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In rare moment of bipartisanship, Congress passes COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act

Congress on Tuesday sent to President Joe Biden's desk a bill to combat the recent rise in hate crimes, including against Asian Americans and people of Pacific Islander descent. It's a rare moment of bipartisanship in a Capitol increasingly gridlocked on major issues. Lisa Desjardins reports on how the U.S. got here and what it means.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Earlier today, Congress passed and sent to President Biden's desk a bill to combat the recent rise in hate crimes, including against Asian Americans and people of Pacific Islander descent.

    It's a rare moment of bipartisanship in a Capitol increasingly gridlocked on major issues.

    So, how did we get here and what does it mean?

    I'm joined by our Lisa Desjardins.

    Lisa, good to see you.

    So let's talk about this bill. It is now with President Bush. What exactly does the bill do?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes, this bill is only 24 pages' long, but it does change a lot, especially about what we will know on hate crimes.

    Let's take a look at some key factors in this. First, the bill would create a new position at the Department of Justice that would expedite the process of, reporting of, and just the handling of cases involving hate crimes. Also, this bill will hand out grants to police and sheriff's departments across the country to help train them and help them report hate crime data in a more — a more able way than they are right now.

    Finally, in terms of grants, this bill will also offer grants to states and others across the country to put up new hate crimes hot lines to help people report.

    Fundamentally, a lot of what this bill is trying to do is to understand the problem itself. For years, there is a sense by many in the community, including academics, that hate crimes are underreported in this country, that people don't talk about them, and also that police may not recognize or report them in large degree.

    So, this report — this bill does a lot of that. But I have to say this also is a bill that is not just about Asian American hate crimes. It is wider. It is about all hate crimes. But it does have specific language recognizing that Asian Americans have been targeted especially during the COVID pandemic. And, of course, it's bipartisan.

    Critics, however, on both sides. Critics on the left say this bill doesn't go far enough, that it just scratched the surface, that data is not enough. They want more on underlying causes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa, as you mentioned, though, it is bipartisan. That is a word we don't seem to hear very often anymore on Capitol Hill.

    We use the word rare. We use the word gridlock over and over again. What was it about this particular bill that got it where it is?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is such an important facet of this bill.

    What happened in the Senate, negotiations in that 50/50 body between two senators, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Susan Collins of Maine, they ended up coming up with an agreement where Democrats dropped some COVID-specific language. The bill was broadened to include all hate crimes. And then it was able to pass through the Senate and now the House.

    Now, all of that said, there are other reasons this is significant. One of them is there have been very few notable hate crimes bills in recent times. This is the first one really in a decade to make it through Congress. Also, very few bills at all are making it through Congress. By my count, just about 10 this entire year have passed both chambers.

    These are bills that have legislative oomph, not just recognizing a holiday or something like that. So, it's significant that this has passed on bipartisan means.

    And, of course, it's very significant for the Asian American community in this country, following the shadow of the murder of six women in Atlanta and continued reports of Asian Americans being assaulted and harassed.

    Here's Representative Grace Meng of New York, who co-authored the original bill.

  • Rep. Grace Meng:

    For too long, Asian Americans have been seen as invisible and silent. We are often viewed as foreigners and outsiders.

    But, today, we are at a galvanizing moment where we say loud and clear that we are as American as anyone else in this country, and that we will be seen as invisible no more.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, again, this was bipartisan. And a majority of Republicans, not just a few, but a majority of Republicans in the Senate and the House voted for this bill.

    But, that said, there are, of course, still very deep issues on this topic, particularly over the idea of what is a hate crime. This bill does not address that definition. Some Republicans have concerns about the definition of hate crimes stepping into free speech territory. And some Democrats say that maybe police are not paying enough attention to hate crimes as it is.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Lisa, when we look at what the bill does do, as you mentioned, it's more about tracking and reporting, about the data gathering around hate crimes, which it may surprise a lot of people to know we don't have comprehensive data around that.

    There is some data, though, right? Walk us through what we know about hate crimes right now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right, again, with that caveat that we don't think these numbers are comprehensive.

    But let's look at what we know about where we are right now. If you look at numbers from a project called Stop AAPI Hate, they say that they themselves have gotten over 6,600 reports of Asian American hate incidents between March of last year and March of this year, in that one pandemic year, and all of those about Asian American hate crimes.

    Now, compare that with 2019, with all the hate crimes the FBI was able to gather data on, 7,100. So what you see is just Asian American hate crimes reported to this one outside group were almost the same as all of the hate crimes that the FBI was tracking a year previous.

    Now, what we don't know is the degree to which reporting has increased vs. the degree to which the actual prevalence of hate crimes has increased. And that's one reason the authors of this bill say it's absolutely critical that we get our hands on the data.

    A couple other notes that we do think are agreed upon across the board, especially with Asian American hate crimes. It does seem that women are more targeted. And during the pandemic, there was more targeting of Asian Americans in public spaces vs. in businesses.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa, as we know too, the lawmakers behind the bill see this as a start, right? They see it as a first step.

    So, what else do they want to do? What comes next?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think that's always the important question for Congress.

    Talking to Representative Grace Meng, she says there's two things that are important for especially the Asian American community, but everyone looking at hate crimes, one, mental health. She pointed out recent data from the city of New York shows that half of the Asian American hate crimes in that city in this year had to do with suspects who have histories of mental health problems.

    So she wants to address that as a root cause. And then I think the other issue is education. That is very hot debate in state legislatures across this country. But she says she wants to do more on curricula that could help talk about diversity, talk about these issues in American life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a first step and, as we said, a rare moment of bipartisanship.

    Lisa Desjardins, thanks so much. Always good to see you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

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