COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act just became law

What the bill entails and what our community needs.

Disclaimer: This post was written by Wonseok Song (Executive Director of the Korean American Grassroots Conference) and Sungkwan Jang (Deputy Executive Director). The views expressed in this post are of the writers’ own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Korean American Grassroots Conference.

President Biden signs the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law on May 20th, 2021 in the presence of those who led the bill as well as the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act. (Photo: Office of Rep. Grace Meng)

On May 20th, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act (H.R.1843 / S.937) was signed by President Biden, a mere few days after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill with a vote of 364–62, along with a resolution condemning the horrific shootings in Atlanta and reaffirming the House of Representatives’ commitment to combating hate, bigotry, and violence against the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community (H.Res.275).

Led by Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Rep. Grace Meng (D, NY-6), the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act has drawn support from a number of Democrats in both the House and the Senate. It is considered the most substantial legislation to address the recent rise of racially charged violence against the AAPI community, and as such, the Korean American Grassroots Conference (KAGC) has endorsed the bill.

We, however, recognize that no one piece of legislation could serve as a cure-all, and that change does not take place overnight. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act offers concrete steps, beyond words of condemnation, and is a major step towards healing.

Nonetheless, there remains much work left, and we remain committed to collaborating with our community partners across the United States and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to help create a safe, equitable, and just country for all of us.

COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act (H.R.1843 / S.937)

In response to the rapid rise of the racial violence against the AAPI community, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was introduced in both chambers in March 2021. The bill seeks to expedite the review of hate crimes reported to law enforcement agencies on the federal, state, and local levels by designating an official at the Department of Justice to oversee the effort.

Upon taking effect, the bill would also direct the federal government to issue guidance for state and local law enforcement agencies to establish an online reporting mechanism for hate crimes or incidents in multiple languages and lead culturally competent public education campaigns. Additionally, it would instruct the federal government to share best practices to mitigate the use of racially discriminatory language in describing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill has been endorsed by President Biden since March 19th and passed in the Senate with a resounding vote of 94–1 on April 22nd. While there have been a few resolutions introduced to condemn the anti-Asian sentiment and reaffirm the legislative branch’s commitment to address it — such as the bipartisan Senate resolution condemning recent hate crimes committed against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (S.Res.200) led by Senator Grassley and Senator Durbin, the top members of the Judiciary Committee, and a similar House resolution (H.Res.153) led by Rep. Steel and Rep. Porter — what sets the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act apart is its concrete action items.

Furthermore, the version passed in the House today includes the language of the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, a bipartisan bill first introduced in 2017 to comprehensively combat hate crimes.

Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act (H.R.2383 / S.1086)

Introduced by Rep. Don Beyer (D, VA-8) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality Act (“Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act”) seeks to streamline the national reporting systems on hate crimes, create a hate crimes hotline, establish programs to rehabilitate offenders through education and community service, and expand assistance for victims of hate crimes.

The bill has been introduced in both chambers each Congress since 2017 and has since attracted the support from a broad coalition of advocates, community groups, and members of Congress all across the political spectrum.

The version of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act passed in the House today includes the language of the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act because, in pursuit of stemming the tide of hate crimes, both bills seek to start the process by establishing a clear, modernized reporting system across the U.S.

Demonstrators hold signs during a rally against anti-Asian hate crimes outside City Hall in Los Angeles, CA on March 27th, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Ringo Chiu)

What is a Hate Crime?

The legal definition of a “hate crime” varies by the jurisdiction. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), however, defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

Some argue that the legal standards for hate crimes need to be expanded to adequately address the increasing prevalence of racially motivated aggressions. In any case, the hate crime statistics published by the FBI show a record level of incidents since 2017. A separate study from the Southern Poverty Law Center finds the similar trend, as do the statistics released by the New York Police Department and other law enforcement agencies.

Since not all incidents constitute a crime, let alone a “hate crime,” there remains a discrepancy between the experience of our community on the grassroots level and the statistics recorded by the authorities. An independent consortium of AAPI organizations called Stop AAPI Hate has been collecting relevant incidents and reported a total of 6,603 such events taking place between March 19th, 2020 and March 31st, 2021.

Our Position on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act

We know all too well the gravity of the current climate. As we mentioned in our statement released on March 18th, 2021:

“[t]he recent events — targeted massacre in Atlanta, assault in New York, vandalization in San Antonio and Seattle, just to name a few — echo those that led to the deaths of Vincent Chin in 1982 and Srinivas Kuchibhotla in 2017 and systemic discriminations like the Japanese American internment.

“There is no shortage of recent incidents that demonstrate the rapid rise of hate crimes, violence, and discrimination against Asian Americans — one that ironically does not distinguish the ethnicity or nation of origin of the victims. It is also alarming that many victims in racially charged violence tend to be senior citizens and women. Many victims have limited English proficiency, making it more difficult to report the incidents or seek assistance.”

As such, KAGC has been providing assistance to our community members — especially to those with limited English proficiency — in effectively finding federal resources to address the difficulties, whether economic, physical, or emotional.

At the same time, we have welcomed all legislative efforts to address the current crisis. In addition to supporting the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, KAGC has also endorsed the bipartisan Steel-Porter resolution in the House and the Grassley-Durbin resolution, the latter of which pledges a plan for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on the hate crimes against the AAPI community.

“Public stands of solidarity are a start, but we have a long way to go towards healing. Words of condemnation are no longer enough.” As we announced in March 2020, this has been and remains our position.

An ideal legislative solution to end further pains in not only our community but in our country at large must focus on “deeper understanding and prevention of further pains, not just on one-off punishments to the perpetrators of the heinous violence rooted in racism.”

Nonetheless, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is a major step towards healing that lays ground for more effective solutions by nationally standardizing and expediting data processing and that closes the gap between the law enforcement and community members through language assistance and cultural competency training.

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act also “allocates no new funding for law enforcement,” as Rep. Meng remarked in the joint press conference on May 18th, well in line with our approach to the current crisis that includes calling for a better allocation of resources within the law enforcement system, but not increasing policing — which is not proven to help the victims of anti-Asian harassment and increases the disproportionately adverse impact on the Black and brown communities, as well as the sexual and gender minorities.

Just as the current tension is not limited to the AAPI community, but America at large, the issue at hand is not just on “crimes.” The keyword is “hate.” We must work together in solidarity to protect the vulnerable neighbors today, prevent further pains, and address the root cause of violence. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is a major first step in that long and difficult process, and a welcome sign of encouragement when many of our community members feel a sense of hopelessness in the midst of prevailing difficulties.

Wonseok Song is the executive director of the Korean American Grassroots Conference (KAGC). The largest nationwide network of Korean American voters, KAGC is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. Sungkwan Jang serves as the deputy executive director.

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