The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it outbreaks of racial harassment, abuse, and physical violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities across the United States—a spike that President Joe Biden has vocally condemned since his earliest days in office. But community leaders, fearful that the “fast and furious” increase in incidents could continue long after the pandemic has retreated, say that a change in rhetoric from the Oval Office is just a first step to addressing the root causes of anti-Asian hostility.
“Asian Americans have felt so invisible when it comes to these issues, that it’s not acknowledged,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a longtime civil rights organization based in San Francisco. “I’ve heard from so many community members and leaders say what a world of difference it makes, to have the president of the United States actually acknowledge and to see us.”
“It does matter and I think it is important—of course, following that up with real action.”
Anti-Asian harassment is not new to the pandemic, and the recent upswing comes on the heels of deteriorating relations with China and years of anti-immigrant policies by the previous administration, both of which have contributed to the scapegoating of Asian Americans for any number of national ills. But the novel coronavirus, which was first discovered in Wuhan, China, has sparked the biggest wave of anti-Asian harassment in decades, from major cities with vibrant Asian American neighborhoods to suburbs and rural communities.
Most people had little information to go on during the first weeks of the pandemic, but even during the earliest days, community leaders knew enough about the virus and its origins to know who would be blamed.
“I was visiting my sister in Massachusetts, and I heard this story that there’s this virus that was discovered in Wuhan, and I said, ‘oh, my God, here we go,’” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, which coordinates the work of more than 60 nonprofit organizations that support Asian communities in the United States. “I knew exactly what this was going to be.”
Yoo’s early concerns were justified swiftly, and often brutally. According to Stop AAPI Hate, which has tracked incidents of discrimination, harassment and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic, the group received more than 2,800 reports of racism and harassment between March 19 and Dec. 31 of last year alone.
When the group first began tracking incidents of harassment and violence against AAPI communities, President Donald Trump and his administration had already been using his platform to make racist jokes about the “kung flu” or “Chinese virus” for weeks. As the death toll from the virus climbed into the hundreds of thousands and as the nation’s economy veered on collapse, Trump steadfastly blamed the ravages of the pandemic on China and its government, rather than his own government’s mishandling of the crisis at nearly every turn.
That rhetoric, advocates told The Daily Beast, had a direct effect on the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and abuse that would follow.
“Racist tropes really fueled this resentment, this animus towards Asians,” said Choi. “Look at where we are with the pandemic—people are really trusting our national leaders and hanging onto their every word, even the most ridiculous.”
Biden has, since the early days of the coronavirus, urged Americans not to scapegoat vulnerable communities for the pandemic, and one of his first acts in office was to sign an executive order condemning Trump’s xenophobic language and ordering the Department of Justice to track hate crimes against AAPI people in the United States. Asked last month what the president might do in addition to that executive order, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that “of course” Biden would support additional action on the local and federal level to strengthen the law enforcement response to the growing crisis, but the White House has not yet specified what that might look like.
Early warnings that Trump’s language could get people hurt had decades of historical evidence in their favor. The anti-Asian racism perpetuated by the White House was part of a long American tradition of pinning “culpability” for infectious diseases on members of politically, racially or economically disadvantaged and unpopular groups, particularly immigrant communities. Smallpox and leprosy outbreaks in the 1940s were blamed on Chinese immigrant communities by officials who accused them of “unclean” lifestyles; between 1982 and 1985, reported hate crimes against gay men tripled in the United States as they were blamed for the spread of HIV/AIDS.
That history, community leaders say, means that a simple change in rhetoric from the Oval Office isn’t enough to end the rise in attacks on Asian American people and communities.
“Donald Trump is absolutely responsible for increasing hatred against Asian Americans,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a civil rights organization that works on behalf of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese American communities. But Trump’s attacks, which Dinh called “a calculated tactic to distract Americans from a public health crisis” and Trump’s failed response, were only the most recent episode in a long history of fearmongering against Asian American communities.
“Hate and xenophobia against Asian American communities isn’t new,” Dinh said, citing the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment during World War II, and current hostilities against Chinese academics and scientists at U.S. universities. “Law enforcement and the U.S. government have been some of the worst agitators of hate.”
In many ways, Choi echoed, that long history of hostility defines the contemporary Asian American experience, particularly during the pandemic.
“The demonization and dehumanization of an entire group is essentially history repeating itself,” Choi said.
In a statement late last month, the Department of Justice indicated that the additional action will include increased training for federal prosecutors and law enforcement officers on investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, with “hundreds” having received the training in recent months.
“Hate crimes cannot be tolerated in our country, and the Department of Justice will continue to put all necessary resources toward protecting our neighbors and our communities from these heinous acts,” said Pamela Karlan, the principal deputy assistant attorney general in DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, which Karlan said is in “frequent communication” with the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Offices as they support local law enforcement investigations.
Some leading advocates for a federal response to growing violence against Asian Americans have applauded the Biden administration’s willingness to coordinate the law enforcement response.
“While Donald Trump stoked violence and hatred using racist language, President Biden has condemned anti-Asian racism and I have every confidence that DOJ will vigorously investigate and prosecute these acts of hate and violence against the AAPI community,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) told The Daily Beast. “Focusing resources to expedite the review and prosecution of these cases will help alleviate the fear and trauma that AAPIs have suffered as a result of these attacks.”
Multiple community leaders told The Daily Beast that the order was “a good first step,” but cautioned against solely relying on the Department of Justice to address the problem. On a roundtable call last Thursday with more than a dozen AAPI organizations, leaders from various communities told Susan Rice, the president’s top domestic policy advisor, and White House senior advisor Cedric Richmond that the climate of fear needs to be combated with a multi-front approach to structural racism, rather than just a change in rhetoric and an increase in prosecutions for hate crimes.
“Law enforcement sometimes isn’t the answer,” said Yoo, who participated in the listening session. “Some of our immigrants come from countries where police interaction isn’t necessarily a positive, and so I think people are much more cautious.”
Dinh, who also participated in the call, cautioned that a response focusing entirely on the Justice Department’s role risks further fanning the flames of division between minority communities, at the expense of all of them.
“We cannot combat hate and misinformation through the very systems that hurt us—through policing, through enforcement, and through the criminal legal system,” Dinh said, warning that a response that’s overly reliant on law enforcement could further stoke tensions. “These systems criminalize our people and our Black and brown allies. They wreak havoc in our neighborhoods. They subject generations of our families to harm, to pain, to trauma. We can combat hate and misinformation through community, through compassion, and through education.”
Advocates say additional resources to ensure that Asian Americans in immigrant communities are fully appraised of their rights as crime victims could actually help as well as more cooperation between community leaders and civic leaders to ensure that those resources include language access.
“Victims often don’t know what their rights are. What’s the language access? What's the language capacity for some of the law enforcement officers? I mean, if somebody is a victim, can the police take a report in-language?” said Yoo. “Can you offer assistance and explain fully what their rights are as victims and what help is available, in-language? And is that help offered in a culturally competent and relevant manner? Those are the things that I think about.”
Choi, who also participated in the call with White House advisors, said that community leaders called for additional resources for victims of crimes beyond the scope of law enforcement, including access to mental health services, as well as prevention-based programs that focus on the underlying causes of violence, crime and racial bias, particularly in low-income and working class communities.
“When community members and entire communities don’t have the resources to be able to have their basic needs met, that’s where you will see violence and crime, and communities hurting each other,” Choi said.
Still, much of the problem was incited by the racist language of Biden’s predecessor—which means that public commitment to fighting anti-Asian racism is still a powerful tool.
“Words matter, especially words said from the highest office,” Dinh said. “President Biden must affirm the pain that our communities have experienced for so long. Beyond an address, our communities are looking for action and leadership to show the path forward toward healing and justice.”