Racially motivated harassment of Asian Americans is a longstanding issue in the U.S., but in the year since COVID-19 entered the country, incidents have been on the rise.
What has contributed to the surge in racism and hate crimes towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and how can the issue be addressed?
PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz, AAPI activist Helen Zia and Rise founder Amanda Nguyen took your questions and discussed the history of AAPI hate crimes and how communities are responding now.
Watch the discussion in the player above.
Several studies point to the connection between hateful rhetoric and increased hate-motivated actions, and advocates and experts point to the way former President Donald Trump spoke about the COVID-19 virus as a direct contributor to the increased crime. But under the new Biden administration, the hate incidents have continued, prompting leaders and advocates to actively call for coalition building, better incident tracking and increased education about AAPI communities.
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.
In 2021, the incidents have only continued. On Tuesday, a man of Malaysian descent was reportedly attacked in a New York City subway station. This month, police there arrested a suspect in the violent assault of an Asian American woman outside a Queens bakery. In Southern California, 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, 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 anti-Asian hate has generated condemnations across the country, as community leaders and public officials — including Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — call for increased awareness. 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.
How has the recent spike in hate affected AAPI communities?
As a result of the uptick in hate, many Asian Americans feel a “fog of terror,” Nguyen says. “When people walk out the door, they don’t know if they’re going to get attacked and from where they’re going to get attacked,” Nguyen said. “If you hear these stories — they’re in grocery stores, they’re people walking on the street, they’re people living their daily lives.”
In order for people to recognize the full humanity and dignity of Asian Americans, more stories need to be told in a responsible manner, Nguyen said, because stories are empathy machines. “Silence is violence,” she said. “In order for us to be treated as human, people need to speak us into the consciousness of this country.”
Zia said many important stories are missing because parts of the community have tried to disappear from the public during the pandemic because of fears of violence. People are scared to go to the doctors, get tested for COVID-19 or get vaccines, she said. “This is a terrible situation of a community that’s been driven underground by fear of real attacks that are happening,” said Zia, author of “Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People.”
To what degree is a lack of education and awareness about the history of Asian Americans contributing to this sentiment today?
Zia says that part of the problem is the invisibility of Asian American communities and lack of understanding of the racism they have faced. “It’s part of the systemic racism of depriving all Americans — including Asian Americans — of our own history,” Zia said. “I call it ‘missing in history.’”
Zia points to problematic and popular depictions of people of Asian descent. Many are cartoon-like and portrayed as subhuman, animalistic or enemy invaders.
The absence of accurate knowledge about AAPI history, Zia said, keeps people fighting with each other instead of coming together to ensure that no one is demeaned or attacked.
Are there any measures being taken to combat the rise of anti-Asian crimes?
Nyugen said she is still waiting for elected officials to take more explicit, concrete action to address anti-Asian hate. “When you ‘other’ a group of people, there is a higher chance of violence towards that group of people,” Nguyen said.
To help combat the problem, Nguyen said, the most powerful tool we all have is our voice. “Even if structural places have locked us out, we have platforms now, in the 21st century, to make our voices heard. So please speak up”
“In order for there to be true peace, one must hold up a light to the darkest corners of our experience,” Nguyen added. “In order for us to heal as a nation we must learn, we must acknowledge where we are at now, and then together working cross-community, we’re able to move forward into a more equitable future.”
Do you find that violence against other groups has sometimes obscured the reality Asian American communities are facing?
It’s important to not just compare issues across communities, but rather work together in solidarity, activists say. “Justice is a fabric that has threads from all different communities,” Nguyen said.
The violence and harassment are part of structural, systematic erasure of AAPI people, Nguyen said. Though task forces and memos are good first steps, they “cannot undo centuries of omission and erasure” of Asian Americans, she added.
“In order for us to truly tackle the root of this problem, it must be done in all of the places that hold the keys to telling our stories,” Nguyen said. That includes teaching AAPI history, covering these communities in the news and telling their stories in Hollywood. “The problem is invisibility, therefore the solution has to be informed, thoughtful visibility.”
Zia says there have been many historical examples of solidarity between Asian Americans fighting alongside Black Americans, Latino Americans and Indigenous Americans, as well as for issues like women’s rights and against homophobia.
Zia says while task forces addressing anti-Asian hate are steps forward, there has to be more widespread understanding that these are issues that didn’t start yesterday. “Otherwise it’ll be just acts to put band-aids on a much larger issue.”
Zia believes that real change can be made through education. Schools should teach the reality of what America looks like today.
“Very sadly it’s taking seeing videos of 84-year-old and 90-year-old people … getting knocked down and killed. That’s what now is bringing attention to what has been a longstanding problem,” Zia said.