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COVID-19 Coverage

Examining why hate crimes are at historic highs — especially in Los Angeles

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hate crimes are climbing up - way up. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino found that hate crimes climbed almost 50% last year. And anti-Asian hate crime went up by over 300%. It was happening in more than a dozen of the biggest U.S. cities, but Los Angeles recorded the most hate crime of any U.S. city since 2000, the most of this century. That's where we found Robin Toma, the executive director of LA County's Commission on Human Relations. I started by asking him if these numbers are an accurate reflection of the levels of hate in America right now.

ROBIN TOMA: Well, the answer to that would be yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we are, like many jurisdictions, very diverse. We face hate crime because of the diversity of our population, because of many causes. But we're different in that we're the largest county in the country. We're the third-largest city in the country. And, you know, we do have a reporting system that's really well-developed. But certainly, we know that we're not unique in experiencing the increase in hate crime that's been happening across the country.

FADEL: So these - when you talk about hate crime, this is about more than ugly words or attacks with slurs, right? How much of this is physical violence?

TOMA: Well, you know, we've been reaching higher levels of violent hate crime - that is crimes that are targeting people's physical well-being or threatening physical harm. That's been at a higher level than we have seen before. And, in fact, it's the highest in 17 years.

FADEL: What type of incidents are you seeing? Who's being attacked? Who's doing the attacking?

TOMA: Really, what we're seeing is just an overall increase in hate crime across many groups. And for us, it's really telling because even though we know we've built a system that has recently increased reporting through LA vs. Hate, which creates an alternative way for people to report hate - not going to - calling the police but simply dialing 211, our local social services hotline - that we have seen many more reports. But we know that there's such a long ways to go to counter the underreporting that is typical in hate crime.

FADEL: But this increase is not just a factor of past underreporting, right? You're seeing an actual increase in hate crimes across races in Los Angeles and really in this country. What can be done?

TOMA: Well, you know, actually, there's a lot that can be done. And one of the things that we're recognizing is that one of the reasons why people don't report hate crime even today is because of discomfort with going to the police or feeling that it won't matter. People feel that they've been victims of a hate crime, but then when they get together with the police, they're told, well, that doesn't quite equal a crime, so we can't do anything about it. And so they feel very deflated, and that word spreads.

FADEL: So, for example, what might be in a situation like that - somebody feels that they've been attacked for their race or identity?

TOMA: So there's an example here in LA with Hong Lee, a woman who was in a restaurant and found herself being very intensely and angrily attacked by a man who was continually launching epithets and denigrating comments because of her being a woman, because of her race of being Asian. And when she called the police and they finally arrived, she was told that this is - happens all the time. There's nothing you can do about it. She decided she would reach out. And as a result, she let the world know what was happening to her. And she's become an advocate for us, really an ambassador for LA vs. Hate. And as a result, so many people came forward about the same man who assaulted her, verbally assaulted her. And they came forward and actually identified hate crimes he had committed.

FADEL: What about for people who just have hesitance towards government agencies? You know, I'm thinking of undocumented folks. Would they feel safe calling 211, calling the LA County?

TOMA: Yes because what we try to do is really make it clear that we are completely confidential. We do not report the information to the police. And we really put the word out in a way that is, to be honest, not so governmental. We also also tell them, though, that if they want to report it to the police, we can help them do it anonymously. And that's huge because people do fear having to directly contact the police.

FADEL: I think so often we get caught up in the numbers, the 46% increase, the 339% increase. But can you help us understand just how frightening this is for victims, for communities when they are accosted in this way, attacked in this way?

TOMA: Well, I can't really overstate the impact it's had on people because it's not only the fact that we're living in a pandemic, and there's already a level of fear of being in contact with other people. But now you have people who are expressing greater hostility and greater violence, as I pointed out, than ever before. So what we see is that the kinds of attacks that people are sharing on social media, that people hear about - it really has instill fear in particularly targeted groups like Asians during the pandemic.

Historically, African Americans have been one of the largest groups, always overrepresented in our hate crime numbers - and Latinos, as well. And we know that Muslims and Jews have been targeted and not just by - I think it's one thing when individuals say things to you, but when you have a government leader, when you have the president of your country targeting your group, as Trump did towards Mexicans, towards Muslims, it sends a signal and creates an atmosphere that is much more chilling, much more frightening. And it has resulted in the increase, you know, in the kind of incivility and hate that we've been seeing.

FADEL: And former President Trump was also blamed for some of the anti-Asian hate based on how he spoke about the pandemic.

TOMA: Sure. His references to the kung flu, the China virus - I mean, all of those things fueled the preexisting prejudice that existed to really take the anti-Asian hate crime to the highest levels ever. You know, we have been trying to do something different, which is that we've been going directly to communities where that's happening. And we have been engaging with people, training them in how to be not passive bystanders but be active, to be upstanders, standing up to hate. We really do need to change the sense of safety by people showing their support and solidarity with victims in being against hate.

FADEL: Robin Toma is executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. Thank you so much.

TOMA: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRROR INSIDE'S "HIGH UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.