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Anti-Asian attacks prompt call for Mass. to update hate crimes law

State lawmakers are pushing a bill that would clarify current laws and add gender and immigration status as protected classes.

"There has been a long and troubling history of racism and discrimination,” says Tram Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American elected to the Massachusetts House. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

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BOSTON (AP) — A national spike in anti-Asian hate crimes — including a recent mass shooting in Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent — is prompting state lawmakers to push a bill they say would expand and clarify hate crime laws in Massachusetts.

Among other steps the bill would combine the state’s two existing hate crimes laws and add gender and immigration status as protected classes when determining if a hate crime has been committed.

One of the co-sponsors of the bill, state Rep. Tram Nguyen, said during a legislative panel Wednesday that the Atlanta killings brought to the national consciousness the racial bias many Asian Americans experience.

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“The rise in anti-Asian hate incidents did not come out of nowhere. There has been a long and troubling history of racism and discrimination,” said Nguyen, a Democrat and the first Vietnamese American elected to the Massachusetts House.

Nguyen recalled in 2016 when she was a legal services attorney and speaking in Vietnamese to a client, a recent immigrant, outside a Boston courthouse when a man rode by on a bike and told her to get out of his country saying “you don’t belong here.”

“Ask any Asian person and I’m sure most of us will have stories to tell you about being ridiculed for the way we look, whether it’s our slanted eyes or our small stature, for our accents for those of us who are newer immigrants,” she added. “Even for those of us who have been in this country for generations, there’s this general assumption that we’re perpetual foreigners.”

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She said the pandemic has intensified anti-Asian stigma but added that hate crimes are not limited to those of Asian descent and are meant to terrorize not just individuals but entire communities.

The Senate co-sponsor of the bill, Democratic Sen. Adam Hinds, said the bill “is about saying loudly and clearly that violent bigotry is not acceptable.”

He said the bill is not about creating new laws but combining and improving hate crimes laws already on the books. He also said the bill does not step on First Amendment rights and would not create new mandatory minimum sentences.

Besides adding gender and immigration status as protected classes, the bill seeks to make sentencing proportional to actions, strengthen penalties for repeat offenders, and clarify that bias has to be contributing factor — but not the only factor — for the hate crimes statute to kick in.

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Massachusetts needs to send a clear message that hate crimes will not be tolerated, state Attorney General Maura Healey said.

Healey pointed to an attack Monday on an Asian American woman near New York City’s Times Square during which the 65-year-old was kicked and stomped. Police have since arrested a 38-year-old man in connection with the assault.

“It’s horrifying. It’s so wrong,” the Democrat said. “What’s also problematic and wrong and disheartening is the fact that people witnessed that and did nothing.”

“What does that say about where we are as a society?” Healey added. “What we have seen happening in our communities is unacceptable, can’t be tolerated, and is really corrosive to the kind of communities that we’re trying to aspire to be in this country.”

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The problem isn’t helped when anti-Asian and other kinds of bias become normalized by those in elected office, Healey added.

Supporters of the bill say bias crimes aren’t just focused on Asian individuals.

Evelyn Dolan said she became a victim of hate-based harassment when she moved into a new home and her neighbor began calling her by a racial slur, taunted her then-15-year-old daughter, and harassed visitors.

“He stands on the porch and holds up bananas and jumps around like a monkey. It’s been a real terror,” said Dolan, who also spoke at the legislative panel. “Most of us have experienced some type of racism, harassment in our lives but for me I never thought that the harassment would be in my home, my safe place, my family’s safe place.”

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