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Hate crime laws won’t actually prevent anti-Asian hate crimes

By centering policing, they do little to address the root cause.

People at a protest hold signs that read “I am not a virus,” and “Stop Asian Hate.”
A Stop Asian Hate rally in Detroit on March 27, part of a nationwide protest against hate crimes directed at Asian Americans.
Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The largest federal response to a surge in attacks against Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic has been Congress’s Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act. The law, passed last month, designates a specific Justice Department official to focus on reviewing such incidents and provides grants to police departments so they can establish hotlines for hate crime reporting.

According to multiple experts, however, hate crime laws, like the one Congress just passed, serve a symbolic purpose but don’t really do much to deter people from committing hate crimes.

In fact, much of the conversation around hate crimes has centered on what happens after an attack has already taken place. There’s been a focus on the collection of hate crime data, calls for more policing or security in various communities, and an examination of the types of penalties that perpetrators should face.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have overlooked perhaps the most important piece: prevention.

“Nobody says I’m not going to beat that person up because I’m going to get arrested for a hate crime law. What they do is send a message that this behavior is egregious,” says California State University professor Phyllis Gerstenfeld, a criminal justice expert who studies hate crimes. “It puts this official seal that this behavior is harmful for different communities.”

While experts note that such messaging is important, and gathering more information about the problem could potentially help target a response, activists are concerned that the collected data could be used to strengthen a carceral system that’s already been shown to be both ineffective and discriminatory, particularly toward Black Americans.

“The real question is what do we do with that data? Is it to reinforce a certain narrative that we need more policing?” asks Jason Wu, co-chair of GAPIMNY-Empowering Queer & Trans Asian Pacific Islanders, one of over 85 Asian American and Pacific Islander advocacy groups that oppose Congress’s latest bill. “If the data is the call for more of the same, then it’s not going to do anything useful to preventing violence in the future.”

Actually preventing hate crimes will require addressing their root causes instead — something that’s neglected by the congressional response.

“Enhancing criminal prosecutions of and requiring greater reporting on hate crimes are interventions that take place after bias incidents have taken place,” Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke previously told Vox. “Education, public messaging — particularly from elected officials — and other community-based programs aimed at reconciliation and repair are more likely to reduce the incidents of hate crimes.”

Much of the response to anti-Asian hate crimes doesn’t address the root cause

Part of the reason many hate crime laws focus on responding to an incident, rather than attempting to target the root cause, is because it can be difficult to tackle the source of the prejudice and violent behavior — and because of how little research there is on what’s actually worked.

“It’s hard to even define the problem. What is hate? What is bias? It shifts really rapidly,” says Gerstenfeld, who notes that the people involved in these attacks often aren’t part of any type of organized hate group. “It’s hard to measure and do studies on attitude change. It’s just a really hard thing to study.”

In a 2020 Health Affairs research review led by UNC Charlotte’s Robert Cramer, experts noted repeatedly how scant the data is about the efficacy of preventive approaches that try to reduce prejudiced actions within communities. “With few exceptions such as intergroup contact, hate-motivated behavior reduction efforts are largely unproven to date,” they write.

Hate crimes, as the label suggests, are crimes motivated by biases that offenders hold about a particular group based on attributes including race, religion, and sexual orientation. Historically, they’ve been notoriously difficult to prosecute because they require proof of a person’s intent, and because laws are unevenly enforced by police.

“At the person level, it begins with biases,” says University of North Carolina Charlotte professor Robert Cramer, a public health researcher. “Hate crimes are the ... worst-case example of expression of these prejudices, and they can be impulsive and emotional, or well thought out.”

In the case of most hate crimes, the cause is multifaceted — and the victims are often picked arbitrarily. “Most hate crimes are a random person and a crime of opportunity,” says University of Akron psychology professor Toni Bisconti. “It’s about sending a message. ‘This person I attacked is a vessel to the community.’”

There are some patterns that researchers have observed in studying such attacks: Some perpetrators have a history of bullying or anger management problems, and they then direct this vitriol at a specific group because of information they’ve consumed that exacerbates existing prejudice. In a number of instances, those committing hate crimes are dealing with other issues including substance abuse.

“Parents and schools overlook their ability to be aggressive as kids,” says Bisconti. “If that pool of aggression goes unnoticed, as adults, there’s a bombardment of paranoia out there on the internet telling your young, righteous white male that someone in the world is going to take something from him.”

Exposure to statements by politicians, media, and other sources can amplify or fuel biases people may hold and lead them to identify specific groups as a threat.

“Many are driven by group protection: I am setting a wrong right,” says Edward Dunbar, a psychologist who has studied hate crime perpetrators. Research conducted in Boston in the 1990s by social scientists Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt identified four types of hate crime offenders: those looking for a thrill, those defending what they perceived as their territory, those retaliating for a perceived offense, and those who feel like they are on a mission against a specific group. (It’s worth noting that their sample size was limited, and that this research was conducted some time ago.)

One of the toughest issues when it comes to preventing hate crimes is that it’s incredibly hard to foresee who will commit such incidents, since many aren’t part of a coordinated group and a number are completely unplanned.

“This century, you see something even more dangerous — you see more defensive hate crimes,” says Levin. “There are too many white Americans who feel multiple threats, who feel like they are being replaced by people of color.”

Hate incidents and sentiment increased during the Trump administration as he used racist rhetoric and stoked violence toward several groups including Latino Americans, Black Americans, Muslim Americans, and Jewish Americans. In an interview with NBC News, University of California Riverside political science professor Karthick Ramakrishnan noted that Trump’s racist comments about Latino Americans directly affected people’s behavior:

He said a 2020 study that examined Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants during his presidential campaign — when he referred to them as “rapists” and declared that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best” — found that the inflammatory remarks emboldened certain members of the American public and gave them license to express deeply held prejudices. Researchers dubbed this the “Trump effect” or “emboldening effect.”

In the case of anti-Asian hate incidents and crimes, experts point to discriminatory rhetoric used by leaders, including Trump, that associated Asian Americans with the spread of the coronavirus, combined with deep-seated biases about Asian Americans as foreigners as some of the factors driving such attacks. Additionally, due to the pervasiveness of the misleading “model minority” myth, some see resentment toward Asian Americans, who are stereotyped as doing well in the US, as another reason for such hostility.

“The precedent was set as soon as [Trump] made that ‘China virus’ remark, that’s continued to stick. The idea of, wait, wait, wait, you’re dirty. It goes into the fear of foreigners, which is how we’ve always aggressed against Asian people,” says Bisconti.

Punitive responses don’t really address the biases that people internalize or their relationship with violence — both of which are key aspects of hate crimes. While the new congressional hate crime law aims to include community service and education efforts as part of the penalties an offender faces, it’s still a reactive solution after failing to reach someone before they’ve committed such attacks.

“To prevent hate crimes requires something completely different. It requires not changing laws, but the thinking of people in this country,” says Levin, now a Northeastern University professor emeritus.

Experts say education and social service policies can help prevent hate crimes

So if punitive actions and sentencing don’t prevent hate crimes, what does?

There are some studies that have seen promising results for combating biases, but there’s a lot we still don’t know.

Some of the most robust research has focused on contact theory, or the idea that interaction between people of different backgrounds can reduce tensions between them. Studies have also shown that when people work together toward a common goal, such as the construction of a local park, they end up developing a better understanding of one another.

“Decades of research show that the more face-to-face, personal interactions that you have with members of other groups, not only the more positive your attitudes are toward them, the more willing you are to welcome them into your communities, the more you trust them, the more you empathize with them, the more willing you are to engage in collective action to promote their interests,” says University of Massachusetts Amherst psychology professor Linda Tropp.

Such interventions, however, are limited in scale, and require vulnerable groups to engage with those who might aggress against them, putting them in a difficult position. They’ve also predominantly been implemented in small groups within communities, versus at a broader level.

“It’s an intervention at the personal level in an effort to solve an intergroup problem,” says Bryn Mawr psychology professor Clark McCauley.

A larger response, some experts say, could include more expansive education efforts about race that begin at a young age, as well as better mental health resources in schools and beyond. This is a longer-term intervention, though it could combat people’s biases and inform them about groups they may be less personally familiar with, while also providing children with better tools to express their emotions.

Some school-level interventions have had success, including tactics that involve counseling and emotional learning among students. By improving education, and mental health services, policymakers could help combat hate crimes in a systemic way rather than using policing and punishment as the main recourse.

“We just don’t have genuine exposure. We don’t talk about race in a real sense. We certainly aren’t talking about Asian Americans. We are just talking around it,” says Bisconti. “We have gym class, why don’t we have mental health class? When you have somebody talking with you about how to handle your own emotions?”

In addition to mental health support, activists emphasize that addressing other needs people may be struggling with, whether that’s access to housing or substance abuse, could address some of the causes behind such attacks.

“If you’re in a process of trying to transform harm and create accountability, they have to be in a place where their basic needs are met,” says Turner Willman, an organizer in the Asian American advocacy group 18 Million Rising. As Rachel Ramirez and Jerusalem Demsas have explained for Vox, competition over resources in low-income neighborhoods has been a source of conflict between groups in the past, and improving access to these services could help reduce intergroup tension, along with individual well-being.

In the near term, experts say public statements by leaders and other prominent figures to condemn anti-Asian sentiment can shape societal norms and indicate to people that such violence is unacceptable. The most effective of these would come from members of groups, like Trump’s followers, who have already bought into the racist rhetoric that’s used to describe the coronavirus. Statements by other Republican leaders and influential community figures, such as religious leaders, could help, too.

“It’s really hard to predict who is going to be the perpetrator,” says Duke law professor James Coleman. “People in the community need to be speaking out against it, people seeing these actions taking action against it. It requires a community response that makes it costly for people to do this.”