Editor’s Note: Jess Huang is a communications specialist who works in local politics in Southern California and is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s been mere days since the Atlanta shootings, and already we’re seeing more attacks against the Asian community.
In San Francisco, 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie and 83-year-old Ngoc Pham were punched and shoved while walking on Market Street, police said. In New York, the authorities are investigating five separate weekend incidents as potential hate crimes, including one where the victim said she was attacked after attending a rally supporting the Asian community.
This type of indiscriminate violence against Asian communities is nothing new; it has a history drilled into me by my parents, who became a part of the first wave of Asian activists after the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man beaten to death by two White men in the Detroit metro area.
But even while I know this history well, I am shocked and frustrated. In the earlier days of the pandemic, so many of our public and elected leaders failed to urgently recognize this growing wave of violence. As we collectively discuss what to do next, we have to look back.
When Orange County’s first local Covid-19 case was first announced in January 2020, I sent a message to a colleague also working in community engagement: “I’m starting to notice an uptick in posts from people being weird about the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islander) community. I think maybe we should do something?”
Social media platforms had transformed almost overnight into a hotbed of community fear and suspicion. Some posters tried to root out the identity and location of the patient, speculating wildly about the patient’s alleged hospital, neighborhood, grocery stores and the restaurants the patient supposedly frequented. All of the posts ended with a similar warning: Please be aware and avoid these areas or areas frequented by “mainland Chinese.”
Of course, little of what was being said was true. But people of Asian descent were now increasingly being profiled – as I was when I called for a Lyft about two weeks after the initial case announcement.
The driver eyed me suspiciously in the rearview mirror, before asking if I was Chinese. Even when his face relaxed upon hearing my American accent (“… you’re American Chinese and not Chinese Chinese!”), I couldn’t help but keep an eye on the door handle as he drove.
His casual chatter about how he was turning down all requests from anyone he felt was Asian and foreign (“Who knows if they have this virus, right?”), and his apparent lack of fear that I would react or report him, suggested to me that we were at some kind of social tipping point around the Asian community.
So, I pushed for my professional colleagues in local and state organizations and governments to act. I proposed everything from trying to reach out to rideshare companies and working with them to educate drivers, to papering local Asian businesses with translated resources for reporting harassment and hate crimes.
With each passing day, it felt more vital that we visibly do something. Not only was former President Donald Trump increasing his rhetoric about the “China virus” and “Wuhan flu”, but there were also incidents and reactions increasing locally – such as parents keeping kids out of schools over fears of Chinese students. To me, there was a clear and urgent need to show that the AAPI community was supported.
But my recommendations were met with polite indifference and silence. Even a suggestion that we hold a public safety town hall for Asian families at a local school didn’t get beyond the first email. A non-Asian community leader informed us we shouldn’t make it an issue for the community unless it actually became an issue.
“(The AAPI community) doesn’t like to bring attention on themselves,” the leader replied.
The subtext felt clear. Because not enough people in Asian communities were visibly complaining to public leaders, because there weren’t acts of physical violence to report to authorities, this wasn’t considered a political priority. The uniformity of these responses also made me feel embarrassed – like maybe I was misreading the room. I reluctantly stopped pushing for action.
But after a year where nearly 3,800 crimes against Asian Americans were reported between March 19, 2020, to February 28, 2021 (representing a 150% annual increase), and now, after the shooting deaths of six Asian women in Atlanta, it’s increasingly obvious I wasn’t wrong. The Atlanta Police Department and FBI Director Christopher Wray have said it doesn’t appear the crime was racially motivated, while Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN, “It looked like a hate crime to me.”
Instead, it feels like the issue lies with our visibility, and how our public leaders have often chosen to perceive Asian discrimination. Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said in a news conference that the alleged shooter described the day of the killings as a “really bad day for him” (Baker was later removed as spokesman for the case). Such statements help illustrate why it still feels as if so many leaders fail to understand Asian discrimination can seem invisible and occurs in atypical ways.
From the idea of the model minority myth to the fact that Asian Americans are still a developing political force, to the understanding that Asian communities sometimes don’t speak up in ways society seems to expect from communities in pain – there are reasons for this invisibility, all meriting later discussion.
But after a wasted year in which we experienced increasing grief and violence from Atlanta to the Bay Area, and after so many incidents of racism specifically experienced by AAPI women, our leaders have another chance to act now.
There are certain practical actions for every legislator and community leader to take immediately, going beyond ceremonial resolutions and thoughts and prayers:
- They can learn from the AAPI community about the long, sad history of Asian discrimination and adjust their own baked-in biases.
- They can help increase funding to support bystander intervention training programs like Hollaback! to empower community members to act. So many of these incidents are occurring in broad daylight, with community members unsure how to respond. Proactive tools can help.
- They can hire diversely, so there are more staffers like me to identify and call out racism directed at the AAPI community. Staffers who understand the community, will also better understand meaningful action.
By taking these steps, political leaders would be rising to the challenges of inoculating us against racism, much as they’re already pushed to vaccinate us against Covid-19 itself.
I encourage them to take this moment seriously and commit to actual change – and not let this moment pass us.