When is a hate crime not a hate crime? It apparently depends on the ethnicity of the victim and the perpetrator as well. Or at least that’s the message coming from NBC News in an “explainer” they published this weekend. If you’re a white person hanging a noose outside a Black person’s house or painting a swastika on a synagogue, you’re obviously going to be tagged with a hate crime. But what about random attacks on Asian people in the middle of a pandemic that most of the world blames on China? Not so fast there, partner. NBC wants you to know that you need to slow your roll and examine all of the evidence carefully. We wouldn’t want to unjustly accuse somebody, would we?
As the recent wave of attacks on older Asian Americans prompts calls for action and activism, experts urge the use of precise, accurate language in discussing the violence.
The robberies and assaults in several big-city Chinatowns have led to significant media coverage and outcry from activists, many of whom have labeled the incidents hate crimes. But recent higher-profile cases that have gone viral on social media aren’t being investigated as such, law enforcement officials say. Officials say the occurrences don’t show signs of being racially motivated.
Social media posts have conflated violence against people who are Asian American with hate crimes against the community at large, tying the crimes to pandemic-related racism. Some sources have declared a “spike” in hate crimes, citing an astronomical increase. But the figure they refer to specifically reflects New York City and New York police data obtained by NBC Asian America, which showed three anti-Asian hate crimes in 2019 and 28 last year. No hate crimes were reported this year so far.
This article is littered with generalities issued by “experts” and “officials” with very few named sources being quoted. They did speak to one “race and religion scholar” at Vanderbilt University, along with an attorney for a teenager being accused of a hate crime against an Asian person (a charge the attorney denies). But for the most part, they cite generic trends.
The report does become quite specific in one regard, however. The one time you need to be very careful to ensure that both victims and offenders receive a “fair, rather than public trial” is when the offender isn’t white. “[Experts] emphasize that that’s particularly important if suspects are of color in the context of a justice system that hasn’t been proven to be colorblind.”
This report smacks of a trend that’s been seen in many parts of the country in recent years. When questions of racism and inequality erupt, the focus is nearly always on Black and Latino citizens. Somehow Asians regularly get left out of the conversation. The same pattern bleeds over into public policy at times. Take for example the recent decision by New York City to eliminate the entrance exam requirements for its advanced placement schools. The tests were deemed “unfair” because not enough Black and Latino students were qualifying for the “gifted and talented” program. But the vast majority of students who earned places in the program were Asian, far outnumbering the white students. Somehow nobody was worried about racism when it was a group of Asian students losing their places.
To be fair to NBC’s report, it’s not as if we don’t regularly see false or misleading accusations describing some attacks as hate crimes. Just this week a man in New York City came up behind an elderly Asian man who was a complete stranger and stabbed him in the back with a carving knife. The victim is hospitalized in critical condition and doctors say he may not survive. The attacker then walked into a local office and asked to turn himself into the police. But further investigation revealed that the suspect had previously been convicted of randomly attacking people in public who weren’t Asian. He was just a violent lunatic.
We’ve also seen more than a few instances of definitively fake hate crimes, where the perpetrators turned out to be minorities trying to highlight racism on college campuses or in other public spaces. They manage to cloud the entire conversation further.
We’ve discussed this here before and my basic stance hasn’t been altered over the course of the debate. There shouldn’t be any “hate crimes” on the books because they are purely thought crimes. When you’re performing an illegal act, the act itself is the crime. What you’re thinking at the time doesn’t matter. People are allowed to think things – even really horrible things – if they don’t act on them. Sadly, this perversion of the criminal justice system has already become enshrined in our legal codes at nearly every level, so that ship has sailed.
So what can we take away from all of this helpful information? We may as well return to the original question I asked. When is a hate crime not a hate crime? When the media tells you it isn’t.