For more than a year, Asian Americans across the country have faced an alarming deluge of racist attacks, and it shows no signs of abating.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic transformed every facet of American life a year ago, Asian American communities were already seeing the effects of the virus, which was first detected in China and began to spread in January 2020.
By then, Asian Americans and Pacific Islander individuals had started to experience racist harassment and attacks, such as being shunned, spit upon and denied services. Asian-owned businesses saw a precipitous drop in revenue and patronage.
Last March, several AAPI advocacy organizations and scholars formed a group called Stop AAPI Hate to create a database of reports of these incidents. As of Feb. 28, the group had received a staggering 3,795 reports of racist incidents against AAPIs, according to data released Tuesday. That includes 503 incidents in 2021. The last few weeks have brought a wave of high-profile incidents, including several violent assaults of Asian American elders that resulted in deaths.
The incident reports come from respondents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The data is likely an undercount because the incidents are self-reported.
While the current wave of racism is tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s one chapter of a long history of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans. In the 19th century, Asian immigrants to the U.S. were deemed “the yellow peril” and branded as filthy disease carriers — not unlike the racist rhetoric and tropes fueling the current wave. In addition, Asian American individuals are often targeted because of the model minority myth, which reinforces the racist stereotype and false impression that AAPIs are silent and invisible and won’t speak up or fight back.
Stop AAPI Hate’s findings are consistent with other reports that have shown a sharp uptick in racist incidents against Asian Americans in the last year. Hate crimes targeting Asian Americans rose 150% in America’s largest cities last year, even as overall hate crimes decreased, according to an analysis of police records by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, released earlier this month.
Throughout 2020, former President Donald Trump fueled the hatred, repeatedly referring to the pandemic using racial slurs and fearmongering against Asian Americans to deflect blame from his own administration’s shambolic response to the pandemic.
In one of the first acts of his new administration, President Joe Biden condemned the wave of anti-Asian racism, called for solidarity with AAPI communities and pledged to do more to address the incidents. Last week, amid an uptick in violent assaults against Asian American elders, Biden began a national address on COVID-19 by again condemning the attacks and acknowledging the pain that AAPI communities have faced.
Stop AAPI Hate and other Asian American advocacy groups have urged Biden and lawmakers to take more concrete steps, including establishing more concerted federal, state and local efforts to investigate incidents of anti-Asian racism, expanding civil rights protections, passing legislation that would address some of these issues and better engaging AAPI community leaders.
“We cannot let anti-Asian American hate be a legacy of COVID-19 or the last presidential administration, but that’s exactly what will happen unless we demand concrete action,” Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, said in a statement.
According to the group’s new data, verbal harassment is the most common kind of incident, making up 68% of the reports. Nearly 21% of the incidents involved the assailant shunning an Asian American person, and 11% involved physical assault.
Like many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, women bear the brunt. Stop AAPI Hate found that a disproportionate amount of the incidents were reported by Asian women. Children and seniors were also likely to be disproportionately targeted.
“We need to reckon with both the historical and ongoing impact that racism, hate and violence are having on our community, especially on women, youth and seniors, who are particularly vulnerable,” said Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Cynthia Choi, the co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.
In an incident report, a respondent from Boston wrote: “I received a random email message from someone I don’t know telling me to go back to China, blaming me for Chinese politics, calling Chinese ‘heartless robots’ and telling me America doesn’t need me to be part of the workforce.”
Another respondent from the Washington, D.C., area reported that she and her boyfriend were attacked on public transportation.
“When on the escalator in the transfer station, a man repeatedly punched my back and pushed past us. At the top, he circled back toward us, followed us, repeatedly shouted ‘Chinese bitch’ at me, fake coughed at, and physically threatened us,” she wrote in her incident report. “A few days later, we saw a news story about how the owner of Valley Brook Tea in DC was harassed and pepper sprayed by the same man, calling him ‘Covid-19’ repeatedly.”
And a respondent in the San Francisco Bay Area wrote that while shopping at a store, a man “started making faces at me” and asked: ”‘When do you ship out? When do you ship out? We are going to take away your citizenship!’”