Asian-American communities—having weathered increasing levels of racism and xenophobia during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic—face a resurgence of violence, especially toward elders.
Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old man who immigrated to the United States from Thailand, died on Feb. 1 after being attacked and knocked to the ground in San Francisco, according to SF Gate. On Feb. 3, Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino American man, had his face slashed from cheek to cheek by another passenger on a New York City subway, according to Asian Journal. A 64-year-old Vietnamese woman was robbed of her cash for Lunar New Year on Feb. 5, according to KTVU FOX 2. NBC New York reported that on Feb. 16 a 52-year-old Chinese American woman was pushed to the ground and struck her head on a newspaper stand outside of a Queens bakery.
These attacks follow a year with record levels of hate crimes, primarily against Chinese Americans. According to Stop AAPI Hate, the organization received over 2,800 reports of hate discrimination from March to December 2020. Physical assaults made up 8.7% and verbal harassment constituted 70.9% of the reported incidents.
Ted Song, coordinator of diversity and innovation at John Brown University, shared how these incidents are not a new occurrence. “There have always been some insensitive behaviors, comments or slurs, not just to Asians, but to minority people in the U.S.,” Song said. “That trend is not just in the Bay Area … and obviously, not everyone reports. There are plenty of unreported incidents I’m sure.”
Many organizations attribute the rise in violence to the rhetoric from former President Donald Trump. A statement from Raymond Chang, president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative, described this rhetoric as causing “a spike in anti-Asian racist sentiment where both hate incidents and hate crimes surged against our communities. Asian Americans faced at least two pandemics—COVID-19 and racism—and continue to experience them to this day.”
Perspectives in Northwest Arkansas
According to a March 2020 report from Engage NWA, an initiative of the Northwest Arkansas Council, Asian and Asian American individuals comprised 3.3% of the population in 2019. Top languages in the region include Chinese, Hmong and Vietnamese.
As a Northwest Arkansas resident and member of the Hmong community, Xue Lee stresses that Asian and Asian American cultures are not a monolith. “If someone were to see me, they’d say, ‘Oh you’re Chinese or you’re probably Korean,’ or here in Northwest Arkansas, we have a good-sized number of Vietnamese families, so they’re like, ‘You’re probably Vietnamese,’” Lee said. “With the coronavirus, with the political rhetoric, when people see us, it’s like, ‘It’s your fault because you’re Asian.’ They just assume that we’re Chinese.”
Lee worries for her parents, whose English is limited. “Even at the start of the pandemic, I really emphasized to them, ‘Be careful when you’re out in public. If someone tries to intimidate you, is trying to follow you [or] trying to threaten you, try to get away from them as quickly as possible.’ There was this fear that you just never know what’s going to happen and how people feel about you,” Lee said.
While she described the recent waves of anti-Asian violence as not as prevalent in Arkansas, Lee said that her friends and community members have been treated differently. “Even with the masks and when they go out in public, people will know that they’re Asian. When we are out and about, there’s this sense that people are watching us. Either … they move away from us or they tend to try to stay out of our way.”
This type of discrimination, labeled “shunning” by Stop AAPI, made up 22% of reported instances. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in June 2020 found that four in 10 U.S. adults said it “has become more common for people to express racist views toward Asians since the pandemic began.”
Responding to hate with compassion
In response to this second wave of attacks, local governments have created task forces to address the hate crimes. Alameda County—home to Oakland California’s Chinatown— established “a special response unit focused on crimes against Asians, and particularly older Asians,” according to CNN. A group of volunteers also formed Compassion in Oakland, offering to chaperone elderly Asian community members as they run errands.
For the JBU community, Song encourages students to look out for their neighbors. “It takes all of us … how do we come up with a strategy or an effort that we collaborate, especially for Christians, as we seek to love our neighbors and speak for those who do not have voices, those who are marginalized?” Song said. “What it looks like can be very different based on where you are, your position, your age and what you do … but we share this common goal.”
Lee reminds students and community members to not be bystanders when someone is being harassed. “What it comes down to is stepping up and saying something, like, ‘Hey, that’s not right. You shouldn’t say things like that,’” Lee said. “I would like, as a person of color, that someone is willing to step up and defend me, versus just standing by and watching what is going on.”
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