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A spate of high-profile assaults on Asian Americans has renewed long-standing criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups that the U.S. government is vastly undercounting hate crimes, a problem that they say has grown more acute amid rising white nationalism and deepening racial strife.
The attacks — including several in Northern California over the past month that attracted national attention — followed months of warnings from advocates that anti-China rhetoric from former president Donald Trump over the coronavirus pandemic was contributing to a surge in anti-Asian slurs and violence.
Although President Biden last month signed an executive action banning the federal government from employing the sort of “inflammatory and xenophobic” language Trump used to describe the virus — such as “China plague” and “kung flu” — Asian American leaders said the recent attacks demonstrate a need for greater urgency in dealing with such threats.
Among other incidents, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old San Francisco resident who had emigrated from Thailand, was killed in late January, in a brazen attack captured on a video that went viral on social media. Antoine Watson, a 19-year-old African American man, was charged in connection with Ratanapakdee’s death and has pleaded not guilty.
Biden administration officials said they are working to address the problem, pointing to a section in the executive memo that instructed the Justice Department to expand its reporting, tracking and prosecutions of “hate incidents.” Officials said those efforts could go beyond hate crimes to include episodes of harassment and discrimination.
During his Senate confirmation hearing Monday, Merrick Garland, Biden’s nominee for attorney general, pledged to support such efforts.
“Hate crimes tear at the fabric of our society. They make our citizens worried about walking the streets and exercising even the most normal rights,” Garland said. “The role of the [Justice Department’s] Civil Rights Division is to prosecute those cases vigorously, and I can ensure you that it will if I am confirmed.”
A 1990 federal law mandates that the FBI collect data specifically on hate crimes each year, but the effort has long been plagued by incomplete and inconsistent data provided by the nation’s estimated 18,000 state, municipal and tribal law enforcement agencies.
The administration is in the early stages of identifying strategies to compel broader participation. Among the ideas advocates have pushed for is tying federal funding from the Justice Department’s extensive grant programs to increased training and reporting on hate crimes.
In 2019, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report recommending Congress adopt legislation to provide funding for incentives and calling on local police to establish dedicated hate-crime units. Catherine E. Lhamon, who chaired that commission, now serves as deputy director for racial justice and equity on the White House domestic policy council.
At a news conference last week, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chair of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, said she is requesting a meeting with Justice Department leaders to discuss what she called a “crisis point” for the Asian American community in dealing with “an alarming surge of anti-Asian bigotry across the nation.”
Chu added that the 1990 law on reporting of hate crime data “doesn’t have any teeth” because it does not compel localities to comply or to do so in a consistent and thorough manner.
Last fall, the FBI reported 7,314 hate crimes nationwide in 2019, the most in a decade — but experts said the statistics were woefully inadequate because too few local law enforcement agencies fully participate in federal data collection efforts.
The FBI said that 15,588 law enforcement organizations participated in the 2019 hate crimes study, but just 2,172 agencies reported the total number of incidents contained in the report. Civil rights advocates called that scenario implausible, pointing out that the entire state of Alabama reported no hate crimes to the FBI in both 2018 and 2019.
“The FBI reports help us identify trends, but their data is so woefully inadequate that it can’t be relied on for much,” said civil rights lawyer Arjun Singh Sethi, author of “American Hate: Survivors Speak Out.”
Some big-city law enforcement agencies have publicly reported an increase in bias attacks against Asian Americans. For example, New York City’s hate crimes task force investigated 27 incidents in 2020, including 24 tied to the coronavirus, a ninefold increase from the previous year.
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