Racism against Asian Americans in the US is nothing new, but COVID-19 has heightened racial tension and increased racially-motivated violence nationally. As COVID-19 spread across the globe, triggering lockdowns and shutting down businesses, violence against Asian Americans in the US shot up. Recorded hate crimes against Asian Americans in New York City alone have increased nearly tenfold since the beginning of the pandemic, from three in 2019 to 28 in 2020. Leaders, including former president Donald Trump, have used inflammatory language, like the phrase “Chinese flu,” to intentionally connect the coronavirus to Chinese Americans. Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric follows a long pattern in which diseases are used to perpetuate the idea that Asian Americans are outsiders. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all Chinese people from immigrating to the US, was fueled by exaggerated claims of the resurfaced Bubonic Plague. This act led to increased hate and racial violence, much like COVID-19 is doing today.
“There’s a clear correlation between President Trump’s incendiary comments, his insistence on using the term ‘Chinese virus’ and the subsequent hate speech spread on social media and the hate violence directed towards us,” said Russell Jeung, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, in a statement to the New York Times. But Trump leaving office has done little to stem the flow of bigotry.
In San Francisco, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant named Vicha Ratanapakdee was shoved to his death in January by 19-year-old Antoine Watson. On February 3, Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Flipino man, was slashed in the face on a New York subway. Later, Mr Quintana recalled: "I asked for help, but nobody helped, nobody moved." In Oakland’s Chinatown on January 31, a 91-year-old was caught on camera being thrown to the ground.
None of these attacks are being investigated as hate crimes, contributing to the longstanding issue of under-reporting and under-counting of hate crimes. In fact, Sliman Nawabi, Watson’s public defender, said that there is "absolutely zero evidence that Mr. Ratanapakdee's ethnicity and age was a motivating factor in being assaulted."
Asian community leaders have expressed their frustration over prosecutors' refusal to classify these kinds of attacks as hate crimes. In a statement, Chris Kwok, a board member for the Asian American Bar Association of New York, said: “I think they need to really reassess how they approach it, particularly in this era that we're in, which I think of it as an emergency area, particularly for Asian Americans as they experience discrimination.”
As America grapples with its history of racism and racial violence, dealing with anti-Asian attacks will prove a crucial test of what progress has really been made. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, Washington, DC was the only major city where anti-Asian hate crimes declined last year. But psychological research increasingly emphasizes that violent crimes in police databases are not the only measure of white supremacy: Daily microaggressions can be just as powerful tools of inequality. Columbia University researchers suggest "micro-interventions" to help stem the tide of hate, arming us each with the ability to make a difference.