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Hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise. Here’s what activists, lawmakers and police are doing to stop the violence

DENVER — Helen Oh was walking down the sidewalk of the downtown 16th Street pedestrian mall in April when two young men approached from the other direction.

The coronavirus pandemic had been spreading in the United States for a month, and Asian American community groups were warning of a disconcerting surge of hateful and racist language directed toward them, tied to the virus’ origins in China. Oh, an attorney, was on her guard.

The two men drew closer.

“Infected and disgusting,” one called out as they passed, she said. 

Heart racing, she ducked into a drugstore. 

“I didn’t think to say anything back when I heard it. It really only sunk in as I was walking away,” she said. 

Stepping back onto the street, Oh, 30, walked toward her car as an older couple approached. The woman made a show of detouring around her, she said.

“The woman literally walked off the sidewalk to be as far from me as possible,” Oh said. “There was no one else around and it was so obnoxious.”

One incident, she might have written off as the kind of casual racism she has encountered all her life as the daughter of Korean immigrants. But two, in such a short time? It was clear, she said, that she was being targeted because she is Asian.

“You could feel the sense of hatred and scapegoating that was being built,” Oh said. “I avoided going out by myself for a while.”

Asian Americans have been victims of increased violence and harassment since the coronavirus pandemic began, but recent attacks have prompted some to take extra precautions.

Asian Americans across the United States are reporting a significant increase in hate crimes, harassment and discrimination tied to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a year after these attacks began, the pandemic has galvanized Asian Americans, many of whom have long felt invisible, to speak out about the hatred and racism being directed their way.

Community leaders are calling for greater enforcement of existing hate-crime laws, better connections with local police departments charged with investigating hateful incidents, and other Americans to consider the impact of their words and actions on the country’s estimated 21 million Asian Americans. Asian American entertainers are using their platforms to highlight the issues, Asian American journalists are sharing their own stories of discrimination on social media and a growing chorus of federal lawmakers are demanding action.

The pandemic has especially “struck a nerve” for the Asian American community, which has forced many to realize that simple discrimination can turn violent, said Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California, who is a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. The fight against the “bamboo ceiling” is now also about physical safety, he said.

“For a large number of Asian Americans, especially the young generation, they’re now seeing for the first time actual violence directed at them or their grandparents,” Lieu said. “It’s highly disturbing.”

House impeachment manager Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., speaks during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate.

In January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order condemning the attacks — and without naming them, criticizing former President Donald Trump and other federal officials who repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or the “Kung flu.” The order calls for better data collection about hateful incidents, and mandates federal agencies to fight “racism, xenophobia, and intolerance” directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, or AAPI.

“The federal government must recognize that it has played a role in furthering these xenophobic sentiments through the actions of political leaders, including references to the COVID-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin,” Biden said in his order. “Such statements have stoked unfounded fears and perpetuated stigma about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and have contributed to increasing rates of bullying, harassment, and hate crimes against AAPI persons.”

Among recent incidents: In January, an 84-year-old Thai American man was brutally shoved in San Francisco and later died. That same month, police in Oakland, California, said a young man shoved three elderly people to the ground from behind in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, knocking out one. And this week, a 36-year old Asian man in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood was stabbed and taken to the hospital in critical condition. The suspect in that assault faces charges that include attempted murder as a hate crime and assault as a hate crime, among other charges, the New York Police Department said.

The surge in hate incidents against the Asian American community since the start of the pandemic was set aflame last winter when Trump began scapegoating Chinese people for the explosion of coronavirus in the United States.

“It gave a lot of people permission (to act on) their prejudice,” said Mabel Menard, president of OCA Chicago, a chapter of OCA, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for civil rights of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The racism and discrimination accompanying the pandemic comes atop the devastation the disease has had on some portions of the Asian and Pacific Islander community, including health-related business closures and the deaths of at least 67 Filipino registered nurses — a staggering 31% of all nursing deaths, even though Filipinos make up only 4% of registered nurses in the United States, according to National Nurses United. Pacific Islanders rank third in terms of coronavirus deaths, behind Native Americans and Black Americans.

More data on Asian hate crimes needed

The San Francisco-based group Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander attacks, and other community groups, such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice based in Washington D.C., have collectively recorded more than 3,000 anti-Asian attacks nationwide since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded onto U.S. shores. That’s compared to about 100 such incidents that community trackers have recorded annually in the years prior, said Cynthia Choi, 54, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate.

Because communities of color are often scapegoated during national crises, “we knew it was going to get bad very quickly,” Choi said, “and we wanted to document it in order to understand the severity of it, who was being targeted, where and the magnitude of this problem so we could develop effective responses.”

The group tracks reports from 47 states plus the District of Columbia. California accounts for roughly 40% of all incidents, where nearly a third of all Asian Americans live, Choi said. Among cities with large Asian communities, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York City have the highest numbers of incidents.

Eddie Song, a Korean American entrepreneur, prepares to ride his motorcycle wearing a jacket over extra body padding while equipped with video cameras Sunday April 19, 2020, in East Village neighborhood of New York. The coronavirus first seen in China is now ravaging the United States, and Asian Americans are continuing to wrestle with a second epidemic: hate. Hundreds of attacks on Asian people have been reported, with few signs of decline.

Many Asian immigrants who fled to the United States to avoid dictatorship or Communist rule consider the casual racism they encounter to be the price of admission to this country, said Cat Shieh, an anti-hate coordinator with Asian Americans Advancing Justice of Chicago.

And while roughly 90% of the incidents don’t rise to the level of criminally prosecutable hate crimes, “they’re dehumanizing,” Choi said. 

“It’s been a cold, sobering reminder that regardless of your immigration status, how many generations you’ve been here, we continue to have conditional status and to be ‘otherized,’” she said.

More recently, a series of high-profile incidents captured on video by bystanders helped bring fresh awareness to hateful attacks on Asian Americans, including the 84-year-old Thai American man’s death, which went viral on social media. It spurred the creation of Compassion in Oakland, a group of hundreds of volunteers who now help chaperone elderly Asian American community members on errands.

A federal report released Friday warned that at least 40% of hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents went unreported to authorities, and that victims commonly said it’s a low priority for police to investigate.

The report published by the Justice Department’s Hate Crimes Enforcement and Prevention Initiative pointed out that 87% of police agencies participating in the FBI’s voluntary Hate Crime Statistics said they had no hate crimes in 2017, even though that’s statistically unlikely.

The report compared data from a national crime victim survey to federal statistics, highlighting that while there was an average of 204,600 hate crimes experienced by the public, only 7,500 victims were counted by the FBI because the incidents were either not reported to police, not investigated by officers, or not submitted to the national database. The report, based on data from 2009 through 2017, urged law enforcement leaders to emphasize to frontline officers that hate crimes should be taken as seriously as shooting, assaults, rapes, robberies or school violence.

Because federal hate-crime data takes time to collect, the FBI has not yet released official statistics about hate-related incidents nationally for 2020. Compounding the difficulty: States often use different criteria to categorize incidents. Federal officials only began tracking hate crimes in the 1990s.

Esther Song tears up as she attends a community rally to raise awareness about anti-Asian violence and racist attitudes, in response to the string of violent racist attacks against Asians during the pandemic, held at Los Angeles Historic Park near the Chinatown district in Los Angeles, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.

Despite the lack of data, some police departments and law enforcement agencies are already responding. The NYPD last year created an Asian hate crimes task force, and Oakland police assigned a new liaison officer to the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. New York state Attorney General Letitia James launched a hotline for victims to report harassment or intimidation, and on Monday, California allocated $1.4 million to track anti-Asian bias and hate crimes through the Stop AAPI Hate tracking group.

In Houston, police have seen little evidence of an increase in hate crimes directed at Asian Americans, said Lt. Kevin Gallier, who oversees the hate crimes unit for the country’s fourth-largest city. Gallier said his unit reviews every report taken by an officer where there’s an indication of racial motivations. Police officers, he said, sometimes see “awful but lawful” speech — hate speech isn’t illegal and a racial slur isn’t necessarily a crime unless it causes someone to feel specifically at risk of harm.

“Even when it’s not welcome speech, you’re still able to say what you want in many cases,” said Gallier, 52. “But thoughts lead to words, and sometimes words lead to actions, and those actions can become criminal.”

A long history of racism against Asians

Asian Americans have long faced discrimination and hate crimes in the United States, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, which in 1882 banned Chinese immigrants from entering the country.

A man holds a portrait of late Vichar Ratanapakdee, left, an 84-year-old immigrant from Thailand, who was violently shoved to the ground in a deadly attack in San Francisco, during a community rally to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence and racist attitudes, in response to the string of violent racist attacks against Asians during the pandemic, held at Los Angeles Historic Park near the Chinatown district in Los Angeles, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.

During WWII, the federal government imprisoned about 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent solely because of their race, destroying communities across California, Washington and Oregon by forcing business owners to shutter their doors and residents to give up their homes, and locking them up in “relocation centers” in rural areas of Colorado and Wyoming, among others.

In addition to federally sanctioned discrimination, the Asian American community has long suffered hate crimes that remain bitterly remembered, including attacks by members ofthe white supremacist groupOrder of Caucasians, who murdered four Chinese men — tying them up and dousing them with kerosene to burn them to death — in the early 1800s in Chico, California.

More recently, the brutal 1982 baseball-bat murder of Chinese American autoworker Vincent Chin by two white autoworkers in Detroit who were allegedly upset about competition from Japanese automakers prompted the creation of the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which now has chapters nationally.

And for years, the stereotype of an Asian carrying cash, resulted in Asian Americans being targeted for robberies and carjackings, which by and large aren’t categorized as hate crimes despite its racial element, said Debbie Chen, OCA’s executive vice president and a civil engagement programs director for the greater Houston chapter. 

Today, Asian American leaders are urging their community to report any incidents, even those that might not meet the bar for prosecution, and regardless of personal embarrassment or lack of details, such as the perpetrator’s identity.

Assailants have historically often targeted women, people over 60 years old and limited English proficient immigrants, considering them easier targets, according to experts.

“Before COVID-19 had even hit us in New York, we had already seen our members and small businesses fight the pandemic of anti-Asian hatred,” said U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, a New York Democrat.

Hong Lee poses for an undated picture. Lee recorded a video of a man harassing her in a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

For Hong Lee, 35, declining a man’s offer to get lunch led to her public humiliation as he spewed vulgarities. She had been on a lunch break last August waiting to order at her regular Mexican spot in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood.

On the Instagram video, which garnered millions of views, the man is seen cursingat Lee, who is Vietnamese American, as she cries and begs bystanders to intercede.

“Can you help me?” she asks repeatedly, as he calls her an Asian f*ck.

“Yeah, help her, help her go back to f*cking Asia,” the man screams, his 6’3″ frame physically towering over her.

As patrons and restaurant workers stood and stared, Lee turned on her camera, fearful that the man would corner her and turn violent.

In an interview this week with USA TODAY, Lee said, “I’ve never been told to go back to Asia. I’m an American.”

Something else bothered her.

“At no point in time did anyone in the restaurant come up to ask me if I was OK, if I needed anything, never once acknowledged my existence, there was a definite lack of sympathy and compassion,” said Lee, even after the man left.

Protesters hold signs that read "all of us vs racism" and "love our people like u love our food" at the End The Violence Towards Asians rally in Washington Square Park on Feb. 20, 2021, in New York City.

For a month or so after the hate incident, her life was a blur of paranoia, insomnia and fear, she said. When she finally felt more like herself, she realized the level of trauma and PTSD she had been dealing with whenever she left home.

The video spurred other victims of the same alleged assailant to come forward to police, and Lee is now a county ambassador for an anti-Asian hate program, helping other victims tell their stories.

Myth of ‘model minority’ harms Asians, others

Many Asian Americans feel their communities have long been ignored by mainstream politics, media and entertainment, especially when coupled with the myth of Asians as a “model minority” who are more successful than Blacks or Latinos.

That myth has long been used by white Americans to pit and separate Asian Americans from other people of color, and to justify institutional racism. It may also account for the fact that according to one of the few existing research reports on anti-Asian hate published this January in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Asian Americans have a relatively higher chance than Blacks or Latinos to experience hate crimes perpetrated by non-white offenders.

The report found that despite hate crimes against Asian Americans being on the rise, studies rarely look at such incidents. They are “largely ignored” by researchers, and as a result the nature and characteristics of the offenders, victims and situations are largely unknown, the report states.

“The outrage, the decrying of these recent incidents, is because of centuries of invisibility, of feeling like the history of anti-Asian racism is not known, that what happens to our community is minimized, is overlooked,” said Choi, ofStop AAPI Hate.

In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo, a masked worker cleans a street in the Chinatown district in San Francisco. Police are stepping up patrol and volunteers are increasing their street presence after several violent attacks on older Asians stoked fear in the San Francisco Bay Area's Chinatowns and subdued the celebratory mood leading up to Chinese New Year.

Compounding the challenge, the Asian American community is not monolithic. Instead, it’s broad and encompasses people who trace their ancestry from China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea and other countries, all with their own distinct languages and cultures.

Shieh, of Asian Americans Advancing Justice of Chicago, said it’s often hard to persuade victims of racial harassment or hate crimes to come to police because they speak a language other than English, or worry about their immigration status. Chicago alone has 19 separate Asian communities.

“We’re not even a singular group that can unite,” said Shieh, 28. “We forget that our country is not necessarily a black and white paradigm or dichotomy.”

Chen, of OCA, said Asian immigrants might worry about causing “trouble.”

“They’re being targeted as Asians because they (perpetrators) don’t think Asians are going to make as big as a fuss. It goes along with the stereotype that Asians are less likely to be vocal about things,” Chen said. “That’s changing as we have more and more young people growing up here, but so long as your majority of your population is first generation, like Houston’s AAPI majority…they don’t want to cause trouble, they just want to do their job, make a living, make sure their family is OK. They’re just trying to survive.”

Congressman Lieu said Trump inflamed peoples’ passions when he wrongfully tied Asians to COVID-19.

“It’s going to take education and time to mitigate the harm that was done last year. It’s not like you can flip a switch and people will stop engaging in discrimination,” he said.

Oh, the Denver attorney, said the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing racial tensions — and the increasing violence has made it easier to speak up about them.

Oh said she became a civil rights attorney in part because she felt Chicago police never took seriously the complaints from her parents that the frequent break-ins and robberies of their small restaurant were driven by the Korean heritage.

“Feeling heard has been so powerful for the Asian community,” she said.

Follow USA TODAY National Correspondent Tami Abdollah at https://twitter.com/latams

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