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Asian Americans face a wave of discrimination during the pandemic

A string of brutal attacks on elderly Asian Americans has brought new attention to the rise of violence and harassment of Asian Americans. Since the pandemic began, more than 3,000 anti-Asian "hate incidents” have been reported in the U.S. according to the group, “Stop AAPI Hate." Asian American and Pacific Islander activist Helen Zia and Rise founder Amanda Nguyen join Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A recent string of brutal attacks on elderly Asian Americans caught on video has brought new attention to the rise of violence and harassment of Asian Americans.

    Since the pandemic started, more than 3,000 anti-Asian hate incidents have been reported in the U.S., according to the group, Stop AAPI Hate.

    Earlier today, Amna Nawaz hosted a live conversation unpacking the history behind these attacks, concerns in the community, and what happens next.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Joining me now is Helen Zia, activist, award-winning author and former journalist and, of course, the author behind the seminal book "Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People."

    Also with us is Amanda Nguyen. She's a social entrepreneur, a civil rights activist and the CEO and founder of Rise, a nongovernmental civil rights organization.

    So, welcome to you both. And thank you for being here.

    Helen, what would you say to someone who's trying to understand what's driving this surge we're seeing now?

  • Helen Zia:

    I think we have to understand that this, as you said, Amna, was something that has been happening for a very long time and is actually part of the fabric of America, how Asian Americans have lived with this, ever since we have been in America.

    I was part of a very similar time in the 1980s, when a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was killed in Detroit because Japan was being blamed for the economic crisis in America. And, today, unfortunately, we are facing something very similar, that now China is the cause of everything bad in America now.

    Folks are looking for people to blame. And from time immemorial, since Asian Americans have been in the Americas, Asian people have been blamed and attacked and scapegoated, even with periods of ethnic cleansing, killing, eliminating, lynchings, mass attacks.

    So, this is not something new.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Amanda, I want to ask you about this, because, as these videos have been surfacing, report after report of what are really brutal and brazen attacks, often in broad daylight, what were you thinking as you were watching report after report and video after video come in?

  • Amanda Nguyen:

    Quite honestly, I was hurt.

    When I saw these videos and felt like mainstream media wasn't covering it, I turned to social media, because I think the core issue is about visibility. I think these things are happening because people are ignorant. And they're ignorant because they haven't been able to get to know us, or they haven't done the work to get to know us.

    I don't think people are born hateful. I think that there are systems in place, tools of oppression that shape people to other groups of entire communities. And so, at this moment, my call to action was to humanize us by getting our stories out there.

  • Helen Zia:

    I think it's partly an enforced lack of knowledge. I mean, we have systems. We have — it's part of the systemic racism of depriving all Americans, including Asian Americans, of our own history.

    I call it MIH, missing in history. And so it's not like there's this void in our brains. That gets filled with garbage, things that are like cartoon caricatures of what Asian — people from Asian backgrounds are supposed to be like. And many of those caricatures are subhuman, not human, animalistic, disease carriers, enemy invaders, which is a very constant caricature.

    And so, instead of real knowledge about how the treatment of Asian Americans goes way back, and, in fact, is part of the systemic racism of America that came along with the enslavement of people from Africa and the genocide of indigenous people, there was the xenophobia, the ethnic cleansing, the use and manipulation of Asian Americans to sort of be an in-between wedge against other people.

    And so that is damaging. The absence of knowledge is fundamentally the way to keep people fighting each other.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have already heard stories about how people are telling their parents or their grandparents not to go out alone, of younger members of the community escorting older ones to try to protect them.

    But what's happening on the ground? What's the feeling right now?

  • Amanda Nguyen:

    It's a fog of terror, quite honestly, of, 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, right?

    If you hear the stories, they're in grocery stores. They are people walking on the street. They are people living their daily lives.

  • Helen Zia:

    What Amanda is describing is a community that has gone underground throughout this pandemic, and with the fears that you both describe.

    And what that's meant, we can see visibly that people are not going to their doctors. They're not getting meds. They're not getting tested. They're afraid to get vaccines. This is in the middle of a pandemic. So, this is a terrible situation of a community that's been driven underground by fear of real attacks that are happening.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Helen, is enough being done to address this right now? And we have seen President Biden address this from the highest office in the land. There are task forces in the Bay Area, on the New York City Police Department.

    What else needs to be done?

  • Helen Zia:

    In the bigger picture, we have to be asking for real change that education happens, that the real America of what we look like today also has to be taught, taught in schools K-12, that Hollywood really needs to get it together.

    And all this talk about Hollywood so white and stuff like that includes the omission of people who look like not what they imagine America to be.

  • Amanda Nguyen:

    The problem is in visibility. Therefore, the solution has to be informed, thoughtful visibility.

    It's so important that, when we do this, we remember that justice is not a zero sum game, and that, in order for us to move forward together, we are stronger together, across solidarity, across different issues, because justice is a fabric that has threads from all different communities.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thank you so much to both of you for joining us today.

    That is Helen Zia and Amanda Nguyen.

    And for anyone out there who wants to watch the full, unedited conversation, you can go to our website. That is PBS.org/NewsHour.

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