America’s diverse Asian communities unite against hate

Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters
Melissa Min attends a vigil in Philadelphia with her son James on March 17, 2021, in solidarity with the Asian American community after increased attacks on the community since the onset of the pandemic a year ago.

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It’s a “tipping point,” “an inflection,” a “crisis point.” That’s what Asian American leaders are calling this week in which eight people have been fatally shot at spas in Atlanta. The mass shooting, they say, is a culmination of a yearlong surge in hate crimes and racist incidents against this highly diverse and sometimes split community, uniting them as never before.

From California to New York, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have put out statements and are organizing vigils to grieve for the victims in the Atlanta shooting, six of whom were women of Asian descent. On March 18, Congress held the first hearing on anti-Asian discrimination in more than 30 years. 

Why We Wrote This

America’s Asian communities had already been facing a pandemic-related spike in prejudice and hate. Killings in Atlanta this week have sparked a more concerted effort for solutions.

The solidarity was evident Thursday at an evening vigil of about 100 people in Queens, New York. People with backgrounds spanning from East Asian to South Asian braved cold rain, holding candles and glowsticks as traffic rolled past. They listened to a prayer and the names of the Atlanta victims released so far. 

“We have to talk about it,” said Jason Molina, who moved to the United States from the Philippines 12 years ago. “Because if we set it aside, other people will think [racism is] OK for us.”

It’s a “tipping point,” “an inflection,” a “crisis point.” That’s what Asian American leaders are calling this week in which eight people have been fatally shot at Asian spas in Atlanta. The mass shooting, they say, is a culmination of a yearlong surge in hate crimes and racist incidents against this highly diverse and sometimes split community, uniting them as never before.

From California to New York, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have put out statements and are organizing vigils to grieve for the victims in the Atlanta shooting, six of whom were women of Asian descent. On March 18, Congress held the first hearing on anti-Asian discrimination in more than 30 years. The day before in California, a diverse group of Asian American political leaders, plus Latino politicians, called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint as attorney general someone of Asian Pacific Islander (API) identity to restore “trust” with law enforcement. The Golden State has the largest population of Asian Americans in the country.

“There has been an unprecedented level of organizing in the API community since the beginning of this pandemic,” says California Assembly Member David Chiu of San Francisco, one of those pressuring the governor. Incidents have “skyrocketed” around the country, and “this has motivated an entire generation of Asian American activists that we’ve never seen before.”

Why We Wrote This

America’s Asian communities had already been facing a pandemic-related spike in prejudice and hate. Killings in Atlanta this week have sparked a more concerted effort for solutions.

Although law enforcement have said the man arrested in the Atlanta shootings cited sex addiction as a motive, it’s clear that he targeted Asian spas – and Asian Americans nationwide are seeing this as a galvanizing moment.

Pandemic as a driver

As early as February last year, at the start of the pandemic, Asian American lawmakers and advocates had already been warning of a potential rise in xenophobia and attacks against Asian Americans from a virus originating in China. They blame President Donald Trump for fanning the flames with misinformation and inflammatory language, calling COVID-19 the “China virus” and another racist slur for the disease.

Last March, three experienced community activists and experts in California formed Stop AAPI Hate to collect personal accounts of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The nonprofit has reported more than 3,700 instances nationwide between March 2020 and February 2021, some of which can be read on its website. They range from verbal harassment (68%) to physical assault (11%). In its report, it notes that women are 2.3 times more likely than men to report these disturbing and frightening incidents. Experts say the numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

David Lee credits this group with unlocking stories from thousands of “ordinary people” who otherwise might not have said anything due to a cultural and historical aversion to speaking up. “They’re realizing, it’s not just me,” says Mr. Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. 

He has his own account. Last year, when he ran for supervisor in his San Francisco neighborhood, he received racist emails that had nothing to do with his policy positions and was accused on the Nextdoor app of being an agent for mainland China. Windows were broken and graffiti sprayed on restaurants that featured his signs.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian Americans constitute 5.9% of the total U.S. population. That may seem small, but this is the fastest-growing major ethnic group in the country. It’s also a highly diverse population, with the term encompassing significant religious, cultural, economic, educational, and political differences among people who stem from at least 19 countries. Adding Pacific Islanders brings the total to 6.1 percent.

Some of them come from countries with a history of deep-seated enmity. Think India and Pakistan. Mainland China and Taiwan. South Korea and Japan. If you are a fan of the Netflix series “Kim’s Convenience,” a sitcom about a Korean Canadian family that runs a convenience store in Toronto, you will recall that Mr. Kim has not forgotten – or forgiven – Japan’s annexation of his homeland (1910-45).

But Mr. Lee and others say that unlike the past – for instance, the 1992 rioting in Los Angeles’ Koreatown – today’s violence is not targeted at any specific ethnicity. He points to viral videos and media accounts of brutal, and sometimes fatal, attacks on people of Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Thai descent.

All in this together

“The situation has become so apparent, and so self-evident to everybody that we’re all in this together. And we have reached a tipping point where many of the intramural competitions, and intramural friction, that may have existed in the past has melted away in the face of the larger threat to the entire community,” he says. “Whether you are rich or poor, whether you live in the city or a gated community, you are not safe from racism and hatred.”

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Minister Tony Truong (right) prays at an altar for victims of violence at a "Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power" rally outside the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles on March 13, 2021. So far, the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, founded a year ago, has collected more than 3,700 personal accounts of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders nationwide.

Indeed, many people, particularly older individuals, say they are afraid to go out. In some places, volunteers are coming forward to protect them.

“It’s a Pan Asian American movement,” says Dr. Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. He has seen leaders from different ethnic groups, including South Asians and members from the Muslim community, turning up in support. And that’s because they had gone through similar experiences, such as confronting Islamophobia post-9/11. “We’re building on their wisdom and experience to address the anti-Asian hate.”

A rain-swept vigil in New York

That unity was evident at an evening vigil of about 100 people in the Queens borough of New York on March 18. People of all races and ages – and backgrounds from East Asian to South Asian – braved cold rain, holding candles and glowsticks as traffic roared past and trains rumbled overhead. They listened to a prayer, and the names of the Atlanta victims known so far: Delaina Ashley Yaun. Xiaojie Tan. Daoyou Feng. Hyeon Jeong Park. Julie Park. Paul Andre Michels. 

“For us to be here is actually sad and unnecessary. We shouldn’t be doing any sort of event like this,” says Jason Molina, who came to the vigil with a friend. Mr. Molina moved to the United States from the Philippines 12 years ago. “Racism has been around so long that it’s become such a regular thing that people are like, it’s normal so we don’t really have to talk about it,” says Mr. Molina. “But we have to talk about it ... because if we set it aside, other people will think it’s OK for us.”

While it’s important to celebrate the diversity of the Asian American community, they also need to come together as one, says Julie Won, a first-generation Korean American who co-organized the vigil with Steven Raga, a Filipino American. Both are running for the New York City Council. “We need to protect each other even though you and I may not be from the same country,” says Ms. Won.

Solutions start with education

Leaders say the demand of the hour is to better educate the public about the causes and effects of discrimination and verbal and physical attacks on API people. The need is also, they say, to increase efforts to organize politically and run for office, and to bring more API representation to film and other media, including multidimensional characters that move beyond stereotypes.

“The most important thing ... is to educate the general public and policymakers that this isn’t new to our community,” says Cynthia Choi, another of the co-founders of Stop AAPI Hate. Another priority is to aid victims. It’s a complex issue, she says, including that “not every incident that involves a member of another race is a hate crime.”

In times of crisis, drivers of violence and crime have to do with poverty – the scramble for affordable housing and other basic needs, a condition that cuts across racial and ethnic groups, she explains. But the “myth of the model minority” – the conventional view of Asian Americans as successful, highly educated, and wealthy – hides this struggle, and adds a sense of incredulity that this population experiences racism at all.

“It’s really had a deleterious effect on our ability to talk about our experiences,” Ms. Choi says.

History of stereotypes

Part of the education process has to do with the history of the API community in the U.S. that has fed racism, say community leaders and activists. This week California’s Board of Education unanimously approved an ethnic studies course curriculum – a controversial issue – even while the state Legislature considers making a high school ethnic studies class a graduation requirement.

Today’s stereotypes – of API people as foreigners, fungible, submissive, unfair competitors, and a model minority – come from the past, says Jerry Kang, an expert on Asian American communities and law professor at the UCLA School of Law.

The record includes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that barred Chinese immigrants – a law that lasted well into the mid-20th century – and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “The past is not the past,” he says. 

Professor Kang says Asian Americans are trying to confront a question of power. “If your own elders are being beaten up randomly and you can’t do anything about it, what does that mean for any group? It feels like you lack power.” Two places where power makes a much bigger difference, he says, are in politics and, broadly speaking, the media.

In Congress, for instance, the API community makes up only 3.2% of Senate and House members – underrepresented compared with its population. But the numbers have been growing, from seven in 2001 to 17 this year. As voters, API people surged to the polls in 2020 and played a key role in tipping Senate races in Georgia to Democrats while also helping two GOP Korean American women from California take back Democratic seats in the House.

Politicians, whether at the national or local level, have the spotlight to highlight issues and make change. In March, Democratic Rep. Grace Meng of New York introduced a nonbinding resolution calling on all public officials to condemn and denounce anti-Asian sentiments in any form, and for law enforcement to investigate all forms of hate crime. 

Calls for change at Justice Department

Today, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took that to heart as they visited with API leaders in Atlanta – and Mr. Biden urged Congress to pass hate-crime legislation. Earlier this week, the president ordered flags at half-mast in honor of the shooting victims. Last week, Congresswoman Meng and Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, announced they were reintroducing hate crime legislation that would dedicate an official at the Justice Department to review and prioritize hate crimes reported to all levels of government, and, among other things, set up a way for people to report hate crimes and other incidents in multiple languages online.

Celebrity power can also be transformative, says Professor Kang. This year’s Oscar nominations are the most diverse in history, with nine of the 20 acting nominees having ethnic-minority backgrounds. Steven Yeun is the first Asian American to be nominated for lead actor in Lee Isaac Chung’s movie “Minari,” about a Korean father who moves his family to an Arkansas farm in the 1980s. Mr. Chung has also been nominated for best director along with Chloé Zhao, the first woman of color to be nominated for directing (in “Nomadland”).

But here, too, progress for the API community is painfully slow. As an actor, Daniel Dae Kim seemed to encompass both the political and media worlds when he testified at the congressional hearing this week about a pollster telling him that Asian Americans are “statistically insignificant” in polling models.

“Statistically insignificant means we literally don’t matter,” he said.

From the voices being raised, including his own, it looks like the API community – and many others – are determined to change that.

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