Article by Lylia Saurel | June 2, 2021
Photos by Jahlil Rush
In March of last year, Noel Chan Zin and his girlfriend were on their way to work when a man started shouting at them in the subway. “You guys bring the virus here, stay out of my country,” he said as he tried to hit them with his umbrella. Zin, who got punched in the arm and scratched around the ear, says it was the first time he experienced a hate crime. “Before COVID I didn’t face discriminations,” he said.
A year later, hate crimes against Asian communities continue to rise across the country and New York City ranks first with a 223 percent increase in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period of 2020. The number of people assaulted rose to 42, up from 13 last year, according to a recent report by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism (CSHE).
Despite the establishment in 2019 of the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes (OPHC) to respond to the increase in hate incidents, both victims and experts believe the city is ineffective in its management of the situation and are calling for more actions to be taken.
Experts say the city has failed not only to educate the public about what hate crimes are and how to report them, but also that when they are reported, only a few complaints lead to arrests. According to the annual NYPD report, over the first quarter of 2021, 42 hate incidents against Asians were confirmed and only 17 led to arrests. In 2020, 265 complaints of hate crimes were made and only 93 led to arrests.
For some elected officials, the rise in hate crimes shows a systematic failure from the city to serve its Asian community. “There’s not a single agency that’s doing a good job at making sure that we have culturally appropriate services,” said Yuh-Line Niou, the Assembly Member of District 65, which includes Chinatown.
Niou says the community needs language accessible services and city employees who understand them. “I think the city should make sure that every single agency that exists should have Asian American representation,” she said.
According to the most recent annual workforce profile report released by the city, in 2018 only 13 percent of all city agency employees were Asians against 38 percent white. And only 9 percent of NYPD officers were Asians compared to 38 percent white officers.
Lack of representation is not the only problem the city is facing. For experts, one of the most important points is to spread information about how to report hate incidents. Gloria J. Browne Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at John Jay College, says the city should have a consistent message on how people should respond to these crimes so they can be properly documented and prosecuted. “What number do you call, is it 911? That’s why there needs to be a public service announcement around this,” she said.
According to Marshall, public service announcements explaining how to report hate crimes and what options are available to victims should be distributed in all languages. “I think people need to know what the definition of a hate crime is and what their options are if they experience it,” she said.
But city officials believe they are doing enough.
Deborah Lauter, the executive director of the OPHC, says through a partnership with the City Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) that the offices have done a good job at getting the information out in a way that’s accessible to the communities. “We’ve held dozens and dozens of what we call town hall meetings with community members in multiple languages,” she said. “They were attended by hundreds of people, thousands of people sometimes.”
Regarding 911 calls, Lauter says victims get translations if they ask for the language they need, but the system is not perfect yet, “they have to wait, there’s a delay, until the translation service kicks in,” she said.
As for the NYPD, Lauter says the police department tries to hire more Asian officers to ensure language accessibility. “The whole country is waking up to the fact that representation is important, that everyone brings different cultural sensitivity to the table,” she said.
Yet, victims are not always aware of their options and often feel discouraged to report.
21-year-old Nguyen was verbally assaulted in Harlem at the start of the pandemic while waiting in line to pay for her groceries. She says the attack happened fast and she wasn’t sure what to do. “On the day it happened I didn’t know I could just report it so I just skipped it,” she said. Afraid that she will be identified and experience more assaults, she didn’t want to give her last name. She told her family about the assault when it happened, but they all declined to be interviewed for this piece.
The Vietnam native says she is still traumatized and will never forget about the incident, although she feels she wouldn’t have been taken seriously if she had reported it to the police. “If it’s not something on the news like a severe attack on Asians, I don’t think they even give a damn about people calling us names,” she said.
Lauter, who worked for more than three decades fighting against hate acts and bigotry, recognizes that trust in law enforcement is an important step to fight underreporting. “That’s an area that we are trying to deal with and the police realize that they need to have a trust relationship with the communities they serve,” she said.
Nguyen believes the city needs to implement different ways for victims to report and that law enforcement shouldn’t be the only option. “There should be some sort of way to report it that doesn’t involve the police because some people just don’t want to work with the police,” she said.
For organizations and activists, social media have played a major role in the spread of hate messages and could be used in a positive way to inform younger audiences about how to report and give them a safer platform to report on.
“I think the internet has really impacted this current surge in racism because hate speech, especially from President Trump, went viral,” said Russell Jeung, co-founder of AAPI and professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University.
Aware of the importance of reaching out to young adults and teenagers on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, Lauter says she hopes OPHC can do more outreach on those but that the pandemic slowed down the project. “I recognize how we need to get to certain audiences that connect on those platforms but we’re not there yet,” she said.
Over a year after being attacked on the subway, Zin tries not to let his assault define his interactions but still often feels racially profiled. A few weeks ago, as he was about to leave a Home Depot, a security guard asked him to check all of his bags while letting the white customer in front of him go out without checking her receipt. That led him to believe his ethnicity is now a factor that defines everything around him. “I understand that’s his duty, but why didn’t he check the white lady,” he said.