Confronting the Surge in Anti-Asian American Violence

“Wuhan. Wuhan was catching on, coronavirus, kung flu, I could give you many, many names. Some people call it the Chinese flu, the China flu, they call it the China.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic first started in March of last year, I remember cringing at the harmful anti-Chinese rhetoric from Donald Trump and other officials. These weren’t unfamiliar insults, but they landed differently from such a powerful voice. It scared me as I thought of family and others of the Asian American community. My fears were soon confirmed with the uptick in hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans, most notably from March to May 2020.

And now, almost a year later, we’re seeing those fears realized again.

Just yesterday, eight people (six of them Asian women) were senselessly killed in Atlanta-area shootings, an unspeakable tragedy for the victims’ families and loved ones. As it appears this was a planned and targeted massacre, it’s hard to not think this was a racially motivated crime. It’s terrifying, and it’s hardly an outlier.

In January of this year, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year old Thai immigrant, died two days after being shoved to the ground in San Francisco. In early February, a 64-year old Vietnamese grandmother was assaulted and robbed in San Jose. In early March, a 56-year old Malaysian immigrant was pushed to the ground and repeatedly punched in the face at a subway station in New York City.

One incident especially sticks with me. Noel Quintana, a 61-year old Filipino man, was attacked on a New York City subway, his face slashed with a box cutter. His injuries were gruesome and he ended up needing 100 stitches, but what stood out to me was that no one did anything. “I was scared because I thought I was going to die,” he said, “and nobody helped me.”

In January 2021, there have been more than 20 attacks and robberies reported in Oakland (CA) Chinatown alone. Some law enforcement agencies have reported a significant increase in attacks against the Asian American community since the pandemic started, including in New York City, where anti-Asian hate crimes jumped by 1,900 percent in 2020 compared to the year before. About 3 in 10 Asian adults have reported incidents of racist slurs or jokes on the basis of race or ethnicity since the pandemic began. Even more go unreported, with speculation that the incident rate is “much higher” than the numbers indicate.

Since the pandemic started, anti-Asian American violence has increased, ignited by the discriminatory language that Trump used while in the White House. “Kung Flu” and “Chinese virus” were typical xenophobic terms that Trump publicly used to describe COVID-19. This inflamed anti-Chinese sentiment, especially as the virus got worse and people looked for someone or something to blame, and the sentiment spread to other Asian Americans.

Asian American discrimination is not new

These crimes are disheartening, but for many in the Asian American community, they’re also not surprising. We now live in a time of anti-facts, of “fake news,” and unfounded conspiracy theories. Although Trumpism may have brought attention to this type of irrational thinking, misconceptions about Asian Americans have far predated it.

Racism against Asian Americans has a long and complicated history in this country. Although Asia is the largest continent on Earth, with a diversity of cultures, Asian Americans are often seen as a giant monolith, easily characterized by harmful stereotypes. In recent years, the Asian Americans have also been grouped with Pacific Islanders, in a broader AAPI categorization, although the Pacific Islander community faces separate and different issues. The monolithic perception of the community makes it harder for non-Asian Americans to humanize Asian Americans, but easier to lay blame upon the entire group. America’s inability to understand the community’s diverse and rich cultural differences only fueled Trump’s anti-Chinese sentiment into the broader Asian American population. Soon, in ignorant, bigoted attempts to make someone pay for America’s lockdown frustration, any Asian person (who looked “Chinese enough”) found themselves targeted.

Asian Americans have been misunderstood ever since they started immigrating to this country. Historically, they were seen as “aliens” because they didn’t look like their white neighbors; their physical differences made them easily identifiable targets. They were “perpetual foreigners,” who were ineligible for citizenship but eager to assimilate. They were often used as cheap labor to exploit in America’s surges of progress like the building of the transcontinental railroad. But as the target of some of America’s most discriminatory policies (think the Chinese Exclusion Act or Japanese internment), Asian Americans learned that assimilation, no matter how hard you try, is difficult. The lesson internalized by many was to often shun those cultural aspects that make us foreign: our religion, our food, our traditions, our language.

However, through hardship and pain, Asian Americans have courageously learned to embrace and celebrate our diverse cultures, upbringings, and experiences. We’ve grown proud of where our ancestors came from, rejecting the pressure to fit a cookie-cutter definition of what it means to be American. Even religiously, Asian Americans contribute to the diversity of the landscape in this nation. Asian Americans mainly identify with religious minorities, playing a huge role in the growth of non-Abrahamic faiths in the US, like Buddhism and Hinduism, while 26 percent of Asian Americans, according to a Pew Research Center study in 2012, identified as unaffiliated.

Modern barriers for the Asian American community

Eventually, the US government started looking toward Asian Americans, particularly those of East Asian descent, favorably. Asian Americans started gaining more representation and feeling less of the outward and blatant racism that they experienced in the past.

It’s not that the racism or discrimination ever went away, it just changed shape. The 20th century saw the slow introduction of the ‘model minority’ myth, a stereotype that depicts Asian Americans as hardworking, quiet, and economically successful. It plays a huge role in masking the long history of racism and discrimination that has plagued the community. The ‘model minority’ myth creates a false sense of upward mobility, even though, in reality, Asians are the most economically divided group in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center in 2018. Additionally, a study from 2017 found that white-collar Asian Americans are the least likely demographic to be promoted to management and executive levels, although they make up a huge portion of the workforce.

It is important to remember that the ‘model minority’ myth excludes many members within the Asian American community. It tends to only include those of East Asian descent or those with fair skin, while South Asians and those with darker skin are left out of this narrative of success. That’s because it ultimately pits the Asian American community against other minorities, which was its intention from the start.

The ‘model minority’ myth took off in the 1960s, largely in response to the civil rights movement, in order for white politicians to shift the blame for poverty and other hardship within the African American community. They could point to Asians, and say, “See, this is how it can be done.” And, since the American dream comes with a tremendous pressure to assimilate and aspire to whiteness, Asian American immigrants were willing to take on this false image (something that can also be attributed to the colonization of many Asian countries).

There is a long overdue racial, and particularly anti-black, reckoning facing the Asian American community. That work is ongoing, propelled by the younger generation tackling those issues head-on, both within the community and outwardly. Furthering this divide, and perpetuating the ‘model minority’ myth are giant obstacles this country needs to overcome in order to move toward a more just and equitable future. Asian Americans should be leaders of this effort.

I look back on the attack of Noel Quintana and can’t help but think of my own family members and elders: my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts. “It’s really sad,” Quintana told People magazine, in regards to the increase of anti-Asian American hate, “I’m very cautious. I really don’t go out.” After our long and storied struggle in America, our community shouldn’t have to live in fear of these false misconceptions in our own country.

As we continue to learn more about yesterday’s shootings in Atlanta and process it alongside the increase in anti-Asian American hate, the anger, sadness, and fear that the Asian American community is experiencing is overwhelming. Enough is enough. But we can’t begin to solve this problem on our own.

As humanists, we need to uphold our ethical values by standing with the Asian American community. As an evidence-based community, we need to push back against unfounded language and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic, and about Asian Americans being “transmitters” of the virus. Ending anti-Asian American violence, especially amid the pandemic, requires the collective and active effort of bystanders to stand up to discrimination, not only physical but in all forms. As citizens of the world, who strive to appreciate and celebrate the complexity of human values and communities, we need to keep learning, understanding, and amplifying the diverse voices of Asian Americans. This is another essential step in our continued and collective struggle to perfect our American union.

We have used the term ‘Asian American’ in this article, instead of the popularized ‘AAPI’ term, because it was the most appropriate for the purposes of this article. The Pacific Islander (or Pasifika) community does not face this issue in particular and is a diverse and complex community in their own right. Continuing the monolithic nature of the term ‘AAPI’ would be contradictory to the views of this article.