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Report: Orange County hate crimes, incidents reach record highs in 2020

Irvine Black Lives Matter protest
A sign at the Irvine protest on June 13, 2020 reads “Racism is a pandemic.”
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Hate crimes and incidents in Orange County rose to historic levels in 2020 amid a pandemic, according to an annual report by the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

Since 1991, the commission has compiled such statistics for the county and released its latest findings during a remote presentation on Friday. Speakers included O.C. Human Relations staff and Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer.

“I’m very upset about [the report],” Spitzer said. “Hate crime is up. It’s been up now for several years in a row and it’s completely unacceptable.”

A hate crime, as defined by the California attorney general, is a criminal act motivated “in whole or in part” by a victim’s actual or perceived identity, such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disability. It can constitute prosecutable offenses like assault, vandalism and murder.

Spitzer touted the creation of a hate crimes unit within his office in May and noted there have been more prosecutions of such criminal offenses in the last two years than in the past 25 years.

Nhi Nguyen, a hate crime coordinator for the O.C. Human Relations nonprofit, presented the report’s data following Spitzer’s comments and described the findings as a “snapshot.”

Zoom screenshot taken from the Orange County Human Relations Commission Sept. 17 presentation of the report.
(Screenshot by Gabriel San Roman)

The vast majority of hate crimes tallied were motivated by race, ethnicity or national origin. In all, 112 hate crimes were reported in O.C. in 2020, a 35% increase over the previous year. The rise continues a disturbing trend over the past five years.

Even though Black residents comprise just 2% of the county’s population, anti-Black hate crimes accounted for the most commonly reported offenses, followed by anti-Semitic and anti-Latino motivated acts.

“Each incident limits our capacity to truly become that national model of a diverse county,” said Dr. Douglas Haynes, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at UC Irvine, during a panel discussion on the report. “It’s just distressing to see year over year, the Black community in Orange County is disproportionately among the victims of hate incidents and certainly crimes.”

A hate incident, as defined in the report, is behavior motivated by hate or bias that isn’t necessarily criminal in nature, such as verbal abuse or bullying.

Prior to the pandemic, four hate incidents against Asian Americans were reported in 2019. Last year, that number rose dramatically to 76, an 1,800% increase.

As part of the commission’s methodology, data collected by the Stop AAPI Hate nonprofit were incorporated into the report, a move welcomed by community members.

“It’s good that O.C. Human Relations included Stop AAPI Hate because the data from them can be reported in any language, anonymously as well as online,” said Mary Anne Foo, executive director of the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA). “It allows for people to feel comfortable reporting.”

Chart from the 2020 Orange County Hate Crimes Report released Sept. 17 by the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
(Screenshot by Gabriel San Roman)

Hate incidents, in all, spiked in March 2020, the same month that initial stay-at-home orders in California sought to flatten the curve of rising coronavirus infections. As the Asian American community faced blame for the pandemic, they braced for a wave of hate.

“There was so much media attention at the time that I think it raised awareness to report,” Foo said. “Politicians blaming and calling it the ‘China virus’ did drive up an increase in hate crimes and incidents.”

Foo cautioned that lower numbers reported after the onset of the pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean the situation is improving for Asian Americans in O.C.

In 2021, a “toxic stew” of anti-Asian racism has continued to roil O.C. and has even targeted Asian American politicians and county officials. County Supervisor Andrew Do, a Vietnamese American, couldn’t join the hate crime report presentation as scheduled as he’s ill with COVID-19, but faced vitriol during a July 27 Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting when a speaker used an expletive and told him to go back to Vietnam.

Anti-Semitic hate incidents also rose by 114% last year, according to the report.

As policies surrounding the vaccine campaign have been discussed, considered and carried out this year, anti-vaccine activists have also arrived at civic meetings in O.C. using yellow stars and other historical imagery from the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews.

“It sets a foundation for anti-Semitism,” said Rabbi Peter Levi, the Anti-Defamation League’s Regional Director for Orange County and Long Beach. “It distorts what the Holocaust was and does little to serve Holocaust remembrance and education.”

The presentation of the hate crime report ended on a hopeful note and a call to action, as the combined number of hate crimes and incidents in 2020 outpaced the year before by 136.

“Real change is possible,” Nguyen said. “As a community in Orange County, we can come together to not only advocate for change but to work together to effect change so that we can get closer to a county and a world that is intolerant of violence, of hate and bigotry.”

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