At the start of the pandemic, Yaoyao Chen, a materials research engineer, was an early adopter of mask-wearing.
One day in March, she was at a Woodbury intersection when someone yelled at her, “Your mask is a piece of [expletive].” She was so frightened by the exchange that she stayed home for a week.
Then in mid-May, three people walked by her while she was walking by the local high school and started sneezing and coughing at her, while also saying to her to “Go back to China.” After that frightening encounter, she stayed home for two months.
“I felt very scared and depressed because I see so much discrimination happening every day,” Chen said.
Discrimination and bigotry against Asian Americans isn’t new. They were paid less and experienced worse working conditions than their white counterparts while building the Intercontinental Railroad. In the 1870s and 1880s, people of Chinese descent endured race riots against them in California, Colorado and Washington state. There was the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and Japanese internment during World War II. More recently, 33 Vietnamese refugees were deported in March, violating a 2008 agreement with Vietnam and President Joe Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations.
Still, Asian Americans are alarmed at the more recent spike in hatred directed their way since the onset of the pandemic, which originated in the Hubei province of China. Understanding just how widespread anti-Asian discrimination is can be challenging because of inconsistent reporting. Victims sometimes are hesitant to report their brushes with hate, and agencies receiving those reports may keep incomplete records. And, in many cases, a hateful remark at the grocery store isn’t illegal, so it’s not a matter of public record.
Minnesota hate crime laws and policies, as well as training to enforce those policies, have lagged behind recent federal changes. Federal law was recently updated to expedite the review of incidents and make it easier for victims to report incidents through multiple methods and languages. In Minnesota, some lawmakers are trying to enact changes that would update training requirements to help police identify hate crimes and lower the burden of proof that police officers need to determine whether or not a hate crime occurred.
The Reformer requested data from police agencies across the state to identify bias and discrimination cases. They include notes left on the doors of Asian American residents — also in Woodbury — telling them to “go back to your country” or face death, one of which made the news. In Minneapolis, a handful of crimes against Asian Americans have been investigated as hate crimes in the past two years.
The Reformer found several more cases around the state that exhibited elements of bias, but were not flagged as hate crimes. A nurse of Vietnamese descent in Albert Lea was punched during his shift. He told the Reformer that he was “pretty sure” the perpetrator displayed a white power symbol.
A mixed Hmong and South Asian family in Rochester received threats from a former tenant who was evicted for defacing their building, allegedly with Nazi symbolism (which was not reported to the police) and threatening other tenants, many of whom were people of color. Elderly Asian women also appear to have been targeted in a string of jewelry thefts in Rochester.
The incidents were not flagged, perhaps because police officers would have needed substantial proof that would lead a “reasonable and prudent” person to conclude that such a hate crime occurred. Hate crime training for police officers was first mandated by the Legislature in 1988, with requirements last updated in 1992.
The FBI relies heavily on local law enforcement agencies to track hate crime incidents, but inconsistent reporting makes the data unreliable. In 2019, 5% of hate crime incidents involved bias towards someone who is Asian or Pacific Islander (statistics for 2020 are not yet available.)
Minnesota, in turn, relies heavily on the judgment of officers and victims to make the call. Police departments also have to file a monthly report with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which in turn has to file an annual report with the Legislature and the Department of Human Rights.
Confusion over what constitutes a hate crime left Chen, the Woodbury engineer, hesitant to report her brushes with hate to the police, because she didn’t think they could do anything. “I didn’t take a photo, I didn’t record it, there isn’t evidence,” Chen said.
She’s not alone. An Austin, Minnesota, resident, whose lawn was vandalized with the words “China Virus” did not report the incident to the police, according to a city official. (The resident declined an interview, citing ongoing internet harassment.)
And neither did Hao Nguyen’s mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who experienced multiple incidents of racial harassment. Someone in St. Cloud spit at her and told her to leave a grocery store.
The federal definition of a hate crime is relatively strict, often used as a charging enhancement to crimes like murder, arson and vandalism. The FBI notes on its website that ‘Hate itself is not a crime.’
“[Asian] people can be traumatized without anyone committing a crime,” said Nguyen, who is also an assistant Ramsey County attorney.
About 7% of COVID-19 related complaints received by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights last year addressed allegations of bias. The Attorney General’s office received a total of seven bias-related COVID-19 complaints in the past year.
Some victims have instead turned to nonprofits to report bias incidents. Nick Kor, an organizer with the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, told the Reformer that he hears of new incidents happening every day. Stop AAPI Hate, a San Francisco-based group that tracks incidents of anti-Asian hate across the United States, reported 3,800 incidents in the past year, 42 of which occurred in Minnesota.
DFL Reps. Frank Hornstein and Samantha Vang and DFL Sen. Sandra L. Pappas introduced legislation that would make it easier for someone to be convicted of a hate crime and would require the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to consult with the Department of Human Rights on training police to properly identify hate crimes.
But even with updated training, not everyone is able to communicate with the police. More than one-in-five Minnesota households in which people speak an East or Southeast Asian language speak limited English. Most are in the seven-county metro. Not every Minnesota agency has an officer who can speak the languages of Asian Minnesotans. Some, but not all agencies use Language Line, a service in which phone operators help translate.
The bill introduced by Hornstein and Vang and the Pappas companion bill would also provide support for nonprofit agencies and schools to field hate crime complaints from the community. The lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz also want increased funding to help the Department of Human Rights field allegations of bias.
With the Legislature adjourned for now, the proposals are in peril, but Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-St. Paul, who is one of chief negotiators of the public safety budget bill, has pledged to keep advocating for them.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden in mid-May signed legislation that would increase the Department of Justice’s capacity to address hate crimes, including making incidents reportable in multiple languages; expediting COVID-19-related hate crime reviews; and giving local and state governments five-year grants to help victims address being traumatized by hate crimes.
Absent help from the Legislature, Asian Minnesotans have stepped up to take care of their own. Groups have come together to pass out whistles at supermarkets and escort vulnerable Asian elderly from light rail stations in Saint Paul.
Asian Minnesotans have also built bridges with other communities to fight discrimination, including Black Lives Matter. Anthea Yur, in conjunction with local Black Lives Matter activists, organized a demonstration in Minnesota in March, catalyzed by the shared discrimination experienced by both Black and Asian Americans.
In an email a few days later, Yur brought together the experiences of Black and other people of color and said of the six Asian people recently killed in Ackworth, Georgia: “They were not viewed as equal human beings [rather, “sexual temptations”] because of our social norms of racial discrimination.”