Covid-19 might be slowing down, but the racist backlash against Asian Americans persists

By Ally Mark

On a Tuesday night weeks ago, a shooting spree in three Atlanta metro area spas left 8 people dead, 6 of whom were Asian women.  

The FBI, assisting local police on this case, cannot confirm whether the attack was a hate crime. Local officials reported the suspect in custody claimed to have a “sexual addiction” and was not racially motivated. 

This is outrageous. Our community knows these assertions to be completely, utterly false. Once again, this country’s law enforcement betrays their minimization of the Asian American experience. They are demonstrating exactly how the racism against our community is so deeply ingrained that it isn’t recognized as a violent intersection of gender and race.

But we cannot afford to ignore the history of misogyny against, and alt-right fetishization of, Asian women. How Asian women are exoticized, sexualized, and historically so stereotyped as prostitutes that it was codified in the Page Act of 1875.

In light of the continuing, vicious violence perpetrated against Asian Americans, we must condemn white supremacy, demand accountability and justice, and fight for change. 

This explosion in anti-Asian hate crimes began with the covid-19 pandemic. Like many other aspects of the pandemic, we are only recently beginning to reckon with the consequences. But, in the past year, the Asian American community faced a 150% spike in racially-motivated hate crimes, a trend so intense that even the United Nations raised the alarm. A reporting center, Stop AAPI Hate, quickly sprung up last summer to document almost 3,800 incidents nationwide.

The backlash is always harshest for the most vulnerable: women and the elderly. From liberal coastal cities to deep red Middle America, the choices of targets betray the cowardice and fear underpinning this anti-Asian ire: 

84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, killed after being shoved harshly to the ground in San Francisco. An 89-year-old woman in Brooklyn, New York City, slapped and set on fire. Now, a misogynistic attack on women in Georgia, working in a setting traditionally maligned — unfairly, often — as seedy and distasteful.

For many Asian Americans, this violent backlash lies squarely within the climate of amplified racism from the last five years. It’s the only logical conclusion. The FBI even warned, early on in the pandemic, about a potential surge in anti-Asian violence. However, nowhere in their report did they name the former president’s racist rhetoric as a factor in emboldening such hatred. 

Looking back historically, though, the rise in anti-Asian sentiment is even more obvious. Asians (like other minorities) were scapegoated as dirty disease-carriers and forced into ethnic enclaves. Systemic anti-Asian violence traces back to age-old all-American xenophobia, expressed in our oldest, most racist immigration laws. In that sense, it’s clearly linked to the same strain of right-wing white nationalism that violently erupted against Black Lives Matter protesters and put children in cages at the southern border.

Still, that history is complicated. The Asian American community is a relatively new identifier that not all Asian Americans feel equally or wholly represented by. Systemic racism and structural violence has been inflicted against Asian Americans differently from that which is perpetrated against Black or Indigenous communities. 

Asians are positioned in so many spaces as a racial in-between, so we get lost in America’s overly broad, simplistic racial narrative. We are excluded and forced to accept the “forever foreigner” label, masking any differences between Asian ethnicities.

But the lack of national cultural attention is now a real-life danger. That was made painfully clear by how slow mainstream media was to pick up on the anti-Asian violence story and how resigned Asians were to this lack of awareness. Assailants harass and attack Asian Americans, protected by the mutual understanding that Asian issues seldom make it to national news. 

With so little visibility and so much intra-group diversity, the Asian American community continually struggles with forging a united story, even amid this violence. But where there is fear and confusion, there is opportunity. Opportunity to build stronger coalitions across ethnic and racial groups and come out of this stronger and more resilient than ever. 

Last December, an Asian American teen in Pennsylvania was shot and killed by local police as he suffered from a mental health episode. While not directly linked to the rise in anti-Asian violence, the injustice of Christian Hall’s death rallied together a multiracial coalition of activists. Hall’s family is even being represented by Ben Crump, the same lawyer fighting for George Floyd’s family. These alliances show us the way forward — together, in solidarity — and give us the opportunity to share our distinct stories and be known.

With the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, America finally seems ready to engage in another racial reckoning. But with the covid-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have the chance to find a voice and be part of this long-overdue conversation over our country’s deeply painful racist past. Not as an in-between, but in coalition, as an ally, with other communities of color fighting for justice and recognition.


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