To battle anti-Asian American racism, increase representation

A demonstrator in Union Square Park on March 19th.
A demonstrator in Union Square Park on March 19th.
Ben Von Klemperer/Shutterstock
A demonstrator in Union Square Park on March 19th.

To battle anti-Asian American racism, increase representation

The Atlanta shootings highlight a problem that exists in New York too.
March 21, 2021

Last Tuesday night was terrifying. A man opened fire at three Asian American spas in Atlanta, just hours after I heard about two separate anti-Asian hate incidents in New York City—one in Kips Bay and another in Hell’s Kitchenwhen a man poured and spat his drink on the back of a woman’s neck. Victims in both of these local cases report that they were told to “Go back to China.” 

We have to be absolutely clear about where this wave of anti-Asian racism and violence is coming from. Last spring, then-President Donald Trump started using the phrases “Kung Flu” and “Chinese Virus” to refer to COVID-19 at press conferences and at rallies across the country. We haven’t seen that kind of anti-Asian rhetoric from such a high position in this country in a long time. Words matter. Sure enough, we started seeing anti-Asian hate crimes spread throughout the United States, including in New York.

This kind of rhetoric serves to otherize Asian Americans, to make us intrinsically different and alien. It’s a lot easier to hurt someone when you don’t consider them one of your own. This has got to stop. And everyone responsible has to own up to it. 

There are no easy solutions to ridding our country or city of hate and acts of violence. And we certainly can’t police our way out of these problems. What we can do is treat our neighbors better. We can change attitudes. We can provide opportunities. We can improve public safety by building relationships between the police and the community, by restoring trust, and by implementing policy that creates accountability and oversight. And we can expand access to badly needed mental health and social services. 

What’s all the more troubling is that in my own race for City Council here on the Upper West Side, we have seen a tremendous amount of othering and nativist language sometimes used by supporters of other candidates. It’s never explicit, but the dog whistle is loud and clear.

When they say “You didn’t grow up here,” “You have supporters who don’t live here,” and “Whose interests do you represent?“ it’s very easy to hear “You’re not a real member of this community,” “You’re not one of us,” and “Go back to where you came from.” 

This is rhetoric my Black and Latino neighbors are all too familiar with, and they too tell me they often feel unwelcome on the predominantly white Upper West Side. All of us need to look inward and investigate within ourselves why that is.

We’ll have to have some tough and honest conversations about how we got here. Anti-Asian violence and hate didn’t begin with COVID-19. Trump unleashed what was already here. It’s been with us for as long as Asians have lived in this country. From the LA Chinese Massacre of 1871, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Rock Springs massacre of 1885, the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Wars in Korea and Vietnam, to the destruction of LA’s Koreatown, Asian Americans have been made to feel that we’re not fully welcome in the United States -- that no matter how many generations we’ve lived here, we will never be accepted as American. It’s why I’ve been asked my entire life and throughout my professional career: “but where are you really from?”

Here in New York City, the work we have to do is clear. Asian Americans, just like other communities of color, have experienced disproportionately high death rates during the pandemic. And the economic shutdown hit many of New York’s Asian businesses two months before it hit the rest of the city, because xenophobia arrived even before the virus did.

Frontline food delivery workers who have kept us fed at home, working without fair wages or basic employment protections, are disproportionately Asian American. One in four Asian New Yorkers lives in poverty. We make up 15% of the city’s population but non-profits serving Asian American communities receive only 1.4% of the city’s social services contracts. 

The City Council sets the budget priorities. The Council’s two Asian American members are both term-limited. Representation matters. We need seats at the table advocating for the needs of New York’s Asian American communities and leading tough conversations about how we’re going to put this genie of hate and violence back into the bottle. This year, we have great Asian American candidates running for office throughout the City. It’s time to pay attention to them. 

We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.

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Jeffrey Omura
is an artist, activist, labor leader, and candidate for New York City Council District 6 (Upper West Side, Lincoln Square, Clinton). If elected, he will be the first Japanese American elected to public office in New York state. Twitter/Instagram: @jeffreyomura
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