Greater Asian-American representation in leadership ranks needed to stem hate crimes in the US, says report

Mark Magnier
·5-min read

More accountability, better reporting and greater Asian-American representation in police, government and judicial ranks are needed to stem hate crimes against this targeted community, according to a report released on Thursday.

The Asian American Bar Association of New York report – titled “A Rising Tide of Hate and Violence against Asian-Americans in New York During Covid-19: Impact, Causes, Solutions” – comes as the United States has since January experienced a new and disturbing wave of hostility against elderly Asians. It urged Vice-President Kamala Harris to chair an initiative against racism.

“We were often scapegoated simply because of the colour of our skin,” said New York Representative Grace Meng, a Democrat serving the borough of Queens, at an online event introducing the report. “This is a really sad moment for our community, our city and our country. And even before the virus struck our nation, virulent hate and bigotry was directed at our community.”

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The report focused primarily on the situation in New York City, host to the largest community of ethnic Chinese outside Asia, but draws on broader social factors fuelling the rise in harassment, violence and racial slurs.

More than 2,800 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents were reported nationwide linked to Covid-19 between March and December of last year, according to data compiled by Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition of Asian-American community groups.

This almost certainly understates the problem, analysts have said, given that many go under-reported.

In late January, an 84-year-old Thai-American man died after being pushed to the ground in San Francisco in a seemingly unprovoked attack captured on video. A 19-year-old suspect pleaded not guilty last week to charges of murder and elder abuse.

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In nearby Oakland, authorities on Monday announced the arrest of a suspect in connection with a string of recent assaults in the city’s Chinatown, including an attack in which a 91-year-old man was pushed to the ground.

“These violent assaults have made the especially difficult circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic even more painful,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, on another call with other Asian-American advocacy groups on Tuesday. “Our community is fearful of being in public alone, simply going for a walk, living our daily lives.”

New York, an early US epicentre for the pandemic, reported over 250 incidents last year, second only to San Francisco, according to Stop AAPI Hate figures.

The New York Police Department, which has revised its data collection to better capture anti-Asian discrimination, recorded an eight-fold increase in hate crimes against Asians last year compared to 2019, even as those against other minority groups declined.

But better reporting is only the first step in changing mindsets, the report said. “We note with frustration that, despite all of the incidents above, we do not have a single prosecution of anti-Asian bias or hate crime from 2020.”

The report points to several underlying causes behind the sharp uptick in incidents, including society’s tendency to blame minorities during periods of elevated tension, particularly those who look different and are seen as an economic threat; hateful rhetoric voiced by prominent leaders, including former president Donald Trump’s references to the “China flu”; a desire to find scapegoats; and deteriorating US-China relations.

Asian-Americans however are pushing back by introducing federal and local legislation, pressuring companies to stem discrimination and hosting public awareness campaigns.

And amid high Asian-American voting rates nationally and in the key swing state of Georgia and a record number of newly elected Asian-American officials, Biden last month issued an executive order aimed specially at deterring discrimination against Asian-Americans.

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In response to the recent attacks on the elderly, some in the Asian-American community have agitated for more policing and offered financial rewards for information leading to the attackers’ arrests.

But politically and ethnically diverse Asian-Americans need to do more themselves, the report added. The community frequently disagrees on the merits of increased policing for elderly Asians, which could divert protections for African-Americans; the merits of the “Defund The Police” movement; how close to work with other minorities and how loud to get.

“We may be reluctant for cultural reasons to raise a fuss,” said Frank Wu, president of Queens College. “Asian Americans also are loathe to admit, though it is true, that we can be perpetrators of misconduct toward other people of colour.”

Amid the violence, volunteer community patrols have taken to the streets of Oakland’s Chinatown, while one organiser has launched a campaign to fund armed security guards to walk through the area.

“The local city officials have failed to protect members of our community and it’s time we take matters into our own hands,” the campaign’s organiser, Joanna Au, wrote on her GoFundMe page. As of Thursday, the appeal had solicited more than US$72,000.

But other community activists question the merits of civilians taking on the role of law enforcement.

“They’re not necessarily trained in de-escalation tactics,” said Alvina Wong, a community organiser at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, on the same call with Choi.

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Already hard hit economically and socially by the pandemic, Asian-Americans in New York and elsewhere will face a challenging recovery as well given “institutional barriers which could be exacerbated by racial bias”, the report said.

Many community members work in the hard-hit restaurant and hospitality industries, face language barriers, and more likely than other groups to own their own small businesses, most of which lack ties to mainstream banks that are the main conduit for federal stimulus money, it added.

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