by Christina Chen
Four teens were charged last Thursday with the strangling death of 49 year old Chinese account executive David Kao, in Flushing, New York. Under questioning the teens, aged 16 and 17, confessed to dragging, choking, and beating Kao in the backseat of his car before dumping his body on a nearby street. The suspects, who admitted to the stickup of another Asian man in Flushing last month, had targeted both men because of the victims’ race. Sounds like a hate crime, right? District Attorney Richard Brown, who’s prosecuting the teens, thinks otherwise.
David Kao’s death was not an isolated incident. Throughout my life, incidents of anti-Asian violence have recurred with alarming frequency. I am surprised and a bit incredulous, then, when I am confronted with news coverage that touts the low incidence of anti-Asian crime.
When I learned about Kao’s murder, I reverted to my usual routine of feeling despondent, angry, and frustrated by my inability to prevent these types of incidents from occurring. From an early age, I’d recognized that these events were not uncommon: when I was a kid, it was the crime waves leveled against Asian owned businesses in the Bay Area, New York, Philly, etc. -crimes of which the robberies of my parents’ Oakland Chinatown acupuncture clinic were a part. In high school, it was the deaths of Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans like Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American gas station owner who was shot by a man bent on “avenging” the September 11th attacks. In college, it was hearing my students, high-school aged, immigrant victims of anti-Asian violence in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, recount the physical bullying, harassment, and teasing that they experienced daily on account of being Asian. A 14 year old boy at one of our program’s feeder schools was beaten up so severely (for no other reason save the fact that he is an Asian male) last year that he was hospitalized and described as “unrecognizable” by his father.
And yet, according to the FBI’s annual hate crime report, only 4.7% of the single-bias hate crime incidents in 2007 involved victims of an anti-Asian/Pacific Islander bias.
The Asian American Legal and Defense Education allege, however, that Anti-Asian violence is widely underreported at both the individual and state level. The reasons are manifold: Asian American victims may not be comfortable with, or capable of reporting their experiences because of the lack of bilingual law enforcement personnel, mistrust of local police, fears of trouble over their immigration status, and a general lack of awareness around hate crimes and federal civil rights protections. Furthermore, despite the passage of legislation mandating the collection of federal hate crimes statistics, many states and localities have not made rigorous efforts to prosecute and collect data on anti-Asian violence. Most local police forces do not gather records on hate-crimes, and few state governments have implemented programs to measure the number of crimes against specific racial groups.
Kao’s case raises another explanation as to why Asian American victims are reluctant to report racially motivated crimes. Although police confirmed that the teens charged with Kao’s death targeted Kao and Jin Ton Yuan because of their race, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has decided not to prosecute the murder as a hate crime. Sadly, this is in line with a larger trend: victims of anti-Asian violence incur the problem of non-identification or mis-identification of hate crimes by law enforcement officers who don't take them seriously and deliberately avoid investigations.
I can attest to these problems firsthand. Last fall, a series of assaults occurred within a block of my university; five of the seven victims were of Asian descent, and Public Safety reported that they’d found reason to believe that the victims were targeted because they were Asian. Much to my dismay and that of other campus activists, however, the police decided not to pursue the assaults as hate crimes. The police also decided not to charge those responsible for the death of Minghui Yu, a Chinese grad student who had been struck by a vehicle blocks within our campus after attempting to escape a group of teens that assaulted and hurled racial epithets at him, as a racially motivated crime.
The police and courts’ narrow interpretation of hate crime laws gloss over the ways in which stereotypes of Asian Americans as physically weak and unwilling to speak out and retaliate, figure into the rational targeting of Asian Americans as victims of physical violence. Additionally, studies have documented that the hypersexualization and disturbing fetishization of Asian American women as sex objects have serious ramifications for the safety and security of Asian American women. Earlier this year, Jaemin Kim analyzed several cases of perpetrators who had committed sexual violence against Asian women and girls based on their extreme sexual objectification of Asian women. None of these cases, however, were prosecuted or even considered by police and court officials to be “hate crimes”.
Until the justice system begins to address these concerns, victims of anti-Asian bias incidents will be discouraged from seeking recourse through institutional means and continue to live in silence and fear.