When President George H.W. Bush signed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, he was widely praised by groups representing American Jews, racial minorities, women, and gays and lesbians. This loose coalition of the oppressed had lobbied for years to get quantitative proof of the bias they’d experienced on the streets, from vandalism to sexual assault. The Anti-Defamation League had established a hate-crimes template in its annual catalogue of “overt acts or expressions” of anti-Jewish prejudice, ranging from verbal harassment and neo-Nazi propaganda to murder. Other groups crafted their own counts. By the early to mid-1990s, bolstered by Bush’s federal statute, law enforcement and journalists diagnosed an “epidemic” of hate crimes across the U.S.
This continued, off and on, through the Clinton and Obama years, especially after the 1998 lynchings of Matthew Shephard, a young gay man in Wyoming, and James Byrd, Jr., a Black man in Texas. There are now dozens of state and federal laws devoted to hate-crimes data collection, prevention, and punishment. The result is not that racial, gender, and sexual minorities are safer, but that someone who utters a slur while committing a robbery could get more prison time than someone who doesn’t — though this all depends on the discretion of cops, prosecutors, judges, activists, and journalists.
The U.S. is now, reportedly, in the grip of another hate-crimes epidemic — this time against East and Southeast Asian Americans. But instead of responding to this cluster of beatings and killings with more criminalization, abolitionist feminists are asking: What has the legal category of hate crimes achieved over the past 30 years? Is law enforcement an appropriate means of achieving political recognition?
On March 16, a man armed with his brand-new gun killed eight people at three Asian-owned spas in Atlanta. He had made grotesque sexual comments about Asian women, but the local sheriff said the killer was simply having “a really bad day.” By the usual definition of a hate crime, the murders of Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yu, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, and Paul Andre Michel certainly qualify: Six of the eight were Chinese or Korean immigrant women.
Before and after the massacre, there were many other high-profile attacks on Asian Americans. In April of last year, a man stabbed three members of an Asian American family at a Sam’s Club in Texas. In October, a Japanese jazz pianist was beaten in a New York City subway station. Then, in February, an 84-year-old Thai man named Vicha Ratanapakdee was fatally knocked to the ground in Oakland, California. The following month, Vilma Kari, a 65-year-old Filipina, was punched and stomped upon in broad daylight in midtown Manhattan.
Some of these attacks were surely inspired by Donald Trump’s special brand of nativism (“kung flu,” “China virus”) and the bipartisan framing of China as the cause of all social ills, from Covid-19 to the death of American manufacturing. But there are other, less spectacular factors: A couple of the assailants struggled with mental illness; some of the victims were assumed to be carrying cash. It isn’t clear from witness testimony or crime data whether these incidents constitute a spike in bias crimes. Nevertheless, the Department of Justice, the FBI, and local police departments have assembled Asian-specific task forces and promised to increase patrols of Chinatowns and other immigrant enclaves.
In moments when rage, however warranted, threatens to undo progress toward decarceration and decriminalization, it’s essential to trace the history of hate-crimes legislation. As criminologists James B. Jacobs and Jessica S. Henry observed in 1996, “Politicians have enthusiastically climbed aboard the hate-crime-epidemic bandwagon. Denouncing hate crime and passing sentencing-enhancement laws provides elected officials with an opportunity to decry bigotry. Politicians can propose anti-hate legislation as a cheap, quick-fix solution that sends powerful symbolic messages to important groups of constituents.”
Sure enough, in late May, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill sponsored by Japanese-American Senator Mazie Hirono and Chinese-American Representative Grace Meng. The law will fund the Department of Justice to help state and local police agencies standardize their hate-crimes reporting and conduct “culturally competent” education campaigns. It isn’t clear, though, how these programs would improve safety. Hate-crimes laws have not made trans women or sex workers less vulnerable to abuse and murder on the streets; nor have they stopped the police from racially profiling and shooting Indigenous and Black people.
A growing number of activists, well aware of this reality, are saying “no” to hate-crimes escalation. As Naomi Murakawa, a third-generation Japanese American and a political scientist at Princeton, recently argued, “The conditions are never just going to be there for abolition to occur…. The carceral state grows because of the feeling of urgency.” In Oakland, Murakawa’s hometown, community members have started neighbor-to-neighbor safety patrols. Black Lives Matter groups across the country have hosted solidarity actions that call for care and local investment instead of policing. And groups like Butterfly, the Massage Parlor Outreach Project, Red Canary Song, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta have issued abolitionist, pro-worker statements in response to the killings in Georgia.
Several weeks after the Atlanta massacre, I attended a rally for the victims in New York City. A few hundred people, most but not all of us Asian, gathered in a park in Chinatown that’s named after Christopher Columbus and sits in the vertical shadow of the “the tombs,” Manhattan’s towering jail. But that afternoon, “abolish the NYPD” and “abolish ICE” were among our demands. We created our own temporary security, our own bodily bulwark against violence. We keep each other safe.
E. Tammy Kim is a contributing editor at Lux, a freelance reporter, and a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times.