Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Seen and Heard Beyond The Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act
In one of my last Zoom office hours session following this pandemic year of teaching, a Korean-American student in my contracts course signed off by giving me a warning wrapped in sincere advice—and it wasn’t about being safe from Covid during this part of the pandemic. “Professor,” she said after we were done discussing how to calculate expectation damages, “When you go outside this summer, will you please remember to carry some pepper spray with you?”
I had been expecting to wish her a safe and happy summer after her finals. Instead, she was reminding me to defend myself from an anti-Asian attack in public. The irony that this exchange came about during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month doesn’t escape me. In a previous year, I suspect we might have been less pensive.
Last week—while again during the same AAPI Heritage Month—Congress and the White House cleared through the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act. The Act was a direct response to the rise in anti-AAPI hate incidents in the last year. As President Biden signed the bill into law, he remarked: “My message to all of those who are hurting is: We see you and the Congress has said, we see you. And we are committed to stop the hatred and the bias.”
In substance, the Act itself reflects a lot of what has gotten us to this point over the last year. In its Findings section, Congress acknowledges the statistical increase in anti-AAPI hate crimes and violence perpetrated against AAPI individuals since the start of the last year’s pandemic. It also recognizes that one of the most vulnerable segments toward racial violence and bias has been the elderly members of the AAPI community—those who are the least able to socially and political integrate into American society because of immigrant status and language barriers. And by listing the incident itself and the names of all victims, the Act also recalls the recent Georgia shootings that resulted in the death of six women of Asian descent.
The Act doesn’t change the nature of identifying or prosecuting hate crimes. But in operation the Act tries to do several things. First, it sets up more resources for law enforcement, including the DOJ, for addressing reported incidents of hate. Secondly, it also funds educational programs for law enforcement to better recognize hate crimes and better systems for reporting hate crimes.
In essence, the Act tries to address two issues that AAPI organizations have highlighted with anti-Asian hate incidents in the last year—that such incidents are often underreported or never reported when they happen and also law enforcement agencies have a hard time classifying such incidents as hate crimes.
Is the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act the proverbial pepper spray that AAPI individuals can now carry in their pockets to rely on against incidents of hate? Probably not. The Act embodies a lot of good, but it also has its limits. But those limits may reflect the constraints of law and our legal system, rather than the swift legislative actions of certain AAPI members of Congress. We can’t overstate what our laws can do. That will just make us bitter about the legislative process—and legisprudence—as a means of change. And in this last year, there’s already been a lot to be bitter about. So, I’d stress not to think that way.
Instead, I look at the Act optimistically because it is a moment for the AAPI community to be seen and heard. But I accept its limitations as well and use them as motivation to continue to be seen and heard—and much of being seen and heard in the wake of the Act’s signing cannot merely involve legislation alone.
We need to address the underlying ways AAPI individuals are perceived by American society—false narratives and stereotypes that have led so easily to the scapegoating of folks who look like my student and me during this pandemic. Otherwise, the end goals of efforts that got us the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act will be short lived. Just as laws and norms go together, so do changes in law and norms as well. Progress on societal issues may seem hollow or short-lived if they happen by fiat without underlying shifts in norms and values that gird those societal issues originally.
Recently, on a Vox podcast featuring Olivia Laing on her new book on bodies and political autonomy, she laments that in terms of reproductive rights, the conversation that occurred around the right to abortion that surfaced in the last century seems to have continually resurfaced to stunt prior legal progress—or in my view, even threatening that progress given some developments at the Supreme Court and in Texas in the last few days. Some of this is likely attributed to existing misogyny and gender oppression that was never completely dealt with after Roe.
Similarly, when Jonathan Metzl writes about gun control, he has pointed out that despite legal efforts to curb gun violence, the underlying ideas about gun ownership—such as how ownership plays into and reifies a sense of racial identity and American masculinity—cannot be ignored when we address societal changes on that topic.
In his Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law, Professor Robert Post posits on a similar faithful overreliance on the judicial system to address inequality, stating that there’s a certain “logic” in post-World War II liberal thinking that “has led judges to craft legal rules as though antidiscrimination law could liberate individuals from the thrall of social ‘stereotypes,’ when in fact that law can intervene instead only to reshape the nature and content of social stereotypes.” As someone who writes about anti-stereotyping theory in law, I always read this passage to remind myself what else beyond law can be used to address stereotypes and normative values—because whether I agree with Post or not about law’s anti-stereotyping potential, he is right to point out that the law has limits when it comes to advancing justice and equality.
The Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act is a necessary step, but in order for individuals in the AAPI community to be seen and heard effectively—to not avoid being stereotyped—we also need our lived experiences to be actively and authentically reproduced, sincerely internalized by the American public, and finally understood with respect and dignity. Lived experiences matter for challenging existing norms that marginalize individuals and groups in this society. This sentiment is especially so when AAPI individuals have been marginalized in ways that flatten their diversity and humanity—as model minorities, perpetual foreigners, or white-adjacent and invisible people. Education ought not just be for law enforcement to better address or hear about hate crimes. Education must extend to the rest of the public to understand how AAPIs live, move, and are constrained within this society. One great example that I recently came across involves AAPI dance artists and choreographers who are trying to get major ballet companies to eliminate offensive representations in ballet productions. We need to be seen and heard beyond the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act. I hope we claim this time and opportunity to do so.
So, to that end, I urge readers here to get to know or even get involved in AAPI organizations. I list two here:
- StopAAPI Hate: https://stopaapihate.org/
- AAAJ (Asian Americans Advancing Justice): https://www.advancingjustice-aajc.org/.
Or to become familiar with AAPI issues, visit resources or events available from the UCLA Asian American Studies Center: http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/events/default.aspx.
For summer reading lists, one recent non-fiction book on AAPI experiences that I’d recommend is Cathy Hong Park’s Minor Feelings (2020): http://www.cathyparkhong.com/. One recent work of fiction is Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown (2020): https://www.charlesyuauthor.com/.
And lastly, one resource for all of us to become more empowered allies for each other is the free bystander training at Hollaback!: https://www.ihollaback.org/.
Let’s make sure that Asian American Pacific Islanders matter beyond the month of May. Pepper spray or not, let’s take care of ourselves and each other as we move back into public spaces and back into the world.