It’s time to talk about Hate Crimes Legislation

I am deeply burdened by reports of violence and harassment against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander or AAPI community.These attacks range from verbal harassment to brutal physical assaults, and Pennsylvania is no exception. A local outreach ministry serving the homeless reported the robbery of an AAPI homeless woman in Montgomery county whose blanket was taken from her because she was Asian and just a week ago, the Executive Director of Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation was verbally accosted on the street. Local reports of verbal harassment and worse linked to Coronavirus date back to at least February. Wikipedia now includes a page tracking worldwide coronavirus related hate crimes with a section for Pennsylvania. AAPI businesses in Philadelphia and the suburbs began to feel the brunt of racist responses to Coronavirus more than a month before social distancing was even a concept for the rest of us.

The history of this great country suggests that these reports are likely just the tip of the iceberg. But that same history also suggests that there exists a plurality of us who have endured such treatment who now must be ready to support our brothers and sisters in the face of such horrific shared experience. Bigotry and hatred have been the disease that has plagued this country long before COVID. 

It’s time to talk about racism and the rise of hate groups in Pennsylvania. According to the 2019 Year in Hate and Extremism produced by the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center or SPLC, “hundreds of hate groups are operating in America, targeting immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, Blacks and other people of color.” The SPLC warns violence and extremism of hate groups is not “merely a criminal crisis in America. It is also a political crisis… and has to be engaged politically.” I agree with the SPLC’s call for a national movement against hate violence in America. There is an unfiltered, racist rhetoric that has found a home on the dark web and sanctuary in our national discourse. It is time for a movement against organized bigotry by all levels of government. 

SPLC’s Hatewatch identified 36 active hate groups and 42 anti-government groups active in Pennsylvania during 2019. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 171 hate related incidents in Pennsylvania, nearly one every other day during 2019. Of 171 incidents in the state, 69 occurred in Philadelphia and 4 took place in this very district. These are just the incidents that are reported to the ADL. Many are never reported.

When it comes to reporting these incidents to the FBI, Pennsylvania has a chronically low reporting rate and the Pennsylvania statute defining what constitutes a hate crime is overly restrictive and outdated. The current legal definition includes only the categories of race, religion and ethnicity, placing Pennsylvania law among the weakest in the country. However, we are fortunate to have the PA Human Relations Commission that enables the reporting of bias incidents that do not meet the threshold of a statutory hate crime. Many states do not have this type of mechanism. 

In October of 2019, our own State Rep. Steve McCarter was one of 42 members of the Pennsylvania House to co-sponsor four bills that are known as the Hate Crimes Legislation Package (HB 2013, HB 2012, HB 2010, HB 2011). They are proposing reforms and improvements that will fulfill the recommendations in the SPLC report by “educating, training and assisting civil society to effectively respond to social movements that exploit bigotry and intolerance.” The co-sponsors noted that, of the 1,463 law enforcement agencies across the state that submitted numbers on crimes in 2017, only 20 submitted hate crime incident reports. It’s past time to equip law enforcement officials with the tools they need to properly investigate, identify and report hate crimes. The four proposed bills will:

  • Increase penalties for those convicted of a hate crime
  • Provide law enforcement with more tools to identify and react to hate crimes
  • Require those convicted of hate crimes to complete diversity classes and allow community impact statements
  • Extend protections to people in the LGBTQ and disabled communities 
  • Provide post secondary students with a way to anonymously report hate crimes

I have spent this last week consulting with leaders in the AAPI community, Civil Rights attorneys, scholars, law enforcement, and members of our faith community to better understand how these crimes impact our AAPI brothers and sisters, how these proposed reforms would improve reporting procedures in law enforcement and in higher education, and what might need to be added to make these bills even more effective. From those conversations, I believe we need to go further, creating systems that allow victims and witnesses to have a straight-forward and language-accessible way to report incidents and one in which victims are supported in pursuing justice. We must put funding behind these initiatives so they are not unfunded mandates that add requirements without giving our law enforcement departments the resources they need. Hate crimes need to be named for what they are, investigated and prosecuted. Further, we must fund the security measures that will make our synagogues, mosques and community centers that serve the AAPI, immigrant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu, communities safe places to worship and gather. 

It is time to identify and investigate crimes committed by those that espouse hateful extremist views against ethnic, religious, immigrant, sexual orientation, and gender identity groups as well as those living with disability. It is time to pass these bills in Harrisburg. It is time to fund this work within law enforcement agencies. Finally, it is time that we draw on that faith that each of our dark pasts have taught us and stand in solidarity against racism and hatred. Let us all stand up and refuse to tolerate this kind of behavior. It is our tolerance of these behaviors that weakens us all.

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