Demonstrators hold up signs as they take part in an anti-Asian American hate march and rally at San Francisco City Hall in California on March 27, 2021. (Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
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Nearly two years since the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed an anti-Asian backlash and almost seven months since federal legislation was passed to address it, little has been done.

At a May ceremony for the signing of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, President Joe Biden called attention to the lack of reliable data on hate crimes, saying it has long contributed to an incomplete understanding of the scope of the issue — and the tools needed to address it.

The law, Biden noted, directs the U.S. Department of Justice to fund initiatives aimed at encouraging better reporting of hate crimes with special grants to local law enforcement agencies and community groups.

“With this new law, the Department of Justice and our entire administration is going to step up,” Biden said. “Right now, [there] is a critical problem of hate crimes being underreported.”

More than six months later, however, the Justice Department has yet to “step up” to award the grants.

The delay stems in large part from the Justice Department’s decision to go back and ask Congress for additional funds, instead of choosing a quicker option of tapping into its discretionary funds, to finance the grants.

Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, said it’s critical that the grants be made available soon.

“Our communities are suffering from the racial trauma associated with hate incidents,” said Kulkarni, whose organization co-founded Stop AAPI Hate to track anti-Asian hate incidents. “So it’s our hope that these grants will get out to local organizations in a timely way, so they can respond and help community members when hate incidents take place.”

Officials from the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Reporting barriers

Stop AAPI Hate has documented more than 10,300 anti-Asian hate incidents since the start of the pandemic, from March 19, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021. More than 80% of documented incidents were related to harassment and shunning, with physical assault making up about 16%.

The group’s recent survey also found that nearly one in five Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have experienced a hate incident in the past year.

Meanwhile, in October, the FBI’s amended report showed that the number of reported hate crimes nationwide reached more than 8,260 in 2020 — a 13% increase from 2019 and the highest number recorded in two decades.

But the number of reported hate crimes targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders was implausibly small — only 294 cases — underscoring what advocates have said for years is an extensive gap in reporting.

Phyllis Gerstenfeld, criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus, said victims of hate crimes often do not come forward for a number of reasons, including fear of reprisals and distrust of police.

Gerstenfeld said shame, language barriers and immigration status could also come into play in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Even when victims do come forward, local law enforcement agencies often do not report them as hate crimes, said Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University.

“Sometimes, police departments also think that, if they start to report hate crimes, it will have a detrimental effect on their community — people will think it’s a racist community; businesses won’t want to go there; people won’t want to buy houses there,” McDevitt said.

Budget drama

The passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act came after more than a year of inaction by the federal government.

In April 2020, the Center for Public Integrity found that the Trump administration was doing practically nothing to respond to the anti-Asian backlash — President Donald Trump was even inflaming it with his rhetoric, referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or the “kung flu.”

That was a far cry from decisive actions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Justice Department took during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak and in the aftermath of 9/11.

But this year, with Biden in the White House, Congress finally took action, passing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in May — albeit with 63 Republicans voting against it.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, the lone senator to vote against the measure, based his objection on First Amendment grounds. “My big problem … is that it turns the federal government into the speech police — gives government sweeping authority to decide what counts as offensive speech and then monitor it,” he explained on Twitter.

The law’s key goal is to tackle the challenges in reporting of hate crimes by funding a number of initiatives.

Some are focused on training local law enforcement agencies on hate crimes and nudging them to switch to the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which collects more detailed data on each incident to allow deeper analyses, rather than gathering only aggregate data through traditional summary-based systems.

Others are aimed at supporting victims, encouraging them to come forward by creating state-run multilingual hotlines, expanding local public education campaigns and equipping community groups to offer more support services.

But the grants are held up by the Justice Department, which is waiting for Congress to sign off on additional funds in the department’s fiscal year 2022 budget request.

Two months into the fiscal year, however, Congress is still nowhere near a deal to pass the budget. Instead, before the fiscal year began, lawmakers adopted a stopgap measure — which keeps the government open at last year’s funding level — to buy time to complete the budget process. Last week, they passed another one, extending the process until mid-February.

The Justice Department could have avoided this budget drama altogether, had it decided to tap into a large pot of discretionary funds — set aside every year for the Office of Justice Programs, which is dedicated to awarding grants to local law enforcement agencies and community groups.For fiscal year 2021, the office had a $4.5 billion budget. Nearly $2.4 billion of it was discretionary, available to help fund everything from police body cameras and pretrial justice reform to prison rape prevention and training on hate crimes.

Fulfilling other mandates

In October, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland appeared before the Senate judiciary committee and assured its members that responding to hate crimes remained among the Justice Department’s top priorities.

Garland testified that the Justice Department had carefully reviewed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and worked to fulfill all of its mandates — except for awarding grants. He has appointed Rachel Rossi, a deputy associate attorney general, as the “anti-hate coordinator” and named Jim Felte, who heads the civil rights division’s criminal section, to oversee an expedited review of purported hate crime cases mandated by the law.

The Justice Department has also issued guidance on how to establish online reporting of hate crimes and expanded “linguistically appropriate” public education campaigns. And it has been working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to hold “listening sessions” with advocacy groups to get their feedback on another guidance aimed at raising awareness on the spike in anti-Asian violence.

Following Garland’s testimony, the Justice Department also announced that it awarded $21 million in grants — under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a 2009 law enacted during President Barack Obama’s first term — to local law enforcement agencies and community groups to assist victims and help fight hate crimes, in part by beefing up resources for investigators and prosecutors.

But none of the announced grants was aimed at what the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act called for: better reporting of hate crimes.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat who introduced the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, told Public Integrity that, just like the fight against hate crimes, the law’s implementation is still a work in progress.

“We are continuing to work closely with the [Justice] Department and advocacy groups to implement this law to protect the AAPI community and other minority groups from senseless, bigoted violence,” Hirono said.


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Rui Kaneya is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. Before joining Public Integrity in...