Julia Mah’s* eyes were still adjusting to the morning light when she woke up one Saturday and reached for her phone. A message from her aunt jolted her out of bed. Mah’s 79-year-old grandmother had been attacked at a bus stop in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Her grandmother was on her way home after a doctor’s appointment when she noticed a woman shouting racial slurs, Mah says. “She got really close to my grandmother, so my grandma ran.” The woman caught up and started beating the shocked senior with her bag. A year earlier, the Chinese elder had told her family that she was less afraid about getting COVID-19 than she was about getting randomly attacked downtown. Now, that’s exactly what was happening.
“The most frustrating part for me is that there were other people around — it was broad daylight,” Mah says. “Nobody got involved… no one went and checked on my grandmother.”
Mah believes what happened was a hate crime, one of thousands that go unreported every year. But her grandmother, who Mah says has seldom left home since the March attack, didn’t see it that way. She kept the incident secret for days before mentioning it to a relative, and she remains reluctant to share details about the attack, which curdled family efforts to collect information and file an official report with police.
For the older generation, Mah says, being perceived as a victim is culturally perceived as a “sign of weakness or vulnerability.” But for some activists, the problems with relying on police run deeper. Aided by new tech and social media, they’re launching their own projects to collect data on the real scope of the violence, hoping to push institutions that have overlooked and undercounted the issue for generations.
Doris*, a Vancouver-based community organizer, experienced her own run-in with anti-Asian harassment last year. She reported the racist, sexually explicit comments from a passerby to police — but they told her the incident didn’t meet their threshold for recording because it wasn’t a crime. In response, Doris and a group of others created Project 1907: a grassroots organization that is using technology to help “diasporic Asians to understand our histories, explore our identities, examine our privileges and reclaim our power.”
Project 1907’s founders named the group after Vancouver’s 1907 anti-immigration race riots to both educate and put their advocacy work into a historical context. Among other initiatives, the organization operates its hate incident reporting tool — a Google form that’s available in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.
More than 600 people have used Project 1907’s form to report anti-Asian racism since the onset of the pandemic. Two-thirds of respondents reported verbal harassment, and one-third reported assault, including elongated coughing and spitting. Women are disproportionately impacted, and 43 percent of incidents were reported to have taken place in a public space.
The job of the police is to fight crime, Doris said. “All the incidents that are reported to them are viewed from a criminal viewpoint, first and foremost.” Not everyone feels safe reporting a hate crime to police. For some undocumented workers and sex workers, the risks of engaging police can outweigh the benefits.
“The police are not structured to fight racism,” Doris says.
The rarity of hate crime charges, despite recurrent stories of hate-motivated incidents, has stoked, in many people, an unfulfilled sense of justice. Some groups want to see police hate crime units expanded as a way to improve incident reporting. But others, including Project 1907, are wary that more surveillance and policing will create additional harm for marginalized communities. This paradox has spurred groups to launch community-based surveys to record incidents that would otherwise be undocumented during the pandemic.
For Asian communities, the shift is happening alongside a real rise in street attacks, which has led to some alarming official hate crime statistics. In February, the Vancouver Police Department released statistics noting a 717 percent jump in anti-Asian hate crime incidents since 2019. New York City recorded an 833 percent increase over the same period. In Los Angeles, police tracked a 114 percent rise, and in San Jose, anti-Asian hate crimes increased 150 percent.
But these police-reported statistics only offer a partial view of what’s happening. According to a Canadian federal government report, it’s estimated that only one in ten hate-motivated crimes are reported to the criminal justice system. Government data suggests hate crimes — ones motivated by a bias against someone’s “race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability” — get more attention in America, but the US Department of Justice still estimates only 46 percent of incidents were reported between 2011 and 2015.
Larger groups such as Stop AAPI Hate, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, are collecting even more reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders than Project 1907. Their victimization survey recorded 3,795 hate incidents between March 2020 and February 2021 and found “women report hate incidents 2.3 times more than men.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, explains that a problem with crime data collection from law enforcement is that it’s “very uneven” across the United States. That’s because not all police agencies are set up to track hate crimes. It’s typically big cities that have large police departments with specialized units that are able to track hate crimes.
Definitions of a hate crime can also vary from state to state. For example, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Wyoming do not have any hate crime laws and their entries into the national data repository are zeros.
Systemic barriers, such as language accessibility, may prevent people from coming forward in the first place. Trust and confidence are long-standing issues to contend with as well. Discrimination and suspicion from officers at the intake level, revealing bias and inadequate training, can dissuade or stop victims from filing official reports. The seriousness of a crime and a victim’s access to legal and financial resources can also impact how a hate crime gets reported and recorded by police.
While the recent jump in hate crime statistics reflects a real growth in attacks, it may also reflect a new willingness to designate attacks as hate crimes, attacks that would have otherwise gone unreported. But while the current system produces only limited information, Levin says it’s better than nothing.
“Even if you have 18,000 rain buckets and thermometers, and 16,000 are kicked over, but you’re getting reports across the country from over 2,000 — which is kind of what we got — that tells you something,” he says.
The “broken thermometers” idea also explains why data on the increase in attacks has been so difficult to pin down. The biggest spikes came from a study that tracked incidents in America’s largest cities, dense coastal areas with sizable Asian populations. As Levin notes, they’re places that “perhaps had some noteworthy difficulties with COVID,” but they’re also places with organized communities that can push for more robust reporting.
The number of reported anti-Asian hate crimes had been decreasing for more than 20 years before Donald Trump became president. Now, that trend seems to have reversed. “We’ve seen a lot of this stuff rising and falling with respect to politics,” Levin says. Internet invective and the stigmatizing “China virus” language, laundered by the president and his associates, seem to have made anti-immigrant sentiments in America that much worse.
Barbara Perry, a criminology and justice professor at Ontario Tech University and leading expert in the study of hate crimes and extremism, says clear definitions play an important role in fighting hate-motivated incidents. If someone is assaulted, it matters if a racial slur is used because it suggests there is a bias motivation. “Do they understand that, in the eyes of the law, that’s something different? Does that make it more important to them? Does it make it more meaningful to them?” Perry says. “Does it mean to them that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
Hate crime charges are rare in both the US and Canada because the legal definitions are narrow and the victim and law perspectives are always subjective. The cases are complex. But new laws and updated definitions won’t necessarily change the biases that fuel hate crimes. Activists hope new data, collected from victimization surveys, will do just that by making the invisible visible and connecting the trends to history.
“Just because we have more numbers and data to talk about now doesn’t mean it just started existing,” Doris says. “We’re starting to hear people find a voice, where they feel confident in actually talking about their experience of anti-Asian racism through their lifetime, not just the one incident at the grocery store two weeks ago. These aren’t isolated incidents.”
*Names marked with an asterisk are aliases, granted in response to a reasonable fear of harassment.