Photo: Anokha Venugopal

By Chloe Tai

If you see someone and automatically assume that they don’t belong, you are already, perhaps unknowingly, part of the problem. That’s at the core of the behavior that allows someone’s friend, sibling or grandparent to get attacked on the subway or verbally abused on their neighborhood block.

Words have meaning:

“Where are you from?”

“Ew, what’s that?”

“You have no accent.”

Other words have no meaning:

“Model minority”

If these last few weeks have taught us anything, Asian Americans are not safe and need protection, whether from the government or just fellow citizens, who actively take the time to bridge the divide between their assumptions and reality. We talked to attorneys, professors, advocates and community leaders to ask what the community needs and wants you to know.

Asian hate is not new.

History has not been kind to Asian Americans, but people wouldn’t know that just from the lessons taught to us in high school. We learned about the amazing contributions that Asian Americans made to the transcontinental railroad, but perhaps told less about America’s fraught side of this relationship. Some other parts of history Americans need to learn:

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act
  • How deeply affected Japanese families were after their internment during World War II
  • The lack of protection of Korean communities in Los Angeles ‘92
  • The retaliation toward Asian Americans after a virus from China came to America; SARS in 2002

Now we have more to add, namely the treatment of Asians starting in January 2020, when Covid-19 started to enter the consciousness of elected officials in America, said Joo Han, the deputy director of the Asian American Federation (AAF).

“It’s a foolish leadership soapbox that allows hate to be skewed and fear to be leveraged as a way to get people to hate what they don’t know,” said Angela Oh, an attorney and a teacher in Commonweal’s Gift of Compassion program, which uses meditation to promote healing in under-served and under-resourced communities.

From “Kung flu” to the “Chinese virus,” this rhetoric of politicians, specifically that of former President Donald J. Trump, perpetuates the myth that Asian Americans are somehow responsible for Covid-19. That led to a backlash and targeting of the most vulnerable members of Asian American communities.

Out of the 3,292 firsthand accounts of anti-Asian hate received by the organization just in 2020, Stop AAPI Hate, an overwhelming majority were reported by women, the elderly and the young. The AAF has also counted approximately 500 attacks happening in the city itself in 2020.

Simply put, these attacks are byproducts of misplaced frustration. Nonetheless, the attacks are very real and serve to further underscore the tensions between the Asian American community and those who see them as outsiders.

According to Chris Kwok, a board member of the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY), there have always been waves in American history in which Asians are viewed as good or bad, but buried beneath the surface, there is a prevailing perception: Asians cannot be Americans.

Generations-worth of treating Asian Americans as foreigners has contributed to this feeling of not belonging, and an unfortunate consequence of this has been the silencing of the community as a whole, whether self-inflicted or from the government.

Nevertheless, Asian Americans are not staying silent about their experience during Covid-19.

While mainstream media may just now be picking up on the recent uptick in attacks — Mrs. Cheng in Queens, Teoh Ming Soon in Manhattan, Noel Quintana in Brooklyn, Nancy Toh in Westchester, to name a few — organizations like the AABANY and Stop AAPI Hate, recently released reports in which they listed just some of the incidents that have occurred toward Asian Americans this past year, including:

  • Verbal harassment
  • Shunning
  • Spitting
  • Physical assault
  • Violence
  • Abuse

Victims have approached AAF for help on not just catching the criminals responsible for the attacks, but also because they want to ensure that these people will not go out again and target other people on the basis of race, Han said.

The attacks also have been framed as “hate crimes,” although not many people have been charged as such

Why not and what are hate crimes?

“It’s not that cut and dry,” said Joyce Moy, the executive director of the Asian American/Asian Research Institute at the City University of New York.

The definition of a hate crime under federal law is: “willfully causing or attempting to cause bodily injury because of, e.g., a person’s race, color, or national origin.” The challenge for the New York City justice system is proving the perpetrator did “willfully” commit a crime and specifically target a victim based on race.

Joyce Moy

Moy said that any criminal charge must first be investigated with the utmost care. If the case doesn’t stick, the accused goes free, it could possibly do more harm by perpetuating the idea that people can get away with racist behavior.

Advocates are in an impossible situation.

On the one hand, asking for more police presence disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities. On the other hand, police cannot do much with reported cases, since most incidents do not rise to the level of a crime, let alone a hate crime, she said.

For now, Kwok said, “We think that there should be a serious consideration and perhaps, new ways of approaching what is a crime because Asian Americans experience discrimination in different ways.”

What can you do to support Asian Americans?

You shouldn’t have to practice preemptive defense if you are an Asian American. But Helen Ahn, director of the Korean Community Services Senior Centers, says this is a reality for many in the community right now. The centers, even in pre-Covid-19 times, regularly hosted officers from the local precinct to educate members about safety issues — just in case.

Or you can also call SafeWalks, a community safety initiative formed of volunteers who will walk you home at your request, currently active in Brooklyn and looking to expand to Manhattan Chinatown.

These are not ideal solutions. They involve individuals taking the initiative to protect themselves from something that is not their fault.

The alternative — a true solution rooted in justice and equality — will take time and possibly a couple of generations worth of effort, Oh said. What it will take:

  • Legislative reforms to expand the definition of a hate crime in the city, as outlined in the AABANY’s report
  • Advocacy and communicating with the myriad AAPI political officials throughout the city to develop policy reform, such as promoting more civil administration complaints and remedies
  • Provide resources to Asian nonprofits so they can have the capacity to respond to the community’s needs
  • Intensive, broad-ranging educational campaigns that both encourages New Yorkers to be kinder to Americans of all backgrounds and promotes collaborations between minority groups
  • Hire permanent members for the New York Police Department’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force, instead of only having volunteer members
  • Join one of Oh’s Healing Circles, as part of her work with Commonweal, whereby diverse, self-selected members are encouraged to silently meditate in one another’s presence

And they will have to do so as a community, said Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and a founding member of Stop AAPI Hate.

“The community wants to stand up together to address long-term solutions, not just to share their individual grievances, but they recognize it’s a community issue,” he said.

But possibly the largest and the hardest change you can make is on yourself. How do you perceive of Asians? Have you reached out to ask how we’re doing?

Being kind to your neighbors is a small role to play in this pandemic, but it can go a long way.


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