Asian Americans suffer surge of Covid-era hate crimes


There was the time an Asian American man was eating lunch at an outdoor restaurant in Mountainside, California, and a white woman approached, spat on him and told him to “go back where you came from.”

There was the coffee shop in Naples, Florida, where patrons cleared out after an Asian customer sat down. And there was the Asian woman who was accosted at a New York City grocery store by a man demanding that she “go back home” and “get out of the fucking country”.

Now, to the catalogue of more than 3,800 acts of hateful, and sometimes violent, acts committed against Asians in America in the past year, there is the murder of eight people, including six Asian women, at spas and massage parlours in Georgia on Tuesday night.

Police said the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 21, a white man, later told them that his crimes were not racially but sexually motivated. Two non-Asian women were also killed. Long’s claims bear further investigation.

In the meantime, they offer little comfort to an Asian-American community that has suffered a surge of hate attacks in recent months. It is a side-effect, many believe, of former president Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant demagogy as well as his attempt to portray the coronavirus pandemic as a Chinese affliction visited upon the west.

Mourner Erica Gonzalez visits and leaves flowers at the site of two shootings at spas across the street from one another, in memorial for the lives lost, on Thursday in Atlanta, Georgia © Getty Images

As the pandemic spread from Wuhan, China, to Europe and eventually America, Trump repeatedly referred to it in such charged monikers as the “Wuhan virus”, “China plague” and “kung flu”.

“I don’t ever want to hear another damned racist trope about this virus from any elected official. They are complicit,” George Takei, the actor and activist, wrote on Wednesday.

Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University, told the news channel MSNBC that Trump’s language had “racialised the virus . . . with deadly consequences”.

Jeung is one of the founders of the Stop AAPI Hate project in March last year as a way to catalogue the rise in hate crimes and xenophobia experienced by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Among the more than 3,800 incidents it has documented since then, women and the elderly were more than twice as likely to be victimised as men.

Its results are born out by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino. It found that hate crimes reported to police in 16 major US cities fell by 7 per cent last year. Yet those against Asian Americans increased by 149 per cent.

In New York City, police recorded only one hate crime against Asian Americans in 2019. That was likely an undercount, experts suspect, given the difficulty of classifying such acts. Even so, the number grew to 28 last year.

The brutality behind such statistics has, in some cases, been captured on video. One in January showed an 84-year-old Asian man being attacked in broad daylight in San Francisco by a 19-year-old man. He later died. In February, another showed a 52-year-old Asian woman being thrown to the pavement outside a bakery in Queens, New York, at 2pm.

Addressing the nation last week, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, President Joe Biden acknowledged the attacks against Asian Americans. “It’s wrong. It’s un-American. And it must stop,” he declared.

A host of American politicians and the country’s most powerful chief executives — including the heads of IBM and JPMorgan Chase — came forward on Wednesday to denounce rising violence against Asian Americans.

“These racist acts cannot and will not be tolerated,” wrote Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan.

Police officers patrol Chinatown on Thursday in San Francisco. The city’s police department has stepped up patrols in Asian neighbourhoods © Getty Images

Discrimination against Asians in America was legislated as far back as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited immigration by Chinese workers.

Yet many Asian Americans complain that they are overlooked in the discussion of America’s racial injustices. “In the popular imagination, Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough, nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down,” writes Cathy Park Hong, the poet and critic, in her recent book of essays, Minor Feelings.

Asian Americans are often regarded as a “model minority” for the economic success achieved by some of their members. It is a label that Hong and others argue is deployed as a means to downplay their suffering.

It certainly does not fit the circumstances of the women murdered in Georgia, four of whom were of Korean descent. Massage parlours often rely on undocumented labourers with few rights or protections.

The wider world was given a glimpse into their existence in 2019 when Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner, was charged with soliciting prostitution after patronising an Asian massage parlour in Jupiter, Florida. Police found evidence that the women were lured into the sex trade and forced to sleep and eat in the same cramped quarters where they worked. Charges against Kraft were later dropped.

Elizabeth OuYang, a law professor at New York University, saw similarities between the post-pandemic plight of Asian Americans and the abuse suffered by Muslim Americans after the September 11 terror attacks. It would have been even worse, she argued, if many American schools had not been closed this year.

“Whenever there are US tensions with an Asian country abroad, Asian Americans often experience a backlash — whether it be the Vietnam war or the Korean war,” she said.

In 1982, during a downturn in the US auto industry precipitated by foreign competition, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man celebrating with friends in Michigan on the eve of his wedding, was beaten to death by two white auto workers who believed he was Japanese. Neither served time in prison in an episode credited with raising the political consciousness of many Asian Americans.

Even before the pandemic, OuYang sensed rising hostility as Trump sharpened his rhetoric against immigrants and perceived outsiders. She was surprised to encounter it one day at the farmers market in progressive Brooklyn Heights, where she has lived for 19 years.

She was husking corn near two older Asian women when a middle-aged white man approached and demanded that they “speak English”.

“The audacity of this man,” OuYang recalled. What so angered her, she later realised, was there were others present — yet she was the only one to stand up for the women.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she said. 

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