Blog #4 from the Letters for Abolition series

East and Southeast Asians (ESEA) living in the UK, the USA and other countries where they are a minority experienced a dramatic rise in hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, the UK saw a 21% increase in anti-ESEA hate crimes(1). In the USA this led to violent assaults, including stabbings and burnings(2). The elderly were increasingly targeted and led to the death of an 84-year-old Thai immigrant, Vichar Ratanapakdee. Vichar was brutally shoved near his home in San Francisco on his morning walk. The rise in anti-ESEA hate crimes was spurred on by right-wingers blaming China for COVID-19, as its place of origin. This came with conspiracies that China had invented COVID-19 in a lab(3), which conveniently aligned with current Western geopolitics to limit China’s influence and power. This can be seen as a revival of Yellow Peril, a racist narrative which depicts ESEA people as primitive disease carriers. Yellow Peril dehumanises people of ESEA descent, viewing those racialised as such as a nameless, faceless horde which poses an existential threat to the West(4). In our society, the police and criminal justice system is responsible for tackling racist hate crimes, however we will discuss why this approach does not work and why an abolitionist approach to hate crimes is needed.

In the UK, a hate crime is defined as ‘a range of criminal behaviour where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity’(5). A hate crime can be physical, verbal or emotional, such as threats or intimidation. The police and criminal justice system are put in charge of tackling hate crimes and perpetrators are supposed to be punished through prosecution.

However this approach to hate crimes does not work for two reasons. The first is that it assumes racism is perpetrated by a few extremists who can be removed from society. Instead racism is inherent to Western society because it is built on colonisation and imperialism. Without racist colonisation and imperialism, Western society would not look how it does today. Therefore, an abolition approach to anti-ESEA hate crimes understands that society needs a complete transformation to deal with hate crimes and the causes of hate crimes.

The second issue with making the police and criminal justice system responsible for dealing with hate crimes is that it assumes that police involvement will centre the victim’s needs, prosecute the perpetrators and that the police have no anti-ESEA racist bias themselves. We know this is not true. The vast majority of hate crimes go unreported, due to mistrust of the police. This is not unfounded, almost 80% of hate crimes go undetected with a third of racially-motivated hate crimes being cleared by the police(6). One of the most blatant examples of the racist attitude of the police towards the ESEA community is the Metropolitan Police still describing East Asians as ‘Oriental’, a racist and outdated term(7). The only other demographic category is ‘Chinese’, so other East and Southeast Asians get lumped into the broader ‘Asian’ category, skewing data and making anti-ESEA hate crimes difficult to track and report. Time and time again the police have proven to not care about ESEA lives.

The shooting in Atlanta in March 2021 which killed 6 East Asian women sparked a conversation of how ESEA women are fetishised, stereotyped and left unprotected. After the shooting, a law enforcement official went on TV and minimised the shooter’s decision to murder 6 East Asian women in cold blood as ‘yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did’(8).

In the UK, it took two weeks for the police to find Mee Kuen Chong, a 67-year-old Malaysian-Chinese woman, 200 miles away from her home. Despite community workers reporting the disappearance, the police labelled it as ‘unexplained’ until her decapitated body was found. During these two weeks, little attention was given to a missing elderly ESEA woman. There were no television appeals broadcast nationwide, barely any media coverage and little noise on social media apart from a few ESEA groups trying to raise awareness. Hau-Yu Tam, the chair of End the Virus of Racism, describes this attitude to the ESEA community as ‘hostile indifference’ which can be the difference between an ESEA person being found alive or dead(9).

Similar to other migrant populations, the Hostile Environment actively endangers the lives of vulnerable East and Southeast Asians in this country. Undocumented or precarious workers for example in Chinatowns avoid the police even if they have been a victim of a racist hate crime out of fear of being deported. They avoid all public services including housing and healthcare for the same reason, reducing their quality of life. Immigrants in detention centres are treated in a cruel or inhumane manner. Even East and Southeast Asians here legally face questions over their immigration status and are still treated with the same callousness that the Hostile Environment encourages. An example of this is BAME doctors making up 60% of Covid deaths, with Fillipinos facing the highest number of deaths per ethnicity in the NHS(10)(11). Ethnic minorities working in the NHS reported being assigned to riskier Covid wards over their white colleagues. Structural racism actively endangers the lives of East and Southeast Asians and there is no clearer sign that the police are not on our side than working with the Home Office to implement the barbaric and racist Hostile Environment policy.

Despite anti-ESEA hate crimes rising during the pandemic and gaining more publicity than ever before, anti-ESEA racism is still ingrained in Western society because it is built on colonisation and imperialism. This is why only an abolitionist approach to anti-ESEA hate crimes will fundamentally change our society. So what could this look like?

An abolitionist approach to anti-ESEA hate crimes would include collective solutions. It would mean that ESEA communities are not subject to racist policies that make it difficult for them to live with dignity. It would include cross-community dialogue initiatives to educate and learn from each other. It would mean actually listening to what ESEA people say would improve living as an ethnic minority in this country and implementing those structural changes, instead of focusing on interpersonal hate crimes as a publicity stunt to make the police look like they are doing something about racism. Finally an abolitionist approach to anti-ESEA hate crimes would be standing in solidarity with other heavily discriminated communities to build a powerful anti-racist movement to tear down these racist structures and systems.

Written by Kayleigh

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