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Op-Ed: A hate crime law is a start. But it will take much more to make Asian Americans feel safer

Sen. Mazie Hirono speaks at a news conference with Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Majority Leader Charles Schumer.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) speaks after her bill passed 94-1, a vote that reflects the growing clout of Asian American legislators in Congress. With her are Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, left, and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York.
(Los Angeles Times)

There is much to celebrate about the Senate approving legislation that would help combat the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. It passed on a 94-1 vote, reflecting the growing clout of Asian American legislators in Congress and a new, fierce sense of activism within the broader Asian community. It shows that, at least on rare occasions, lawmakers can unite and act on a matter of national urgency — and for the first time, the welfare of Asian communities is considered that important.

The measure would make it easier for law enforcement to investigate hate crimes against Asian Americans. It provides for faster federal review of hate crimes and sets up better channels for reporting them.

But will it make us safer?

Preventing violent crimes requires addressing hate at its roots. The wave of anti-Asian attacks — and the fear, pain and anger it has triggered — illustrates the corrosive effects of systemic racism and a culture of white supremacy that brands people of color as “the other.” Law enforcement is not equipped to change that culture.

We need strategies to erase toxic racial divisions, reject narratives that scapegoat any group and advance racial justice and equity while making sure people feel safe. To accomplish this, investments need to be made in community-based safety programs and anti-hate initiatives. Education must incorporate the rich and complex role of communities of color in the American story. And multiracial collaboration must be strengthened.

The Senate approved a rare bipartisan bill to help law enforcement address anti-Asian hate crimes, which have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community safety programs such as bystander intervention training and chaperone services have sprung up around the country as a first line of prevention, but funding is needed to scale up such efforts. In recent months, Asian Americans Advancing Justice has trained more than 60,000 people nationally, and the L.A. affiliate has been overwhelmed with demand for trainings. Through a program organized by area residents, hundreds of volunteers have begun chaperoning seniors in Oakland’s Chinatown community.

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Research has shown that bystander training helps defuse potentially violent confrontations while cultivating shared responsibility for community safety. Programs encourage and empower people across race and ethnicity to step forward for one another. That’s crucial if narratives that scapegoat or demonize any group are to be overcome.

Communities also need a straightforward way for victims to report incidents, including harassment that may not be a crime, and to get culturally and linguistically sensitive help. The pandemic has increased depression, anxiety and stress across the board, but the rise in hate against Asian Americans is compounding our emotional turmoil.

An L.A. County initiative, L.A. vs. Hate, is making a difference. It has created a network of 100 local organizations to provide victims of hate with mental health, legal and other support. Since more than 40 languages are spoken among Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles, more investment is needed so organizations can tailor support to specific communities.

Crucially, L.A. vs. Hate goes beyond helping individuals. It analyzes and tracks acts of racist hostility and violence and promotes racial healing. The organization has expanded the 211 social services referral helpline, where those who are victims of, or witness to, hate can find help. It also created a website, LAvsHate.org, for reporting acts of bias and racism. The result: an initiative that is cultivating a multiracial movement to stop the normalization of hate.

Education is also critical. School districts must promote robust ethnic studies programs from at least as early as kindergarten and continue them through high school. Young people must grow up understanding the historical contributions and struggles of people of color, who make up nearly 40% of the U.S. population.

Americans need to understand the pattern of “othering” Asian Americans and making them scapegoats when the country feels threatened. This includes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration to the U.S.; Japanese American internment during World War II; post-9/11 racial profiling of South Asians and Muslims; and the blame being heaped on Asians for the spread of the coronavirus that has led to the recent spike in hate.

Earlier this month, the Asian American Education Project was launched with the release of 50 lesson plans on Asian American history. Within days, 500 teachers — most not of Asian descent — signed up for free training to learn how to use the plans.

Hate can be a galvanizing force. But people who care about inclusion and justice must unite around more than the fight against hate. Every act of anti-Asian hostility is an assault on an individual and Asian communities, and on multiracial democracy. We need to develop sustained solidarity, upend myths about “good” and “bad” minorities that are designed to pull us apart and work together to advance equity, justice and dignity for all.

This means banding together to eliminate inequities that harm so many people in communities of color — such as disparities in healthcare, which have become glaring during the pandemic. It means working collectively on central issues of racial justice and inclusion, including law enforcement reform, voting rights and affirmative action. It means showing up as allies with the Black community in responding to killings by police to demonstrate that Asian Americans are in the fight to end structural racism.

The hate crime bill, which is now with the House, strengthens the federal government’s ability to deal with hate crimes and supports anti-bias education. That’s all good. But Asian American communities will stop being targets only when the nation transcends ugly racial divisions, recognizes the dignity and humanity of all people and invests in community-driven solutions aimed at keeping everyone safe and secure.

Stewart Kwoh is co-founder and co-executive director of the Asian American Education Project. Connie Chung Joe is chief executive officer of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. Connie Rice is a civil rights attorney.


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