In late January, a Thai man in his 80s was taking a walk in San Francisco when he was violently shoved to the ground. He died days later.
On Feb. 20, a person walking in Burbank told Los Angeles County’s “L.A. vs. Hate” report line that someone driving past had yelled, “You … Asian people spread the virus.”
And on March 16, law enforcement said a 21-year-old man shot and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, and injured one other at three Atlanta-area businesses.
Some residents of Burbank, where about 12.1% of the city identifies as Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 estimate, have echoed the national sense of anxiety and mourning over the shooting. But there has been plenty to fear and mourn in the past year amid an escalating number of reported harassment, attacks and discrimination against those in the Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, community.
Tym Buacharern, a makeup artist who works at the local Disney and Warner Bros. Studios facilities, said he felt saddened but unsurprised when he heard the news about the shooting. With many attacks targeting Asian women and the elderly, he often contacts his sister to make sure she’s safe.
“I think one thing people need to understand is that crimes against Asians have always been there, but it’s never been reported — and that’s one of the issues,” he said.
“I might be secure on the [studio] lot,” he added, “but as soon as I walk from the set to the car, now I have to look over my shoulder.”
In 2020, reports of anti-Asian hate incidents surged 145% in American’s largest cities, according to a preliminary report from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. In contrast, the overall number of hate crimes reported to police departments dropped 6% that same year.
Nonprofit coalition Stop AAPI Hate also said it received nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans since the pandemic took hold. About 68% of those incidents involved verbal harassment, while 11% involved physical assault. The nonprofit also said that women report hate incidents 2.3 times more often than men.
The recent rise in anti-Asian xenophobia is often attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. Asians and Pacific Islanders have reported being blamed for the pandemic or accused of transmitting the disease. Experts have also said that former President Donald Trump’s insistence on using the terms “China virus” and “kung flu” have encouraged racist attacks.
“Obviously, we can’t say for certain what’s going on inside the minds of some of these people,” said Charles Evans, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice L.A. “But these incidents seem to have risen right alongside other incidents that are clearly tied in with the rhetoric of the previous presidential administration and the numerous followers … who were emboldened by that administration’s rhetoric.”
HATE CRIME DESIGNATION DEBATED
Online and among officials, a debate has raged over whether the Atlanta-area shooting should be labeled a hate crime. Law enforcement officials there have said the shooter, who is white, claimed his actions were motivated by a “sexual addiction” rather than by racism. And the legal definition of a hate crime varies by state and is often difficult to prove.
But, Evans emphasized, “from a justice point of view, it doesn’t really matter. [The shooter] was clearly targeting a specific group of people based on those characteristics, whether you’re talking about race or sex or the combination thereof.”
Jihyun Park, a local resident and animation worker at Netflix, said she was saddened to observe people online saying that the shooting wasn’t racially motivated. Though investigators are still working to determine the accused gunman’s motive, she said dismissal of the possibility that racism was involved makes her feel worse.
“When I see those comments, people being defensive about it or not seeing it as a hate crime at all, I feel like it adds to [the] racism,” she said. “It makes me feel [like] we’re just so little in this country, it doesn’t even matter what we say.”
Park said she believes that the accused shooter targeted the spas — where he had been a customer — because he sexualized the Asian employees there, something she feels is itself a form of racism.
She’s not alone. USC anthropology professor Dorinne Kondo explained that Asian women have often been sexualized in American culture.
Kondo, who is also a professor of American studies and ethnicity, pointed to the 1875 Page Act. That law, she said, effectively restricted East Asian women from immigrating to the United States because they were seen as “lewd.”
“The definition of a ‘hate crime,’ I think that term is highly problematic, because I think it assumes that the crime is motivated by a single person’s irrational emotion,” Kondo explained, “when in fact it is entirely predictable given a system of inequality and a history of … racism [and] sexism.”
The history of anti-Asian sentiment in America has a long trail, both for the country and for families. Brian Chan, the lead pastor of Emmanuel Church in Burbank, explained he grew up in San Francisco witnessing his father being talked down to as if he was less intelligent than others. The pastor noted that he himself has experienced racism, ranging from having objects thrown at him to verbal attacks.
Even his son Josiah, who is of Mexican, German and Puerto Rican descent, has experienced derogatory remarks because other children think he’s Asian, Chan said. Once, Chan said, Josiah came home having only eaten a quarter of his lunch — spam musubi — after his peers made fun of it.
“The kids, I think they don’t mean anything really malicious,” Chan added. “It’s just really normal for the kids, and that tells us that there’s something really in the undercurrent of our society … that seems to normalize it even for young kids, to treat other kids based on the way they look.”
Krystle Palmer, city treasurer and Burbank’s only Asian-American elected official, noted that Asian individuals’ experience with racism often differs, sometimes depending on region. She hasn’t experienced racism in Burbank, she added, but did have some people toss Mandarin or Japanese words her way.
Still, Palmer believes some people who say offensive things aren’t malicious.
“We know these are things that are very hurtful and are racist and I think we just need to know how to educate people and respond appropriately,” she said.
Racism against Asians is also deeply historical. Kondo explained that economic competition between America and Asian countries has long served as a factor behind increases in anti-Asian violence. When American miners feared competition from Chinese workers in the 1800s, she said, they sometimes spread ideas of Chinese communities being “diseased.”
Kondo also highlighted that, in 1982, a man named Vincent Jen Chin was beaten to death by two white manufacturing workers in Detroit who blamed their unemployment on Japan’s successful auto industry — even though Chin was ethnically Chinese.
The two men who killed Chin pled guilty to manslaughter and never served jail time. In that incident, too, the accused claimed their fight with Chin was not racially motivated.
Park believes school systems should teach more about Asian American history, an initiative she suggests parents like her could be involved in.
“I think that’s the problem — that Americans don’t really think of ‘Asian American’ as part of ‘American,’” she said. “Maybe people aren’t being taught.”
DISCUSSION, CHANGE SOUGHT
A variety of potential solutions have been offered to help prevent future hate incidents. The COVID-19 Hate Act, which has been supported by dozens of lawmakers and President Joe Biden, would designate a federal official to review hate crimes related to the pandemic and provide guidance for hate crime reporting to state and local law enforcement.
Meanwhile, Evans, of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice L.A., recommended collecting more data on hate incidents and setting up funds for victims. Palmer said she’s been inspired by those who have volunteered to protect elderly Asian individuals and is glad to see better representation in the entertainment industry.
“I think it’s really important to use media to change the perception of Asian Americans and not just portray stereotypes, whether it’s positive or negative,” such as the “smart” or “funny” character, she said.
But a frequent topic advocates push for is discussion — both for Asian Americans and non-Asians. Kondo said she takes issue with what she calls “quiet liberalism,” or the thought that “I didn’t riot at the Capitol, so I’m a good person.” People need to have conversations, she added, that are uncomfortable and reveal difficult truths about themselves.
Chan hit a similar note. The potential for racism exists in the common person, he said, and those who believe they are exempt are in danger of becoming a perpetrator. He believes forums on racial understanding, like the ones his church offered last summer amid widespread Black Lives Matter protests, are needed.
“When we start to put human beings to these stories, there’s something very palpable about it,” he said. “And it’s heartfelt, it’s human. It’s not politics; it’s not just reading something that happened in this mass thing. You’re seeing people.”