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Asian Americans describe ‘gut punch’ of racist attacks during coronavirus pandemic

The novel coronavirus pandemic has Americans across the country fearful for their personal health and well-being, but for Asian Americans, the virus has stirred up another threat: a wave of verbal and physical attacks.

Jeff Yang experienced what he calls his own “breathing while Asian” moment last week while shopping at his local grocery store in Los Angeles. Even as the host of a podcast about being Asian in America, Yang says he was taken aback when a woman leaving the store noticed him — the only Asian in line — and started shouting profanities.

“She pulled down her mask, coughed theatrically in my direction, pulled up her mask, walked away, got into a car and drove away,” Yang recalls. “I was too shocked to do anything.”

“It really was a bit of a gut punch,” Yang added.

For Jeni Erbes-Chan, an architect in New York, it was a trip on the subway on March 10, her last day in the office before the citywide stay-at-home order, that shook her.

“A man sort of lurched at me and shouted, ‘You people brought the virus. Go back to China.’ I was a little in shock,” Erbes-Chan said. “I just put my head down and tried not to make any eye contact after that.”

Like so many others, she went about her day and didn’t report the incident to law enforcement.

“You just bury your head and you move forward because no matter how hard you work, how successful you are, what friends you make, you just don’t belong,” she said. “You will always be looked at as foreign.”

Incidents like these have been on the rise in recent weeks, and some have escalated beyond these verbal assaults. A family of three were stabbed outside a store in Midland, Texas, last month. The FBI says the man who was arrested after that incident may face federal hate crime charges. The FBI is also warning local law enforcement around the country of a potential surge in hate crime incidents against Asian Americans because of coronavirus fears, according to an FBI analysis obtained by ABC News.

Some people who have experienced these verbal attacks believe the rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump and members of his administration is exacerbating the problem. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly called the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” while Trump regularly called it the “Chinese virus”, both referencing the viral strain’s early origins in Wuhan, China.

READ MORE: Asian Americans report rise in racist attacks amid pandemic

“I talk about the Chinese virus and — and I mean it. That’s where it came from,” Trump said during a White House news briefing with his coronavirus task force at the end of March.

Yang said Trump’s language has been echoed by Republican members of Congress as part of what he considers a “coordinated effort” targeting Asian Americans.

“The biggest fear I have now isn’t just widespread acts of individual bigotry. It’s a concerted campaign on the part of the Trump administration to sharpen the blade of racialization, to assign this blame in such a way that Chinese people are perceived to be the threat,” Yang said. “That could be literally a part of his presidential reelection campaign.”

Three weeks ago, the president denounced reports of hateful rhetoric and violence when he was questioned by reporters on whether his words could lead to an increase in anti-Asian sentiments.

“There could be a little bit of nasty language toward the Asian Americans in our country, and I don’t like that at all,” Trump said. “These are incredible people. They love our country, and I’m not going to let it happen.”

Trump has said his decision to put in place travel restrictions on flights coming from China beginning at the end of January helped slow the spread of the virus in the United States, and he later expanded restrictions to other countries seen as virus hot spots.

While Trump justified the bans as necessary to protect against the virus, they were also in keeping with his history of anti-immigration policies, according Erica Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

“This assault on immigration happened long before the virus came to our shores,” Lee said. “His policies have already built on this idea that foreigners, foreignness, foreign enemies are out to get the United States and that we need to put America first.”

Lee, the author of “America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States,” says fear of disease from immigrant groups has long been part of American history, going back to the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s, which put severe restrictions on Chinese immigrants that she believes the country later came to regret. Lee also believes the current pandemic could be a way for the Trump administration to propose more stringent immigration restrictions.

“Future historians will look upon this period as the absolute high point of xenophobia in our history,” Lee said.

READ MORE: ‘I am not a virus.’ How this artist is illustrating coronavirus-fueled racism

It was an increase in day-to-day accounts of shunning, spitting and other verbal and physical attacks in the wake of the pandemic that led some Asian American groups to create hate crime reporting websites to better document the unfolding situation on the ground.

Stop AAPI Hate, one tool created by California-based advocacy organizations, collects reports of hate incidents in seven languages. In the nearly three weeks since its launch, the website has received more than 1,200 reports, escalating to a rate of about 100 per day. Organizers say the rate of reporting is likely a severe undercount of the actual incidents taking place every day across the country.

“I’ve committed myself to read every single account. It’s hard to keep up,” said Cynthia Choi, the co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, one of the groups behind Stop AAPI Hate. “We knew things would start to get a lot worse before things get better. Unfortunately, our predictions are coming true.”

An analysis from the website’s second week found verbal harassment made up about two-thirds of the reports. Nearly ten percent were of physical assaults. More than a third of all incidents reported occured in California, where Asians make up about 15 percent of the state’s residents.

For Choi, the most upsetting accounts she’s read have targeted health care workers on the front lines battling the coronavirus. In one instance, a doctor on his way to work was told to “go back to f****** China.” In another, a nurse delivering medicine to a sick patient was spit on.

For Manjusha Kulkarni, the executive director of the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, another organization that created the website, the attacks on children are among the most upsetting. Children are the target of about six percent of all reports, according to the analysis.

One of the worst incidents she recalls hearing about occured in the weeks before schools across the country closed en masse. A 12-year-old was taunted at school by a classmate who yelled at him to “go back to China,” Kukarni recalled. When the student protested, the bully punched him in the head 20 times.

“This is unfortunately part of our new reality, along with tremendous fears of contracting the virus,” Kulkarni said.

Like others, she singles out the language of elected leaders including Trump as a contributing factor in the reports her organization is receiving.

“People understand the cues,” she said. “It’s not a dog whistle. It’s a megaphone.”

Kulkarni, a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles, has also had her own first-hand experiences with “racist rhetoric” in the weeks since the first cases of coronavirus were reported in California. During a trip to the hair salon, she says two women at the washing station next to her were blaming Chinese people — “these people” as she recalls them saying — for “what they eat” being the cause of the virus.

“I was shocked and visibly shaken, and I do this for a living,” she said.

The work of Stop AAPI Hate and two other reporting tools that have emerged in recent weeks has gained the attention of members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat whose district in Queens, New York, is near the current epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., introduced legislation last month to condemn anti-Asian racism and require the government to collect data about coronavirus-related hate crimes.

“I’ve often thought of discriminatory actions and rhetoric as part of our American history, something that was in the past and not something that affected us today,” Meng said during a virtual news conference last week. “As we’ve seen today with what people are doing and saying against fellow Americans, there is a lot of fear in our communities.”

Even with increased awareness about the hate being directed toward their community and with more outlets to report anti-Asian incidents emerging, both Kulkarni and Choi worry about the lingering effects of the pandemic. They say the mental wounds exposed by the coronavirus may not heal until long after the virus’ threat has been mitigated and people return to work or school.

“I worry that our concerns mostly are about the fear of the contagion of the disease and that we’re not adequately afraid of the spread of racism,” Kulkami said. “Racism is a part of the fabric of American life.”

“When we return to normalcy, we know that stigmatization will continue,” Choi added. “Just because we are able to go back to our normal lives doesn’t mean that there’s no more resentment.”