SALT LAKE CITY — Utah recorded 836 violent crimes against people of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage last year, but state and Salt Lake County leaders say the numbers don’t tell the full story.
“Zero of these are considered hate crimes, which underscores how inconsistent and underreported hate crimes are,” House Minority Whip Rep. Karen Kwan, the state’s first Chinese-American lawmaker, said Tuesday.
Kwan joined Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and others Tuesday in urging Utah’s Asian Americans to report any racially motivated attacks or harassment.
“We know that xenophobia, sexism, bigotry have always been a reality in marginalized communities,” Wilson said.
The elected leaders, all Democrats, held a news conference in a display of solidarity in the wake of the killings of eight people — most of them women of Asian descent — at Atlanta-area massage businesses on March 16.
It was the latest and deadliest example of violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the killings in Georgia underscored that women have more often been the targets of anti-Asian violence.
“People can talk about whatever the motivations are, but two things we know for certain: It targeted Asians and it targeted women,” Gill said of the shooting spree.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the California-based organization Stop AAPI Hate and partner groups have recorded 3,795 incidents ranging from verbal and online harassment to assault — four of them in Utah.
None were reported to Utah police agencies as hate crimes, according to preliminary 2020 data from the Utah Department of Public Safety.
The Beehive State is home to nearly 76,500 people of Asian heritage and about 30,700 who are native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, census data shows, with the majority of both groups living in Salt Lake County.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera acknowledged Tuesday that her office has work to do in building trust in those communities. While the pandemic has hindered outreach efforts, she’s working on further diversifying her ranks to better reflect the county’s fast-growing population.
“All acts of hate are not acceptable,” Rivera said, noting that includes Monday’s shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, that left an officer and nine others dead. “We are here for communities.”
She urged people to make a formal report regardless of their immigration status, saying deputies don’t ask any questions about that and simply want to make sure people are safe.
The state and county leaders urged everyone in Utah to speak up when they see harassment, take bystander trainings to learn new skills for intervening, and to patronize Asian-owned businesses in a show of support.
Over the weekend, Kwan visited the Topaz Museum in Delta that memorializes an internment camp before spotting flags at half-mast in nearby Fillmore, the site of Utah’s territorial statehouse. She said the trip illustrated a legacy of racism and discrimination that contributes to stereotypes of Utah’s minority groups and has a lasting effect today.
“There’s context to this,” Kwan said.
Fellow state lawmaker and Assistant Minority Whip Sen. Jani Iwamoto agreed. She and her colleagues have said former President Donald Trump’s use of racial terms like “Chinese virus” to describe the coronavirus has emboldened people across the country to attack Asian Americans.
“Words matter and have been attributed to precipitous rise in anti-Asian violence,” the Holladay Democrat said.
Iwamoto has received reports of hate incidents in recent days, but also cards from others who are supportive and want to show unity with Utahns of Asian heritage.
“Each one of us has a role,” she said. “I think we can choose to be kind and we can choose to intervene.”