Asian Americans are facing twin crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and a wave of hate.
In December, police said a group of people attacked an Asian American woman on a train in Manhattan while making anti-Asian comments related to the coronavirus. Another man allegedly spat on an Asian American woman on a Bronx train in the summer, yelling: “Asians caused the virus! Go back to China! Go back to Manhattan!”
And just last month, a man allegedly stabbed a 36-year-old Asian man in Chinatown. While the NYPD said the suspect would be charged with a hate crime, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the attack as a hate crime because of insufficient evidence the attacker saw the victim’s face. Local Asian American activists have decried the decision not to charge the man with a hate crime.
While hate crimes in New York City have overall declined, hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have grown significantly. The NYPD reports that only three anti-Asian hate crimes were reported to them in 2019, compared with 28 last year. This is the most significant jump anti-Asian hate crimes compared with 15 other major cities reviewed in an analysis from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
But the NYPD statistics alone don’t account for the full spectrum of prejudice Asian Americans have faced. It’s common that victims of hate crimes don’t necessarily report them to law enforcement. Other hateful acts don’t legally rise to the level of being classified as hate crimes, such as being called a racial slur or other verbal harassment.
The city Commission on Human Rights – which has received complaints regarding bias incidents and other discriminatory behavior – found that more than one-third of 389 coronavirus-related incidents it received from February 2020 to the end of May 2020 involved anti-Asian sentiment. Those 145 complaints represented a tenfold increase in anti-Asian complaints filed compared with the same period in 2019, when there were only 12.
Other groups have also collected complaints from New York City residents. People have sent in more than 500 reports of bias incidents and hate crimes to the Asian American Federation since early 2020. And Stop AAPI Hate – a hate crime documentation project supported by a coalition of Asian American rights groups – received 259 reports of anti-Asian incidents in New York City as of the end of December 2020.
City & State reached out to the following experts to hear their thoughts on how to stem the wave of hate against Asian Americans in New York City: Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation; Christopher Kwok, a board member, and Taiyee Chien, a student leader, with the Asian American Bar Association of New York; Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino; Stanley Mark, senior staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense And Education Fund; and Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What has fueled the increase in anti-Asian bias incidents and hate crimes?
Jeung: Asian Americans have experienced racism especially during periods of epidemic, war and economic downturn. Last year, we had all three: the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst recession since the Great Depression and the U.S.-China cold war. These factors, along with the underlying “yellow peril” fear of Asian Americans, set the stage for the increase last year in anti-Asian hate. Former President Donald Trump's incendiary political rhetoric fueled this racism, and his hate speech led to hate violence.
Yoo: The quick answer is the “perpetual foreigner” label that is affixed to the Asian American community, coupled with the anti-Asian rhetoric and policies initiated and perpetuated by the former president and his administration – these factors put our community at risk of being targeted. Despite our long history in the U.S., we suffer under the assumption that we don't belong here; we are NOT Americans. The Asian American community's contributions to and sacrifices for this country are vast, but so is the history of our marginalization. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to sending Americans of Japanese descent to prison camps, to forcing the South Asian, Muslim, and Arab communities to suffer brutality after the 9/11 terror attacks, to the recent Muslim Ban – we are the perpetual foreigners and are looked upon with suspicion.
Mark: Today's political and economic climate (job loss, small business closure, health care disparities etc.) arising from the pandemic. Asian Americans become the current scapegoats as part of the longer legal legacy of anti-Asian bias as reflected in our statutes and case law.
Levin: What we have seen in recent years has been a rotation of various victim groups into a cycle where they are attacked in sociopolitical discourse as being broadly a threat worthy of derision and aggression. About a decade ago, the Latinx immigrant community was targeted online and in legislative activity during a time of rising unemployment and increased border crossings, while mid-decade, Muslims as a whole were targeted for bigotry by politicians amid a coarse political season and violent Salafist Jihadist attacks. Anti-Muslim assaults actually exceeded those after 9/11.
Today, sadly, millions of Americans subscribe to anti-Asian bigotry and conspiracy theories related to the pandemic. The initial spike in March and April correlated to a rise in hospitalizations, increasing anti-Asian referencing and online invective – including that by Trump, and fewer limitations to online dissemination.
Kwok and Chien: The recent surge in anti-Asian attacks can be attributed to three interrelated factors. First, increased geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. created a tense backdrop for the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, then-President Trump’s inflammatory “China virus” rhetoric revived deep-rooted racist and nativist sentiments. Combined with the perception of Asian Americans as “permanent foreigners,” Asian Americans were convenient targets for violence. More fervent activism and vigilant reporting within the Asian American community likely also account in part for the increase in documented instances of anti-Asian violence.
What should be done to support victims of attacks and bias incidents?
Yoo: From our government, we need more robust victim services and outreach regarding those services. The victims often don’t know what services are available. They need to know their rights and what services they’re eligible for by receiving that information in their native languages and delivered with cultural sensitivity. In-language recovery services are absolutely necessary to help victims heal from the trauma. And these services should be available to anyone who experiences a bias incident, as most bias incidents don’t rise to the level of a hate crime but may be equally difficult to deal with physically, emotionally and financially.
Being an upstander is also important in public settings. There are trainings being offered by the Center for Anti-Violence Education to help disrupt incidents through upstander interventions, verbal deescalation tactics, and calling-in strategies. When Noel Quintana was attacked, no one stepped up to help him. There are always things we can do when we see our fellow New Yorkers getting hurt.
Kwok and Chien: Victims should be supported in three ways. First, when safe to do so, one should record what is transpiring through their phones and by providing statements to law enforcement. Second, restitution funds should be established through the government, nonprofits and corporate sponsors to provide financial support for victims who require medical treatment or other financial assistance. Third, law enforcement and community members need to continue to watch over victims after the assailant has been charged. Because so few of these acts of violence are charged as hate crimes or felonies, perpetrators are often back in the local communities and in close proximity with victims and their family members.
Jeung: Persons reporting attacks and bias incidents display racial trauma – long-term issues of anxiety, depression, and somatic symptoms. We need to support these persons with culturally responsive mental health resources in their language. They also ask for legal assistance, and many of them can file civil actions to mediate their civil rights violations. Thirdly, they desire resources to help them address racism to their children and youth.
Overall, we want everyone to be good neighbors to each other. To be on the watch for one another, to intervene in cases of harassment, and to support Asian American businesses.
Mark: Law enforcement is not enough. There must be a shift in spending priorities and reinvestment in our communities with political leadership that goes beyond spending for more law enforcement. Instead, areas like education, mental health services, job training, access to vaccinations, more bilingual and culturally competent services in all communities.
What can be done to prevent these acts from happening?
Kwok and Chien: As a start, the Asian-American community needs more allies to help raise awareness about these tragic happenings and to translate outrage and despair into actionable next steps. One concrete action item is to ensure that reporting lines are Asian language-friendly and Asian-American victims feel safe to report acts of violence. Another is for nonvictim Asian Americans and allies to stand in solidarity with the victims and to pressure politicians, prosecutors, and the police to create a safer world for the Asian-American community. The NYPD anti-Asian hate crimes task force should be funded and have officers assigned to it full time, instead of being volunteers. Finally, educational programs should be made available for both the Asian American community, to ensure that Asian American victims understand their rights and can better navigate our complicated legal system, and society in general, to foster greater appreciation for the lived experiences and struggles of the Asian American community.
All of these initiatives will require cooperation between public and private sectors, and all citizens who want to build a better society.
Yoo: We need investments in safety measures for our communities that allow neighborhood nonprofits to offer services and programs that help make connections between residents. We need to connect victims to mental health services and programs to help them heal and recover. And we need to increase access to mental health services for all – especially for those who could be a danger to themselves or others.
Jeung: Ethnic studies would help teach students the sources of this racism and promote racial empathy and solidarity. Expanded civil rights protections would safeguard us from harassment in private businesses. And restorative justice would help break the cycle of violence that we're now experiencing.