This post was co-authored by Joo Ning Lim, a public policy intern from Western Michigan University
- The coronavirus pandemic has coincided with an increase in attacks targeting Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities
- Existing “hate crime” laws do not adequately deter or resolve many bias-motivated attacks
- A complimentary public health approach to racism and violence is important for data collection, victim support, community education, and prevention strategies.
Along with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of hate incidents against communities of color has increased at an alarming rate throughout 2020 and 2021, particularly for Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Americans. Anti-Asian hate crimes increased by almost 150 percent from 2019 to 2020, and a national report indicates that the number of reported incidents involving discrimination increased significantly in the early part of 2021.
Hate crimes targeting AAPI Americans were reported to have occurred most frequently in some of the largest cities like New York and Los Angeles, which could be partly attributed to the high percentage of Asian residents in these cities. Additionally, hate crimes are more likely to be reported in cities like New York that have designated task forces and well established reporting channels. Nonetheless, Michigan was among the 10 states with the greatest number of reported incidents in 2020, and Ann Arbor had the 10th greatest number of incidents reported in the news of any U.S. city, in a tie for this rank with much larger cities (San Diego, CA, San Jose, CA, and Washington DC).
The increase of hate crimes and various forms of discrimination against people of Asian descent has been strongly associated with the use of stigmatized language and blame for the COVID-19 pandemic. In March of 2020, we wrote: “the origin of the [virus]…provides no justification for the spread of racist tropes and anti-Asian prejudice that have been concurrently observed.”Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s advice against the use of stigmatizing language, phrases such as ‘Wuhan virus’ and ‘Chinese virus’ became frequently searched terms on Google.
Notable among such incidents of bias-motivated violence was the mass shooting in Atlanta on March 16, 2021, where six of the eight women killed were of Asian descent. Many believed that this act was racially targeted, causing much grief and fear among Asian communities.
Aside from such heinous, violent attacks on individuals, many Asian American-owned businesses have also been targeted and make up a significant portion of reported incidents targeting AAPI communities. Numerous Asian restaurants across different states have reported a drop in business and/or threats and vandalism during the pandemic.
The increase in hate crimes presents an added burden for Asian communities, exacerbating challenges experienced by AAPI citizens (a broad, heterogenous classification). Disaggregated data reveals that certain groups within the AAPI community have experienced numerous health disparities, such as high mortality rates, higher risk for COVID-19 transmission (due to many factors, such as frontline worker status and intergenerational housing), and lack of health insurance, as well as discrimination and xenophobia that affect health outcomes.
While anti-Asian racism is not new to the United States, the swift and drastic increase in violent hate crimes and other hate incidents targeting Asian Americans represents a widespread concern that demands attention.
Racism as a Public Health Issue
Racism is a multifaceted, complex issue that systematically disadvantages certain groups of people based on socially-constructed racial identities. While some understand racism as synonymous with interpersonal discrimination or personal predjudice, racism is best conceptualized as a multi-dimensional construct that can be identified at the individual, interpersonal, and societal level.
The most overt displays of racism are incidents like hate crimes, followed by covert/symbolic acts like shunning or negative attitudes towards a certain group, followed by institutional discrimination that is manifested in policies and other structural institutions i.e., biased immigration policies and residential segregation. At the individual level, research also links racial discrimination with internalizaion of racism that contributes to poorer self-image and poorer mental health, as well as higher levels of physical and psychological distress. Racism goes beyond arbitrary acts like hate incidents and bears devastating consequences for targeted minority groups as a whole.
Extensive research has shown the impacts of racism on inequities on almost every measure of health and wellbeing, and leading voices in public health, such as the CDC and the American Public Health Association, have explicitly identified racism as a public health issue. Racism is an antecedent to the social determinants of health, contributing to poverty, substandard living conditions, higher rates of illness and disease, and lower life expectancy. It has been widely acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minorities due to underlying health inequities that existed even before the pandemic, which led to disparities in terms of access to healthcare and higher risks of exposure to the virus.
Mental Health Outcomes
Hate incidents are associated with adverse health outcomes on every measure, including poor physical health when victims sustain bodily injury, experience physical trauma, and/or have difficulty accessing medical care. Physical and violent assaults also bring about multiple consequences beyond physical outcomes and can lead to psychosocial stressors. Stress stemming from racial targeting can contribute to anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Furthermore, Asian Americans are less likely to seek out mental health treatment compared to White counterparts due to cultural bias and stigmatization. The “model minority” myth also further stigmatizes and gaslights AAPI individuals because this label perpetuates the stereotype that all Asians are successful and cannot be classified as the minority. It also groups AAPI Americans as a monolithic group, which overlooks the diversity within the community and various health disparities between ethnic groups. In particular, Asian American women are disproportionately impacted by hate incidents and face unique challenges in terms of health and psychosocial stressors when it comes to discrimination. Thus, economic, health, and cultural differences must be accounted for when studying health factors within different ethnic groups.
Hate Crime Laws
The U.S. Department of Justice prohibits racial discrimination and includes federal protection against discrimination based on national origin. Under federal criminal law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act defines and criminalizes hate crimes against “any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin.” Similarly, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act makes it a felony to harm, or threaten to harm, a person, or the property of a person, “with specific intent to intimidate or harass” that person “because of that person’s race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.”
Despite this, classification of an act as a “hate crime” often does not provide adequate deterrence and leaves many legal gaps. A Department of Justice analysis found that fewer than half of the hate crimes that occur each year are reported to authorities, and of those, just 45 percent are ultimately enforced as hate crimes. Many victims of hate crimes are hesitant in reporting crime due to the fear of retaliation from perpetrators, language barriers, and not wanting to create trouble. As a result, most hate crimes are not prosecuted, and it is rarely proven that a crime was motivated by racial/ethnic bias.
Although Michigan has a uniform crime reporting system and provisions to protect against hate crimes, a lack of awareness on reporting mechanisms and other obstacles continue to deter Michiganders from reporting such crimes. Such barriers suggest that reported data do not reflect the actual prevalence of bias-motivated crimes that occur in Michigan.
Public Health Approach to Racism and Violence
Hate incidents have devastating consequences for entire communities, and the adverse physical and mental health impacts of these incidents warrant renewed attention. Comprehensive solutions must go beyond the prosecution of hate crimes and include policies to support victims, promote sensitivity to cultural differences, build healthier, more resilient living environments, and cultivate empathy for the experiences of communities disproportionately affected by both discrimination and disease. This means complimenting criminal justice solutions with a public health approach to racism and violence.
Our 2018 public health report revealed Michigan’s lack of investment in public health and highlighted numerous limitations in public health surveillance and data collection capacity. These data are essential for understanding emerging trends that affect health, as well as for developing/refining/evaluating policies and programs intended to improve the health and well-being of Michiganders.
Better data means a deeper and clearer understanding of problems, as well as an increased capacity to develop solutions. Public health and other agencies should analyze disaggregated data to gain a broader perspective on health disparities within different ethnic groups. State and local governments should invest in the data capacity necessary to understand and address the unique health needs of AAPI and other racial and ethnic subgroups, rather than grouping them as one. Moreover, while race has a notable and important effect on health, analyzing health data by race alone can paint and incomplete and sometimes misleading picture; it is important to stratify by dimensions of socioeconomic status, age, gender, geography, and other relevant factors.
Subsequently, more extensive research on anti-Asian racism and how it affects various groups by ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, religion, and other factors would provide a better understanding of the impact of this issue. Ideally, this will lead to informed policymaking and appropriate funding to support public health surveillance and interdisciplinary training that foster healthy communication and effective conflict resolution for hateful behavior.
The Importance of Support and Advocacy
Local advocacy and civil rights organizations play an important role in fostering the education and awareness necessary to address hate crimes. Organizations and agencies like the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes (MIAAHC) and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) could be important sources of bystander intervention and allyship training to encourage communities to stand in solidarity against hateful incidents. It is also important to correct negative and/or false information about the coronavirus and to speak out against stigmatizing language intended to spread biased or hateful attitudes against a certain group.
In April 2021, the federal COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was enacted to expand reporting channels and allow for a more comprehensive review of hate crimes. This legislation will encourage states to create hate crime hotlines and financially support law enforcement agencies to train and educate various stakeholders on hate crimes and raise awareness of anti-Asian discrimination. With this, public safety departments within Michigan should form partnerships with existing initiatives to cultivate safe and inclusive communities. Victims of hate crimes are also encouraged to contact the Department of Attorney General so that bias- or racism-related incidents can be properly investigated and prosecuted if necessary.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed stark health disparities and the long-existing reality of anti-Asian racism. Inarguably, understanding the root of this complex issue and actively addressing it requires active collaboration between different stakeholders and commitment towards solving this issue. Moving forward, policymakers should not turn a blind eye to racism and xenophobia but instead address it as a complex public health concern that affects communities everywhere.