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Coronavirus spurs anti-Asian sentiment

Residents of San Francisco's Chinatown take a stroll through their neighborhood. (Photo: photo-denver, via Shutterstock)

One of the least-talked-about symptoms of the COVID-19 pandemic is the rise in anti-Asian discrimination, harassment and violence. While there has been abundant anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon, only recently has anyone tried to quantify the bigotry. Two California-based groups and a professor from San Francisco State University are taking a lead on the issue.

In early February, this reporter took a walk through San Francisco’s Chinatown. Grant Street, which is usually packed with pedestrians was empty. Even though San Francisco had yet to see a case of COVID-19, both tourists and locals were staying away from Chinatown, fearful that they’d catch coronavirus. A few weeks later PBS Newshour did a story on the stigma Chinatown was dealing with.

Coronavirus fears have led to an increase in anti-Asian harassment and violence. Until recently, there was no central reporting system up to document the bigotry.

On February 13, CBS Los Angeles reported that a 16-year old from San Fernando was assaulted; his attackers blamed him for the coronavirus, authorities said. The attack landed the teenager in a hospital emergency room.

Also, in February, bigots in Carson distributed a flyer with a doctored World Health Organization seal, advising “residents to avoid Asian-American businesses because of a coronavirus outbreak.”  The flyer was a fake.

In early March,  Anna Chandry was leaving her parents’ Fresno home and found “Fuck Asions and coronyvirus! [sic]” spray-painted on her dad’s car.

In mid-March, ‘Mulan’ Star Tzi Ma was walking through a Whole Food’s parking lot in Pasadena. A car pulled up, the driver rolled down his window and yelled “You should be quarantined.” Ma told Variety that the incident left him “cold and numb.”

On March 18 in Daly City, a cough by an Asian-American man in a mall store sent some people into a rage. Two Target shoppers screamed at the man to leave the mall. He refused and others stepped in and helped repel the bigots.

These incidents and many others reported in local press and on Asian-American news sites such as NestShark provide anecdotal evidence that coronavirus fears have led to an increase in anti-Asian harassment and violence. Until recently, there was no central reporting system up to document the bigotry.

Early February, in reaction to an attack on a 12-year old Los Angeles boy, two non-governmental orgainizations, or NGOs, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) and Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) decided that there needed to be a centralized source of data on anti-Asian bigotry. A3PCON and CAA representatives urged the state attorney general and to create the reporting system.

According to A3PCON and CAA, officials in the attorney general’s office said that creating a reporting system was beyond the scope of their duties, saying that crime statistics are reported to the state by local law enforcement.

A3PCON and CAA decided to take the task on themselves.

With the assistance of San Francisco State Asian studies professor and chairperson Dr. Russell Jeung, they created the Stop AAPI Hate website, which takes reports of incidents of anti-Asian coronavirus-related discrimination, harassment and violence.

The majority of the bigotry reported was verbal harassment (67%), followed by shunning (24%), and physical assault (10%).

Manjusha P. Kulkarni of A3PCON and Cynthia Choi of CAA believe that, instead of relying on the Attorney General’s office,  having a community-based reporting mechanism will result in more reporting and a better picture of what is happening, mainly because A3PCON and CAA are trusted members of the Asian Pacific community.

Choi adds that collecting the data themselves allows them to “advocate for local, state and federal government to marshal resources to deal with these incidents.” The information culled from the Stop AAPI Hate website will help A3PCON and CAA “develop community-based responses that do not involve law enforcement.” Going it alone also allows the groups to collect data on incidents other than hate crimes.

The Stop AAPI Hate website launched on March 19. The first report was released on March 26. It provides data collected from the launch date through March 25. In that timeframe, the site had 673 reported incidents. While 38% reports originate in California, the numbers below are nationwide.

The majority of the bigotry reported was verbal harassment (67%), followed by shunning (24%), and physical assault (10%). Others report being coughed or spit at, experiencing workplace discrimination, and being barred from transportation or an establishment.

“Cultural reticence” and “language barriers” could explain under-reporting by non-English speakers.

Nearly all of those assaulted, harassed or discriminated against cite ethnicity or race as the primary motive. Some reported that they were singled out for wearing a face mask.

Most of the incidents occurred in a public place — at a place of business, a park, on transit, or on the street. Nine percent of the incidents were reported to occur online, while 7% occurred at the victim’s home.

The vast majority of the reports were filed by people in their twenties, thirties, and forties. Seventy-four percent of the respondents are women. Almost all the respondents are English speakers. These numbers suggest under-reporting by older Asians, especially those who do not speak English and/or are male.

Racializing the virus not only increases bigoted behavior, but experts say it hampers our ability to fight the disease.

When asked whether Stop AAPI Hate’s stats might be incomplete due to under-reporting, Russell Jeung, who oversees the data collection, said that was probably the case. He said “cultural reticence” and “language barriers” could explain under-reporting by non-English speakers. Jeung suggested that the lack of male response could be the result of men feeling like they need to handle adversity by themselves.

“These numbers do not detail the hate and vitriol that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are experiencing.  And they don’t make evident the fear and anxiety that community members feel when they leave their homes to buy groceries, pick up prescriptions, or just leave their homes for a walk in their neighborhoods,” said A3PCON’s Manjusha Kulkarni.

Kulkarni notes that America has a long history of anti-Asian bigotry – from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, beaten to death by two white autoworkers who accused him of “stealing our jobs” to SARS-inspired harassment.  She says that coronavirus-inspired anti-Asian harassment and violence is a continuation is part of the country’s “Yellow Peril” legacy.

Kulkarni adds that President Trump and his supporters in the conservative press labeling COVID-19 the “Wuhan Virus,” “Chinese Virus,” and “Kung-Flu” is the latest in America’s history of anti-Asian sentiment. Racializing the virus not only increases bigoted behavior, but experts say it hampers our ability to fight the disease.

CAA’s Cynthia Choi says that bringing attention to anti-Asian bigotry, though Stop AAPI Hate and other means, is the best way to combat discrimination, harassment and violence.

“Bullies believe that they are acting for others in their words and action. When people stand with people together it shows bullies that they are the anomaly and in the wrong.”

Those who have experienced coronavirus-related anti-Asian hate can report it at the Stop AAPI Hate website.

 

 


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