Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. have reported an increase in their experiences of racism, hostility and outright violence.
A recent study from California State University found anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police in major U.S. cities rose 150% last year — even as overall hate crimes dropped 7%. And an analysis by the group Stop AAPI Hate found nearly 3,800 self-reported cases of “hate incidents” against Asian Americans in the U.S. throughout the pandemic — from March 19, 2020 through Feb. 8 of this year.
To understand how we got here — and what needs to happen to address the rise in anti-Asian hate — Side Effects Public Media reporter Christine Herman spoke with:
- Melissa Borja, assistant professor at the University of Michigan and researcher with Stop AAPI Hate
- Ariana Cavallini, organizer with the Indiana Chapter of the National Asian Pacific Islander Women’s Forum
- Sunny Shuai and Hank Nguyen, both volunteers with the Immigrant Welcome Center in Indianapolis
For Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the rise in discrimination and violence against the AAPI community is not merely a news item or a concerning data point. It’s personal. The panelists shared that it’s heartbreaking and traumatizing to see the rise in anti-Asian hate.
While racism is not a new problem for members of AAPI communities, people have felt a sharper edge to it during the pandemic. Going out in public can feel like gambling with your safety or your family’s safety, Nguyen said. It can disrupt a person’s work life, too, Shuai said.
“As a realtor, I’m supposed to hold open houses every weekend, but because of my Asian face I was afraid to,” she said. “I felt really depressed, actually,” particularly after reading the news of an elderly Chinese woman being assaulted in New York while bystanders did nothing to help.
The news of such incidents can be retraumatizing for community members who have experienced racism and xenophobia in the past, Cavallini said.
“I also have to say I’m very fearful for the most vulnerable members of our community — the elderly, in particular — who have been under a lot of stress because so many of the most widely covered events have involved elderly people,” Borja said.
The glimmer of hope that the panelists have found amidst these recent tragedies is that awareness around anti-Asian racism has increased.
“I’m really amazed to see how many people are paying attention to the issue of anti-Asian racism and the needs of Asian American people in this moment,” Borja said. “So, part of me is also feeling hopeful, inspired by the courageous work I’ve seen.”
Dr. Borja worked on a recent analysis by the organization Stop AAPI Hate, which found about 3,800 self-reported hate incidents since March 2020. Here’s what people should understand about that report and its findings.
After hearing of instances of anti-Asian harassment as early as January or February of 2020, Stop AAPI Hate created an online portal where people could report incidents. The incidents take a wide range of forms, from verbal harassment to being spat or coughed on, to more physical harassment and outright violence.
“These incidents are happening as people are going about their daily lives, primarily in places of business, on streets, or on public transit,” Borja said. “So this reminds us that the reason why Asian Americans are fearful right now, is they’re just trying to go about their daily lives — trying to buy food, feed their families — and that’s where they’re getting attacked. And that’s why Asian Americans are so fearful in this moment.”
Women are more likely to be the targets of that harassment — 68% of the incidents reported through the portal came from women. In media reports, too, women are more likely to be the targets of anti-Asian racism, Borja’s research team at the University of Michigan found.
And researchers know the data doesn’t capture all the incidents that occur. Law enforcement doesn’t capture everything either, Borja said. And there are a number of reasons someone might not report a racist incident, including fear of law enforcement, language barriers and not wanting to relive the trauma.
Anti-Asian rhetoric and outright hate in America are not new. There are many historical incidents of racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.
The roots of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. run deep.
Cavallini and Borja pointed to legislation created during the late 1800s as examples: The Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Both were informed by longstanding fear and resentment of Asian people and the idea of the “Yellow Peril.”
It was “rhetoric that came up throughout history of people not being welcome, of Asian Americans wanting to take jobs from others who are here, of being a danger to society, or perspectives of women being sex workers,” Cavallini said. “And using that rhetoric to say that these people don’t have as much value to society, or these people don’t have as much to contribute, or that these folks are dangerous.”
Notably, much of that rhetoric painted Chinese people in America as carriers of disease, Borja said. It’s a straight historical line to current rhetoric about Asian and Asian American people being carriers of COVID-19.
“I think that’s what’s frustrating for many of us who know this history,” Borja said. “In many ways, it’s finding new expression in the current moment. And I just, as a historian, really wish more people knew that history so we could choose otherwise.”
Asian women experience an extra layer of discrimination. Borja pointed to a longstanding media trope that depicts Asian women as being “submissive, sexual playthings for white men.”
“This is very much intertwined with the U.S. military presence in Asia,” Borja said.
She added that he thinks people should remember that context when thinking about what happened in Atlanta when a gunman murdered eight people at three massage parlors. Six of the victims were Asian women.
Addressing the issue of rising anti-Asian hate will require more awareness and education, as well as better access to mental health resources for people in the AAPI community.
Educating people about that long history of anti-Asian racism is an important place to start, Borja said. There’s a real possibility the rise in racism won’t go away even after the U.S. gets the pandemic under control. Tensions with China continue, and that tends to create hostile situations for Asian Americans here, she said.
The Indiana chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum has submitted a petition to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, with three requests:
- For the governor to publicly recognize and condemn anti-Asian violence
- To create support systems for AAPI communities without escalating law enforcement
- To establish a statewide advisory commission of Asian and Pacific American Hoosiers. Such advisory councils have been successful in other states in reducing the number of hate incidents, Cavallini said.
Better mental health resources for Asian and Pacific American communities would also help, particularly if the care is informed by understanding the racism community members experience. Access is currently hindered by language issues, cost and stigma.
And overall, people need to stop blaming Asians for the pandemic, Borja said, because rhetoric has consequences.
“We have tons of research to show this,” she said. “But what we’re asking right now is that people take time and listen, especially our elected officials.”