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Asian American leaders in Massachusetts condemned what they say is racism, fear-mongering, and misinformation aimed at Asian communities amid the coronavirus pandemic that originated in China, on March 12, 2020.
Steven Senne/AP

“They just see that you’re Asian and you are horrible”: How the pandemic is triggering racist attacks

Racial slurs and hateful acts against Asian Americans are on the rise.

Julie Kang, 30, said she was first verbally assaulted in December, when coronavirus cases were just beginning to surface in China. A man walked up to her in the middle of downtown San Diego, got in her face, and called her racial slurs. It took a moment for her to register what happened, she said, and she tried to shrug it off.

A few weeks later, a man in a walker lunged at her while she was walking down the street and also spewed a racial slur, Kang said. The man cackled as he walked away, leaving her shocked and angered.

Then on March 9 — the day San Diego confirmed its first Covid-19 patient — the aggression against her escalated. As she was walking toward her car, she said, a woman yelled a chilling threat: “Go back to China or I’ll shoot you myself!”

“I haven’t been harassed for my race for years and years. It’s been a really long time so it felt like it came out of nowhere,” she told me. “This last one made me a little bit angrier because of how these people were making me feel. They were making me feel small,” she said. “I felt unsafe, even in my own community where I walk every single day.”

The harassment Kang experienced is becoming more common for Asian Americans, as the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked anti-Asian xenophobia across the US. Researchers from San Francisco collected more than 1,000 reported cases of xenophobia against the Chinese American community between January 28 and February 24, Vox’s Dylan Scott reported.

And some harassment has become physical: A woman wearing a face mask in New York was punched and called “diseased.” A 16-year-old teen from Los Angeles was taken to the emergency room after being assaulted and bullied by peers. Most recently, an Asian family in Texas was targeted during a knife attack on March 15 while grocery shopping, according to the local CBS affiliate. Both the father and son were cut badly across their faces.

It doesn’t help that President Donald Trump and the GOP have been calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” putting a target on East Asian Americans. It fits into his administration’s pattern of xenophobia (referring to Mexicans as “rapists,” and labeling some places “shithole countries”), which also fits into his pattern of deflecting blame — this time as criticism mounts against the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

After a week of this rhetoric, Trump tweeted that “it was very important we protect our Asian American community” (before othering Asian Americans — “they” and “us” — one tweet later) on Monday, but the damage has already been done.

Much like Trump’s “build the wall” and “invasion” rhetoric has led to a rise in anti-immigrant and -Latino sentiment and attacks, Trump’s latest term for the coronavirus ultimately has the dire consequences of fueling bigotry against Asian Americans, said Amy Ruan, a Chinese immigrant who lives in New York.

“A few days ago, he said the ‘Chinese virus,’ and a lot of bad things happened after that,” she said. “I think it’s awful. It’s a global virus, not only the Chinese virus. I think he should make an apology.”

New York’s lockdown almost makes it feel safer for Ruan, who said she was hesitant to leave the house before then. When she took the train two weeks ago, nobody sat next to her — which could have been a social distancing measure, but this was before the city put protocols in place — and she said it made her feel scared and alone.

“They just see that you’re Asian and you are horrible,” she said.

Anti-Asian American hateful acts are on the rise

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s been an increasing number of hateful acts against Asian Americans — and there are numbers to show it.

One of the efforts to document these incidents is being led by a coalition of Asian American groups — the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Department of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. On March 19, they launched a website where people could self-report racist incidents through forms that come in seven different languages.

And in the past week, the website has already received more than 400 reports in English alone — and the coalition hasn’t widely circulated the forms yet, said Manju Kulkarni, executive director of A3PCON. That means they could see a drastic rise in cases in the near future once the forms become more publicized.

“What I’m concerned about is, obviously, people’s health and safety. And this is adding an additional dimension to the challenges that all of us are facing right now,” Kulkarni said. Racism “causes additional fear, anxiety, depression. ... That rhetoric is causing harm to thousands of individuals in our country.”

Already, Kulkarni said she sees a pattern in the reports: a concerning number of verbal assaults and shunning. There are several reports of businesses denying their services to Asian Americans, which is concerning since there aren’t even that many storefronts open due to widespread lockdowns. Some have also been barred from public transit, Kulkarni added.

There are also a handful of more aggressive incidents: people being pushed, spat at, and targeted with objects like bottles.

Then there’s the casual racism, such as snarky comments, suspicious stares, and backhanded “jokes.” Kulkarni said she’s seen reports of non-Asian people making comments like “I hope you’re not spreading the virus.”

Esther from West Virginia — who requested the use of a pseudonym for her safety — is no stranger to being shunned as one of the few Asian Americans in her rural community. West Virginia was the last state where a Covid-19 case was confirmed. The first case surfaced in Jefferson County, where Esther lives, and she said she’s noticed people reacting differently to her ever since.

Months ago, when China saw the brunt of the outbreak, people would just give her cold stares or avoid her on public transit, she said. Some people would glare at her before rolling their eyes and moving toward the back of the bus. In one case, a man jumped out of the elevator when she walked on, she said.

In the past two weeks, however, people have become more confrontational. When she was at a Home Depot shopping, a man walked toward her and blocked her path. She could tell that his stance was aggressive, with his mouth open and finger lifted.

“It was this weird frozen in a moment of time where I was like, I could see your mind churning and I could see that you’re about to say something racist — if you’re going to say anything at all,” she said. “So I’m just gonna stand here as straight as possible and you do whatever you’re mentally about to do, and see what’s going to happen.”

The man left without verbally assaulting Esther, but the incident still left her shaken. She said she now has to think twice before leaving the house alone.

“I just feel really sad for humanity,” she said. “Because all of this is really indicative that no matter how American you are, no matter how much you contribute — like donations or whether it’s in money or, you know, I’m a regular blood donor — as long as there’s an overt reason to hate you, otherize you to make you a foreigner, people will [latch] onto that. And that has always been something that I’ve been aware of, in the back of my head.”

The threats can be more indirect, but equally intimidating — as was the case for Margaret Hu, a law professor at Washington and Lee University. She said someone had suggested to her that “whoever did this to us should be hung or shot.”

“For him to say it to me, because I’m Chinese American, I just wasn’t sure how to interpret that,” Hu said. “It shows how people in a state of fear are looking to harm a faceless enemy and hoping to be able to put a face to the enemy. And it’s always dangerous.”

Talking about racism against Asian Americans matters

Kang said she’s relieved to see more discussions about the rise in anti-Asian xenophobia in the wake of Covid-19. When she was first targeted in December, not many people were talking about the bigotry against her community, which she said made her feel alone.

“It was really emotional for me because it wasn’t talked about too much in mainstream media that I saw, and so I felt very vulnerable and unprotected. I also wasn’t seeing a lot of my Asian circle of friends and family talking about it either,” Kang said.

Without someone to share her experiences with, Kang said she felt like the racist encounters were isolated incidents that only happened to her: “I thought, ‘Is it me? Is it my face?’”

Only now have her own Asian American friends and family begun to open up about their experiences with racism in the past few weeks. And by doing so, people are realizing that these incidents are happening more often and much closer than they had anticipated. Even her parents, who are less apt to share, recently told her a story of a friend who was harassed in a grocery store parking lot.

On Twitter and other social media, Asian Americans are sharing racist incidents (often multiple), while major news outlets like the New York Times are highlighting the bigotry experienced around the country. Aside from reporting incidents to the coalition’s website, individuals can also directly report hateful acts and crimes to their local police department; for those living in New York, there’s also the option of calling the state’s newly launched hate crime hotline at (800) 771-7755. (As German Lopez reported for Vox, the criteria for a hate crime is often complicated, however, and federal and various state laws differ. Generally, hateful acts can be elevated to hate crimes only if a crime was committed, and there’s a clear motive of hate against a protected group.)

Addressing the bigotry is the first step to solving it, Kulkarni said. The racism is a tremendous burden to the mental health of Asian Americans, who are already struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, and everyone should be concerned for their safety, she said.

“We should be coming together as a country and helping out our neighbors, our co-workers and our friends,” she said. “We should not be attacking one another and making life more difficult for our fellow Americans during this extremely difficult time. This crisis gives us an opportunity to be our better selves. We should meet the challenge.”

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