Breaking Down the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act became law on May 20th. But while many have applauded the bill as a bold step in combating AAPI hate, what would the bill actually accomplish?
On March 16, 2021 a white man entered Young’s Asian Massage, a spa located in the Atlanta area, and proceeded to shoot at customers and employees. He then drove to two additional spas, where he continued his violent assault. The shootings resulted in the deaths of eight people, six of whom were Asian women.
This tragedy, which many consider to be a hate crime, brought hate crimes against Asian Americans to the forefront of public discussion, but violence against Asian Americans is not a new experience.
According to Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate, an organization focused on combatting xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans, approximately 3,795 incidents of harassment, discrimination, and assault against Asian Americans were reported between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021. Due to underreporting, it is likely that this figure still only represents a fraction of all incidents.
Much of S. 937 is supposedly designed to combat this underreporting, but what are the actual policies proposed in this bill?
We can break this bill down into four components:
Reasons for the bill’s existence
How the bill takes action through executive departments
How grants are allocated to law enforcement agencies
Changing sentencing guidelines for hate crimes
The bill begins by acknowledging the increase in hate crimes against the AAPI community and its relationship to the COVID-19 pandemic, a low but important standard that many Republican Senators were hesitant to accept. It then names the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings — Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yuan González, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue. Later, the bill also recognizes how a lack of understanding for hate crimes has been caused by incomplete data, a problem that largely stems from mistrust of the police or incomplete reporting from state and local law enforcement. Together, these acknowledgements form the basis for the rest of the bill.
As for taking action through executive departments, the bill calls upon the Attorney General to designate one officer to “facilitate the expedited review of hate crimes” and hate crime reports during the “applicable period,” which refers to the time between the officer’s designation and the date on which the pandemic is declared to be over. Additionally, the Attorney General is made responsible for guiding law enforcement agencies on the education for and online reporting and collection of hate crime data and for “raising awareness” with the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The largest portion of the bill, however, focuses on the relatively traditional government strategy of incentivizing certain policies through grants given to state and local governments. In addition to grants for statewide hate crime hotlines, the Attorney General would be authorized to give grants to states and local governments for hate crime identification and classification training, developing standardized systems of reporting hate crimes, establishing hate crime units, engaging in community relations activities, providing hate crime trainings, and adopting policies that address hate crimes.
As a small measure of government accountability, law enforcement agencies receiving grants would be required to report which of the aforementioned initiatives they have accomplished, and the Attorney General would be required to create an annual report that analyzes the effectiveness of these grants.
Perhaps the most novel portion of the bill, however, is the very last subsection, which would amend 18 U.S.C. § 249 (the part of the U.S. Code that details hate crime criteria and punishments) by adding an alternative sentencing guideline. The amendment would grant courts the ability to order restorative justice activities — such as mandatory educational classes or community service related to the harmed community — as hate crime sentences.
Altogether, the bill seems to offer a comprehensive approach to addressing hate crimes, especially those related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, S. 937 still focuses most of its efforts on investigating and documenting hate crimes after they have been committed, rather than preventing hate crimes or encouraging citizens to report them. While the former initiatives may work to counter hate crimes through the enactment of better policies in the future, they serve as a much slower fix compared to direct engagement with the community. Restorative justice initiatives and community education on identifying, preventing, and reporting hate crimes serve as well-documented methods for directly preventing hate crimes, yet they are both overshadowed in the bill by grants given to police departments (especially those of large cities), which may further exacerbate the issue of over-policing and eventually harm other communities of color.
The white male who shot and killed eight people in March 2021 still has not been charged with a hate crime, though prosecutors have since suggested they intend on pursuing such charges. S. 937 might take steps towards better documentation of hate crimes, but for the U.S. to truly address hate-related issues, it must improve its classification of hate crimes and acknowledge the systemic issues behind these deadly yet widespread incidents.
Kenny Gu is a rising freshman at Harvard University studying Public Policy originally from Troy, Michigan. He writes about racial equity, K-12 education policies, and college admissions.
This piece was edited by Anna Xu, a sophomore at Yale University studying computer sciences.