President Joe Biden sits at a desk holding a pen surrounded by members of Congress.

U.S. President Joe Biden hands a pen to Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ills.) after signing the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act into law, as (L-R) Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Vice President Kamala Harris, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) look on in the East Room of the White House on May 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Treat Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Like a Public Health Crisis

Hate crimes threaten the health and wellbeing of individuals and by extension, the community, instilling fear based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, and disability.

Where will the next punch land? A month ago, an Asian elder was punched while walking in Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. In another incident, eggs and derogatory remarks were hurled at a group outside of the UCLA campus. It’s not just in California. States such as New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon are seeing a rise in crimes against the Asian community.

Reported crimes against the Asian community have increased 167% between 2020 and 2021, according to the FBI.That doesn’t count the many, many instances in which victims fear to report these incidents.

In the past 12 months, nearly three out of four Chinese Americans have experienced racial discrimination, and two in three feel a need to stay vigilant about hate crimes and harassment. As both a public health researcher and an Asian-American who has suffered such harassment, I believe we need to start treating racism as a new public health crisis, one that causes irreparable harm to the mental health of our community.

I recall the impact of hate all too well. As a child, classmates asked me whether I could see, because they said, “Your eyes are so small.”

Treating racism as a public health crisis starts with the recognition that racism affects our entire community, not just individuals. Focusing on policy and systems change must be heeded rather than focusing on punitive punishment against individuals.

I recall the impact of hate all too well. As a child, classmates asked me whether I could see, because they said, “Your eyes are so small.” In high school, a classmate told me regularly, “I want to beat your face” when I asked a question in class because I looked “annoying” to her. In my 20s, a group of men followed me, dispensing derogatory Asian slurs, while asking me to “get into their car for a little fun?”

If we wish to stop anti-Asian crimes, we cannot sit back and continue to be bystanders. We must address it head-on. This means:

1. Establishing Racial Justice Councils

During public health crises, public health departments often form special units or task forces to focus on the problem. If we treated hate crimes the same way, we would see more racial justice councils (RJCs), like those now emerging in Oregon, or through organizations like the Massachusetts chapter of the National Social Work Association.These councils support state legislators or other groups focusing on hate crimes by ensuring policies are driven by data and that recommendations are provided to the governor and state legislature on core racial issues, including criminal justice, housing, economy, health equity, education, and environmental justice.

RJCs are important steps toward building trust within the community, and toward holding leadership accountable by using data-driven resources. RJCs, like the one in Oregon, come from organizations and businesses who bring in a racial equity lens.

2. Passing Stronger Laws Against Hate Crimes

Hate crimes threaten the health and wellbeing of individuals and by extension, the community, instilling fear based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, and disability. A key tenant within public health focuses on structural change—the passage of stronger laws against hate crimes will reduce fear while also demonstrating commitment towards protections for vulnerable groups.

Although 49 states have passed some sort of legislation on hate crimes, these laws are haphazard at best, depending on inconsistent definitions of hate crimes. Fortunately, states are beginning to pass stronger laws against hate crimes. For instance, Oregon recently passed laws granting hate crime victims paid leave and rental assistance. Michigan recently passed legislation to expand hate crime coverage to include protections based on sex, sexual orientation, age, gender identity, or physical or mental disabilities. If hate crimes were treated like a public health crisis, stronger responses like these new, more powerful laws, would become the rule.

3. Better Data Collection Methods

Data informs solutions for public health, by improving the health of populations as a whole. Likewise, we need consistent data on hate crimes. Even when states do have hate crime legislation, they do not track data equally. Currently, 18 out of those 49 states and territories that have laws in place do not require data collection on such crimes, according to the Justice Department.

Without proper data, it is impossible to quantify the volume of hate crimes. Inconsistent hate crime laws result in unjust court battles, unfair hate crime coverage, and insufficient efforts to address the crimes.

It’s true that there’s increasing awareness of hate crimes against Asian Americans, as evidenced by President Joe Biden signing the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act into law in 2021. The law makes it easier to report hate crimes, boosts public outreach, directs the Department of Justice to expedite hate crimes reviews, and increases funding for local and state governments for crime-reduction programs.

Despite all this, crimes against the Asian community have continued to increase dramatically. Treating hate crimes like a public health crisis would be an important step toward ending an epidemic that affects the well-being of everyone.

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