Recent attacks on elderly Asian victims are at the center of a rising national dialogue about anti-Asian and Asian-American racism, with the latest incidents coming nearly a year after the coronavirus pandemic spawned increased vitriol towards people of Asian descent across the country.
Last month, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee died, two days after the Thai man was shoved to the ground while walking in San Francisco. Days later, a second incident saw a 91-year-old man violently attacked while walking in Oakland’s Chinatown, the latest in a string of reported physical attacks and robberies targeting Asian men and women in the Bay Area. On the other side of the country, photos of Noel Quintana quickly began circulating, after the 61-year-old Filipino-American was slashed in the face with a box cutter on the subway, the victim of a reported hate crime in New York City.
While news of the incidents was slow to trickle out in the mainstream press, reaction from the Asian-American community was swift. Tributes to Ratanapakdee online demonstrated shared grief in the community, while a petition by Asian American Collective called for better coverage of the assaults. Prominent Asian-American celebrities like Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, and Olivia Munn, meanwhile, used their platforms to bring awareness to the incidents, with Dae Kim and Chinese-American actor Daniel Wu going so far as to offer a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the attacker in Oakland (police now have a suspect in custody). According to leaders in the community, Asians are standing up for themselves as recent events have pushed things to a breaking point.
“The reality is many of these [stories] involve videos where you see direct, violent attacks on elders. And so when you see that, there’s a visceral reaction — that I think all of us rightfully have — to seeing someone that is very vulnerable in our society getting attacked in this senseless and tragic manner,” says John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). “It’s understandable that we want to focus on this now. We also need to keep our focus even when there aren’t these videos, even when there isn’t that one single incident that brings it out.”
Yang adds that, although this has been a problem for this last year in terms of coronavirus, “historically, going even further, it’s always been a problem that the Asian-American community has had to deal with.”
The roots of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. can be traced as far back as the concept of “yellow peril” and the Chinese Exclusion Act that treated Asian immigrants as threats to national security in the 1880s. But they surfaced on a large-scale level last year, after reports traced the origins of the coronavirus back to China. According to the organization Stop AAPI Hate, from March 19th through December 31st, 2020, 2,808 firsthand reports of anti-Asian hate incidents were collected from 47 states and the District of Columbia. Of the reported incidents, 7.3 percent of the reports counted elderly Asians as the victims.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) co-founded its own anti-hate initiative called StandAgainstHatred.org in response to racist rhetoric during political campaigns in 2016, and Yang says their website receives more reports now than they did when it was first created.
“There’s probably a couple of different root causes [of recent attacks, and] I wouldn’t attribute it to any one thing,” he says. “First and foremost is we had a former president that conditioned communities to be phobic and to be anti-Asian. And he did it through rhetoric around this awful ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘kung-flu,’ ” Yang explains. “And so we had a situation where people saw the Asian-American community as ‘other,’ as a different community, and frankly, as a disease-carrying community. So that is certainly one cause. But the other cause is the economic insecurity that a lot of people face. We have to look at this in the context of Covid-19, what people are feeling economically, and the fear that people feel.”
One of the first memorandums President Biden released was to condemn xenophobia, racism, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, stoked by what the memo referred to as “unfounded fears and perpetuated stigma.”
The release cited the estimated two million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders serving on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis as healthcare providers, first responders, and other essential workers. “Despite these increasing acts of intolerance, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made our Nation more secure during the Covid-19 pandemic and throughout our history,” President Biden’s memo said.
Vice-President Kamala Harris also has spoken out specifically about the recent cases in her home state of California, taking to Twitter to condemn the “xenophobic attacks.”
Hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants have skyrocketed during the pandemic. That’s why our Administration has taken actions to address these xenophobic attacks. We must continue to commit ourselves to combating racism and discrimination.
— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) February 12, 2021
While the recent news coverage focuses on acts of violence, Yang notes that a self-reported hate incident does not have to involve physical injury, but can still traumatize, instill fear, and impact a victim and their community negatively.
“[When] we talk about hate crimes and hate incidents,” Yang says, “certainly there have been some pretty violent attacks; I don’t want to minimize that. But much of what we are seeing, probably about 90 percent or so, involve racial slurs, involve bullying, a lot of harassment, and those must be addressed. But we need to be smart about how we’re addressing them.”
As calls continue to grow for awareness and action (read: arrests and justice) in relation to the new spate of attacks, there is a parallel call for solidarity and support, with Asians seeking allyship from outside their own communities. Yang says there are a number of ways people can step up to show their support.
What Can You Do to Support the Asian Community?
1. Provide Community Resources
Yang emphasizes that there are several ways to create safer public spaces, not just in Asian neighborhoods, but for the community at large. “Safety looks like… making sure that we provide a protective network for [our elders], making sure that there are community resources if there are attacks, and making sure that there is a response group that helps to provide the resources that they need,” he says.
2. Inter-Community and Inter-Racial Dialogue
It’s important, Yang stresses, to be “Having these conversations not only within the Asian community [and] making sure Chinese Americans are talking to Indian Americans, are talking to Vietnamese Americans. But then expand that out — talking to the Black community, the Latino community, too,” he says. “Because the bottom line is, we’re all in this together. And if we all feel that connective thread, that connective tissue, that’s what’s going to lead to longer-term solutions, longer-term protection of all of us during this environment.”
Yang calls “the education piece” part of the long-term strategy that people need to think about. To Yang, that means, “Making sure that people understand the history of Asian-Americans in America, that we have been a fabric of this country for centuries. And in that sense, we are not foreigners to this country, he concludes. “Rather, we are part of this country.”
What Are Good Resources and Tools to Help Stop “Asian Hate?”
Bystander Intervention Training: AAJC and Hollaback! partnered to create a guide that offers strategies for de-escalating situations when you see someone is being harassed. The guide includes suggestions such as starting a conversation with the target to provide a distraction, finding assistance from someone else in the area, taking out your phone to record the incident on video, or if it is unsafe to engage during the incident, checking in with the victim and offering support after the harassment.
Volunteer in Your Community: The Oakland Chinatown Coalition created a volunteer-based community safety program to check in on community members, local businesses, and clean up trash in the area while New York City has a similar program called Chinatown Block Watch. Remember the safety and resource needs can vary from city to city — seek out your local Asian community center and ask if they have a volunteer program.
Report Incidents: If you witness a hate incident or are the victim of a hate incident, report it to Stop AAPI Hate and Stand Against Hatred so that data can be used for education and advocacy. If this is an emergency, you should always dial 911.
Educate Yourself on the History of Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia:
Engage with Asian and Asian American Art:
Check in on Someone You Know:
With 20 million Asians in the United States — six to seven percent of the nation’s population — odds are that you know someone who is of Asian descent. A survey by PEW Research Center reported that Asian Americans and Black Americans have experienced discrimination during the pandemic. Asking something as simple as “How are you feeling about this?” or “How can I support you?” can go a long way.