For the 1st time since Covid, anti-Asian hate dropped. What's behind the 33% decrease.

Kelsea Petersen

Anti-Asian hate crimes decreased 33% from 2021 to 2022, according to data released last week by the FBI — the first recorded drop in anti-Asian hate crimes since the start of the pandemic.

The decrease from 746 to 499 hate incidents is attributed to several factors, including diminished opportunity for Covid-related scapegoating, less inflammatory rhetoric from leaders and reporting fatigue, experts say. But not every group saw similar drops.

But the decrease is likely part of a “cyclical” pattern, experts say, and may not be long term.

“Anti-Asian hate crimes … are often tied to national security or other kinds of U.S. foreign policy that heightened attention to Asian Americans in the U.S.,” Janelle Wong, senior researcher at the data and civic engagement nonprofit AAPI Data, said. “We will expect them to go up again at some point, depending on what the national and international context is and the degree to which places in Asia are cast as a threat to the U.S.”

Wong explained that economic downturns coupled with blaming Asians for Covid most likely contributed to the initial spike in hate crimes. A 2021 study, for example, showed that in Italy, areas with high unemployment experienced the most significant increases in anti-Asian hate crimes, compared to those with high infections and mortality.

The landscape has since changed, Wong said.

“The economy’s doing a lot better right now. There’s not the same kind of attention to a life or death situation, the way that Covid really heightened emotions around this idea that people from Asia could bring illness or to blame for Covid,” Wong said. “We don’t have a president saying that the ‘Chinese flu’ has come to the U.S.”

A 2020 study showed that while anti-Asian bias had been in a steady decline over a decade, the trend reversed sharply after political leaders began blaming Asians for Covid.

“Research suggests that when people see Asian Americans as being more ‘foreign,’ they are more likely to express hostility toward them and engage in acts of violence and discrimination,” Rucker Johnson, who co-wrote the study, previously told NBC News.

The frequency at which Asian Americans had to confront hate and racism may have taken a mental toll, prompting many to feel burned out and less inclined to turn to law enforcement or other reporting forums than in the past, Stephanie Chan, director of data and research at the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, said.

“In general, there is a sentiment that people are tired of bad news, and they just want the problem to go away. And I think that has an effect on whether or not people are going to report,” Chan said. “Sometimes, our communities can become numb, just because they’re experiencing it so much, that it becomes almost normalized.”

But not all Asian groups saw a dramatic dip in 2022. Sikh and Muslim community leaders told NBC News they were concerned by what they saw in the data.

The number of bias-motivated incidents against Sikh Americans decreased slightly from 185 to 181. But the number of Sikh victims affected by those crimes increased from 195 in 2021 to 198 in 2022. It seems like a marginal increase, but for advocates, it signals something alarming.

“The personal safety issue is extremely alarming to us, and that is ultimately what we’re the most concerned about,” said Sim J. Singh Attariwala, senior policy and advocacy manager at the nonprofit Sikh Coalition. “The victimizations are just alarming across the board. It seems that 2022 is another record year of hate.”

He attributes the uptick to anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric used by politicians, saying that though they’re not directly anti-Sikh, the backlash falls on all communities.

“We’ve seen rhetoric from political campaigns seeking to dehumanize Mexicans, Muslims, Arabs,” he said. “That has ripple effects for communities who may be perceived to belong to those identities, or otherwise are perceived to be foreigners.”

The stories he’s heard are troubling, he said, and range from brutal assaults to humiliation and slurs. From his experience working with hate crime victims, he said, this data doesn’t tell the whole story. With many law enforcement agencies opting out of reporting hate crimes to the FBI, he says the picture presented to the public is incomplete.

“The data that we have is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There needs to be mandatory hate crime reporting for law enforcement agencies across the nation for us to meaningfully address the issue at hand.”

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, Muslim community leaders say they’ve also seen a dramatic increase in incident reports in their day-to-day work. Though the FBI’s 2022 numbers only show a marginal increase in Islamophobic hate crimes — from 153 to 158 — experts fear that number will skyrocket in the 2023 data.

“We’re working seven days a week, around the clock, fielding incoming complaints,” said Corey Saylor, research director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

CAIR reported that it’s received hundreds of complaints since Oct. 7, including incidents ranging from harassment to physical violence.

“We’ve had a murder of a 6-year-old child in Illinois, we’ve had multiple people threatened with guns, we had multiple incidents of vehicles being used as weapons against protesters,” Saylor said, referring to the death of young Wadea Al-Fayoume, a Palestinian American who was stabbed 26 times in what police called an Islamophobic attack last week.

With the presidential election cycle looming, experts say they’re expecting the number of hate crimes to potentially increase again as candidates default to anti-Asian rhetoric and policy proposals to draw votes. Chan said that some of the hostile rhetoric has already begun to seep into the election cycle.

“We know that anti-China rhetoric doesn’t just affect Chinese people. It affects Asian Americans because the public can’t distinguish between someone who’s Chinese and someone who’s not,” Chan said. “We’ve seen how the political rhetoric then translates into even what people mimic and say when they are committing a hate act. So we are definitely bracing for that.”

But both Wong and Chan emphasized that the FBI statistics alone may not accurately reflect the state of Asian hate across the U.S. The data is based on numbers submitted by law enforcement agencies, and 2022 was the fifth year of decreased reporting, experts pointed out. The report also focuses on crimes reported to police that rise to the level of hate crimes, but such attacks constitute a minority of the number of overall bias incidents. Less than 10% of incidents collected by Stop AAPI Hate, for example, are considered hate crimes. And a 2021 report published in the journal Crime and Delinquency showed that Asian Americans are “significantly and substantially” less likely to report incidents.

A September report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights similarly noted challenges like language barriers and uncertainty over what constitutes a hate crime as blocks to reporting.

“Ultimately, the absence of adequate performance metrics poses a significant challenge in assessing the federal government’s effectiveness in combating the surge in hate crimes against the Asian community,” Rochelle Mercedes Garza, the commission’s chair, wrote.

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