Asian Americans face increased hate crimes amid COVID-19 pandemic

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) — Asian-Americans have seen an increase in hate crimes since the start of the pandemic, and most recently, frequent attacks against the elderly. 

On Jan. 28, an  84-year-old Thai American was assaulted in San Francisco and later died of his injuries.

The week after, a  64-year-old Vietnamese grandmother was assaulted in San Jose. 

And on that same day, a Filipino-American was slashed across the face on a Manhattan subway.

Across the country, there were more than 2,500 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents related to COVID-19 between March and September 2020, according to a study conducted by the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY).

The report titled, “A Rising Tide of Hate and Violence against Asian Americans in New York During COVID-19: Impact, Causes, Solutions explores the contributing factors and causes for the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence, lawmakers and enforcement’s response and how to keep Asian Americans safe. 

The federal definition of a hate crime include crimes committed based on the victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, according to NAPABA.

Some of the hate crimes directed at Asian Americans were attributed to the increase in the usage of terms perpetuated by former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric of the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu.”

On Twitter, he wrote: “Because it comes from China,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s not racist at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate.” 

The World Health Organization has warned against using terms that associate diseases with certain groups of people. 

Michigan State University Director of the Asian Pacific American Studies program, Naoko Wake, says the U.S. has a long history of associating Asians with infectious diseases. 

American society made connections between race and disease targeted at Asians beginning in the late 1800s.

Bubonic disease, or “black death,” a highly contagious disease, struck Honolulu in 1889 and in 1900, struck San Francisco’s Chinatown.

At the time, the disease was called the “Chinese Plague,” similar to the way that COVID-19 is referred to as the “Chinese virus.”

Professor Wake explained that these terms were perpetuated during two exclusionary immigration laws against Asians:

  • first with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigrants from seeking U.S. Citizenship
  • then the association of the health crisis in the late 1890s with Asians 
  • lastly, in 1902, the Chinese Exclusion Act was made permanent

Professor Wake said she has seen first-hand the mental toll it has taken on her own students at MSU.

“There are students that come to us, the faculty and staff, who belong to Asian American communities, saying that they’re called “Chinese virus,”or China virus, or Kung Flu or simply, virus,” Professor Wake said.

Professor Wake cited instances wherein class, an Asian student would cough or if they were wearing a mask at the time, they would be called these terms.

“It has been very disheartening,” she said. “There are many students who are affected by this, not only Asian Americans and international students but their allies and friends.”

History of hate crimes against Asian-Americans

Hate crimes are as old as this country.

For Asian-Americans, hate crimes dated back to the 1800s when Chinese immigrants came to San Francisco and were blamed for the declining wages and economic shortfalls. Chinese immigrants and Americans often clashed due to racial tensions during the Gold Rush, and in 1882, the  Chinese Exclusion Act suspended Chinese immigration for ten years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. 

In the 1854 Supreme Court Case, People v. Hall, Chinese people were officially prohibited from testifying in court, in addition to African Americans and Native Americans. That case made it virtually impossible for Chinese immigrants to stand up for their rights.

In 1942 following World War II, Japanese Internment Camps kept more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent (and more than 60% were U.S. Citizens) behind bars.

As for Michigan, in Detroit in 1982, a Chinese man died of injuries he incurred after being assaulted at a bar in Detroit for being mistaken as a Japanese man, who at the time, automakers viewed as the enemy.

RELATED: 30th Anniversary Of Vincent Chin’s Death Marked

Raising awareness of anti-Asian hate during Black History Month

With February being Black History Month, a month dedicated to commemorating key figures and leaders within the Black community throughout history, Professor Wake said it is important for the Black and Asian community to come together during this time. 

RELATED: Lansing woman creates coloring book of local Black leaders and legends for Black History Month

That’s a task experts say can be difficult provided the Black and Asian communities have had a rocky relationship.

Rewind the clock to 1992, the year of the LA riots, and also the time in which Oxford University researchers call the “black-Korean conflict.”

On one hand, African Americans believed that Koreans would intentionally not hire blacks, in addition to holding an unfavorable perception of them. Koreans, on the other hand, believed that Black people were poor, violent, and lazy, according to scholars.

The tension only escalated on a day that became known as “Sa-i-gu” to Korean-Americans.

April 29, 1992: it’s the day four white police officers were found not guilty in the beating of Rodney King.

As a result, riots emerged throughout all of Los Angeles, including the Koreatown neighborhood. These incidents of violence were not limited to just the Black and white communities.

They also involved Korean Americans whose businesses ended up being targeted, burned to the ground and looted.

According to Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, an Oxford University researcher, “the riots furthermore marked a turning point that placed Asian immigrants and Asian Americans at the center of new conversations about social relations in a multiracial America, the place of new immigrants, and the responsibilities of relatively privileged minorities toward the less privileged.”

To this day, anti-black sentiments still ring within the Asian community and vice versa.

Still, throughout history, both communities have experienced different variations of racism. 

Wake says that shouldn’t be an excuse for not taking a stand against racism, instead, it should be a reason for coming together.  

“At least if we can understand the variation (of racism) is coming from the same source, it can encourage people to come together,” said Wake.

Tangible solutions

There has been speculation of whether policing and increased boots on the ground will keep people of color safer.

After the 84-year-old Thai man was attacked in San Francisco, the city increased police patrols in Chinatown.

Professor Wake said policing is only a temporary solution and a “very uneconomic and eventually ineffective way to make our communities and societies a safer place for everyone.”

She said policing can result in fear of abuse and violence that already does exist within many Black communities.

“As you increase the police force, you are giving up your autonomy to police or military to an authoritarian state, you are giving up your own ability to mobilize and be connected with other community members,” she said.

Instead, she said a better way to make your community a safer place is to build from the ground up.

The first step is getting to know the people who live near you, she said. From there, people of color can protect one another so police do not have to. 

“If you don’t know your neighbors, if you haven’t talked with them, you can’t build a community…I see the community safety expanding from there and making personal connections as the most foundational and most effective and eventually most economical way of securing everyone’s wellbeing so that we can prevent the violence from happening.”

She said a large part of the racism, xenophobia, and micro-aggressions are based on a lack of understanding and lack of empathy for each other.

“So, if you get to know each other as friends, colleagues or just community members, I think that helps a lot.”

MSU’s Asian Pacific American Student Organization recently held a panel discussion on Vice President Kamala Harris and how her visibility as a biracial, South Asian – Black woman advances the mission of both Asian and Black communities in having a voice.

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