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A wave of violent attacks renews focus on anti-Asian racism

Anti-Asian violence has spiked during the pandemic. A deadly incident draws new attention to it.

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask walks down a near-empty street in the Chinatown area of San Francisco, California, on March 20, 2020. 
Michael Short/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

In the past few weeks, a slew of violent incidents in the Bay Area — including multiple attacks targeting elderly individuals — have renewed attention on anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.

In San Francisco, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee died after getting shoved to the ground. In Oakland, a 91-year-old was brutally pushed from behind. And in San Jose, a 64-year-old woman was robbed in the middle of the afternoon.

The motivation for several of these assaults is not yet clear — but the ultimate effects of these attacks are the same: They’re instilling fear in Asian American communities, particularly among older adults who are already some of the most vulnerable populations during the current public health crisis.

“We do know that the rise in anti-Asian racism ... has had devastating impacts,” said Cynthia Choi, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, in a recent press call. “Our community is fearful of being in public alone, simply going for a walk and living our daily lives.” These attacks have also coincided with the start of the Lunar New Year holiday, but it’s not certain if they’re linked.

Over the past year, anti-Asian incidents have surged across the country: Since last spring, there have been more than 2,800 incidents, according to Stop AAPI Hate, which has been tracking people’s reports. Ranging from verbal abuse and workplace discrimination to storefront vandalism and physical violence, many of these assaults have been fueled by xenophobic sentiment that seeks to scapegoat Asian Americans for the spread of the coronavirus, given its origins in China. Such incidents have only been stoked further by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist terms to describe the virus.

Activists are working to draw attention to the violence that’s taken place in an effort to pressure local governments to provide more financial support for victims and funding for community-based efforts. Groups including the Oakland Chinatown Coalition, for example, are coordinating volunteers who can help increase street traffic in Chinatown and pick up trash. Actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu have also sought to draw attention to this problem, by offering a $25,000 reward for information about the individuals involved in harming the 91-year-old man in Oakland (police have since apprehended a suspect).

As they respond to these attacks, activists emphasize that it’s important for communities of color to stand in solidarity, and to make sure that policing is not viewed as the main form of redress — given how policing has disproportionately harmed Black Americans. Instead, they note that communities need to focus on cross-racial education and healing, in order to raise awareness about the discrimination that different groups experience.

“It’s incumbent upon us in our communities to speak out,” says Manjusha Kulkarni, the head of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. “Part of addressing this issue is coming to terms with ... the invisibility overall of Asian Americans, and the idea of being perpetual foreigners who people don’t see as Americans.”

Anti-Asian violence has surged during the pandemic

Incidents of anti-Asian violence began spiking last spring as the pandemic got underway, and hundreds more have been documented since then. According to an Ipsos survey, 60 percent of Asian Americans have observed people blaming members of their community for Covid-19.

Kulkarni emphasizes that Trump’s rhetoric had a clear effect in stoking xenophobia and fueling these attacks, many of which fed off longstanding tropes about Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners who can never be fully American. “We would often see increased violence or hate and discrimination when the president would make remarks. We saw that was having direct impact on the perpetrators,” she said, regarding the Stop AAPI Hate tracker. Additionally, the association of Asian Americans with the coronavirus activated age-old stereotypes that have associated immigrants of Asian descent with “weird” foods, dirtiness, and illness.

Anti-Asian attacks in the past year have been wide-ranging. According to the Stop AAPI Hate tracker, they’ve included an Asian American child getting pushed off her bike by a bystander at a park, a family at a grocery store getting spat on and accused of being responsible for the coronavirus, and vandalism outside businesses. Then there is the death of Ratanapakdee in San Francisco this past month: Members of his family told KTVU that they believe the attack on him was racially motivated.

In a recent executive action, President Joe Biden condemned anti-Asian racism, marking a stark change from the Trump administration. He’s also instructed the Justice Department to begin gathering data on these attacks and to strip discriminatory language from federal documents. But it is going to take more than one message denouncing such acts to maintain this dialogue and ensure that members of these communities get the funding and legal backing they need.

Activists want to raise awareness of these attacks and get more support for victims

Many activists are dedicated to raising awareness about these attacks, and are pushing lawmakers to take actions that support victims.

For those interested in helping, a number of these efforts are localized. San Francisco, for example, has helped set aside funds for victims and survivors in order to address legal and medical costs, but regional groups hope to pressure lawmakers to make the effort a more sustainable one. In Oakland, the Chinatown Coalition is among the groups coordinating volunteers who can help community members with their daily activities and build relationships with merchants. The Asian Pacific Fund is also raising money for community organizations trying to combat anti-Asian racism in the Bay Area. And crowdfunding efforts have been set up to help cover expenses faced by Ratanapakdee’s family.

This weekend, there are demonstrations planned both in Oakland’s Madison Park and at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza.

Kulkarni emphasizes that people can use social media to share information about the attacks and elevate these resources. She says, too, that individuals can join their local city council meetings to make sure elected officials are aware of the violence that’s happening and press for more funding for victims.

“You don’t have to go to the city council building, you join via Zoom — make those pleas and demands of our elected leaders,” she says.

Ultimately, activists intend to keep building on these actions, and urge lawmakers to do the same.

“It is vital for our elected officials to vehemently condemn racism and acts of hate against Asian Americans in any form, from xenophobic language to violent acts,” says John Yang, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “Leaders must use their platforms to share our stories as well as ensure that the government provides resources for the victims and collects data on the hate our community is experiencing.”