Bawi Cung and his family were shopping at a Sam's Club store in Midland, Texas, in March 2020 when they were attacked by a stranger who thought the Burmese-American family was Chinese and, in their mind, spreading the coronavirus to the community.
The attacker was echoing a false allegation rooted in racism — that Chinese Americans were responsible for the pandemic that was quickly ravaging the country. The racist theory emerged in the early days of the pandemic, fueled by former President Donald Trump's use of the term "China virus" to describe COVID-19.
"We never experienced anything like that before," Cung told PBS NewsHour.
An off-duty Customs and Border Protection agent and a Sam's Club employee helped stop the attack, but not before Cung and two of his young children were injured. The suspect was charged with three counts of attempted capital murder and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and the FBI, when listing the attack as a hate crime, warned that similar incidents could surge across the country as some people associated COVID-19 with China and Asian Americans.
That warning would prove to be true. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, there has been a marked uptick in hate crimes against Asian American communities in the United States. Several studies point to the connection between hateful rhetoric and increased hate-motivated actions, and advocates and experts point to the way Trump spoke about the virus as a direct contributor to the increased crime. But under the new administration, the hate incidents have continued, prompting leaders and advocates to actively call for coalition building and better incident tracking.
Between mid-March and the end of 2020, Stop AAPI Hate, a project run by a coalition of organizations, received 2,808 reports of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans. The Anti-Defamation League has tracked dozens of incidents in detail, from anti-Asian verbal harassment on New York's subway to racist signs in California and New Mexico. An October 2020 Pew study found unfavorable views of China have reached highs across the world, including in the United States.
Last week, New York City police arrested a suspect in the violent assault of an Asian American woman outside a Queens bakery. In a Los Angeles suburb, an Asian American teacher's aide waiting for a bus was attacked, ending up with a severed finger. In the Bay Area, which has one of the highest concentrations of Asian Americans in the country, recent attacks have Asian American communities on edge. Law enforcement arrested a suspect in early February in connection with assaults on three elderly individuals. The Alameda County District Attorney in Oakland is creating a special response unit focused on anti-Asian American crimes. In nearby San Francisco, prosecutors have charged a suspect in the fatal Jan. 28 assault of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, an immigrant from Thailand. The suspect pled not guilty to charges of murder and elder abuse.
The incidents follow a similar pattern to what happened after 9/11, when Middle Eastern, Arab and South Asian Americans were targeted, according to John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC.
"If you are trying to decrease the level of stigma, decrease the level of discrimination and hate and xenophobia … words matter and developing smart policies so that people understand that we are all part of America," Yang said.
President Joe Biden issued an official memorandum within a week of taking office that condemned the rhetoric and acknowledged the harm on AAPI communities must be addressed. Biden's memo addresses political leaders' role in promoting xenophobic rhetoric through referencing the pandemic by its geographic origin, as Trump and others mimicking his framing of the virus so often did.
"Such statements have stoked unfounded fears and perpetuated stigma about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and have contributed to increasing rates of bullying, harassment and hate crimes against AAPI persons," Biden's memo reads.
The memo also calls for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to issue guidance to reduce discriminatory language that describes the pandemic and for the attorney general to support state, local and community groups with preventing harassment and hate crimes. It also calls for expanding hate incident reporting and data collection.
But advocates and experts across Asian American communities say while the Jan. 26 declaration was a symbolic start, they hope to see more conversations and action beyond the memo to prevent further hate crimes and attacks — including addressing the stereotypes that motivate them.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who was born to Indian immigrants in Philadelphia, says it's important to not just understand hate crimes but also acknowledge and address incidents that don't make the news — harassment, aggression or other acts of exclusion, and the feelings that motivate those actions.
"We have to have a broader conversation in this country about what does it mean to face harassment, racial epithets, aggression that we would never tolerate in the workplace, but of course are part of the public sphere … that may not rise to the level of a crime but that do infringe equal citizenship and make people feel as outsiders," Khanna said.
Collecting hate crime data — and prosecuting those incidents as such — has always been a challenge. These events are often underreported, similar to other crimes like those involving domestic violence.
Roughly 70 percent of the incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate have been "heinous" and "despicable" but not illegal, said Cynthia Choi the organization's co-founder. Few hate crimes are actually prosecuted because there is a tremendous burden of proof to prove a crime was racially motivated toward a protected group, she said.
"Most of the incidents that that we have seen directed at the Asian American community are more in the way of hate incidents, harassment, discrimination, but don't necessarily rise to the level of crime," Yang added.
In his majority-Asian congressional district in the southeastern portion of the San Francisco Bay Area, Khanna said his community has seen a rise of the "otherizing" of Asian Americans over the last four years under Trump.
"I've seen it firsthand in my district, where people say: 'We've not had an incident in 30 years, and now we went to a gas station and someone insulted us or shouted a racial epithet. I feel that I get more suspicious looks when I am traveling someplace,'" Khanna told PBS NewsHour. "The last four years were a step backwards in the integration of the Asian American story in the United States."
Charlie Garwood, who identifies as Korean American, said a bar in his home of 28 years, Medford, Oregon, posted a large sign in front of their establishment in January that listed "China virus" hours, spurring condemnations across the country.
"I've always been very uncomfortable with people referring to [the pandemic] that way — just because basically putting blame on somebody who has no hand in that whatsoever," Garwood said. "I feel like people have been becoming more and more comfortable with saying things of that nature, especially with how we had somebody in office who was doing that and making it a normal thing to be heard."
Garwood said he has had some experiences with people in the community yelling racial slurs at him around town.
"I feel like I have to look over my shoulder every now and then, and kind of always be aware of my surroundings," Garwood said. "It sometimes just makes me very anxious and uncomfortable to be in this area."
When his family was attacked in Midland, Texas, Cung says the local community stepped up to help them pay hospital bills and to recover mentally and physically from the attack. He said he remains optimistic about his life in America.
"I really appreciate Midland people, the environment, the city," said Cung, whose family has lived in Midland since 2014 and who now works as a sanitation worker for the city.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who represents Southern California and whose grandparents and parents were sent to Japanese internment camps during World War II, said in a statement he is "hopeful that President Biden and his administration will … implement policies and practices that emphasize unity and understanding, embrace the diversity of our nation and move our communities forward."
A national advocacy group, AAPI Progressive Action, has called on the president to revamp the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The organization's memo proposes expanding the scope of the initiative to better have "a deeper and bolder commitment to elevating AAPI success, issues and racial disparities than in past administrations." Takano also hopes the next coronavirus relief package will address Asian American small businesses that have suffered during the pandemic. The Asian American unemployment rate has surged since COVID-19 has swept the nation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with other House Democrats, is calling for Congress to pass legislation that will help support victims and help state and local governments improve hate crime reporting. Vice President Kamala Harris — who also identifies as Asian American — has also condemned the recent uptick. "Hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants have skyrocketed during the pandemic," Harris said. "We must continue to commit ourselves to combating racism and discrimination."
Choi, who is also co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, advocates for the AAPI community joining forces with other affected communities like the Black community "to really address what has been baked into our institutions since our founding."
"For any significant change in this country — this racial reckoning — it's going to be on us," she said. "It's going to be on community groups, speaking out, challenging policies that are discriminatory, looking at community-based solutions."