on Human Rights. “How do we make it more likely that they would?” She said the commission won’t send information they receive to the NYPD without the victim’s approval, for example, and the city won’t ask about anyone’s immigration status.
But for some Asian American leaders, the city’s initiatives came to fruition too slowly. Though the city had some in-person programs tackling anti-Asian sentiment beginning in February, some more coordinated efforts took shape later in the year. The Commission on Human Rights formed a team focused on coronavirus-related discrimination in late April and launched an ad campaign in late May.
“Why wasn’t that a plan already, right, because we were already seeing things happening in January, February, even before the lockdown,” Yoo said.
There are other preventive actions the city has taken. A curriculum has been developed to teach public school students about racism and hate, though evaluating the outcomes of such efforts takes time and may be difficult to measure. But the city has also worked with the Center for Anti-Violence Education, an organization based in Brooklyn, to conduct eight training sessions to teach about 250 people how to intervene as a bystander witnessing hateful behavior. But even that approach is controversial, Bell said, given that there have been cases where bystanders can be hurt while intervening. Two men in Portland, Oregon, were stabbed to death in 2017 after standing up to a man yelling anti-Muslim comments at train passengers, for example. “Prevention is a really hard issue with respect to hate crimes,” Bell said.