A year ago, Lunar New Year celebrations unfolded as COVID-19 began spreading globally, ushering in a new wave of anti-Asian bias stoked by then-President Trump and the xenophobic rhetoric he used in labeling the disease the “China virus.”
Now, as festivities this weekend mark another Lunar New Year, coronavirus vaccines offer relief from the virus but not from the racism directed at people of Asian descent, who have seen the bias turn to violence, notably against the elderly. The cases include the murder in San Francisco of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man; a subway attack in New York City during which a 61-year-old Flipino man was slashed across the face with a knife; and several assaults targeting older Asian Americans in the Chinatown section of Oakland, Calif.
“This is not a problem that is new to our community,” Sam Hyun, chairman of the Massachusetts Asian American Commission, said Saturday. “Even last year when we saw the spike happening, what we heard was a lot of silence from the media and those in the highest seats of power.”
The national coalition Stop AAPI Hate received 67 reports from Massachusetts of anti-Asian hate and discrimination between March 19 and Dec. 31, 2020, according to data released Tuesday.
Almost 90 percent of the cases from Massachusetts involved verbal harassment, about 7.5 percent were reports of people being coughed on or spat upon, and 3 percent were physical assaults, said Russell Jeung, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and professor at San Francisco State University.
In one local incident reported to the organization, an Asian-American shopper said a woman at a grocery store stated, “You will infect us.”
In another report from Massachusetts, a pedestrian said a driver screamed, “You’re the reason I have to wear a mask.” An elementary school teacher in Massachusetts reported that a student taunted a Chinese classmate by claiming he had COVID-19 and telling other children not to go near him.
Jeung said only a small portion of the incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate would qualify for prosecution under most laws against hate crimes.
“To address most of the hate incidents, we need a different type of policy solution and that includes expanded civil rights enforcement,” he said.
A bill to reform the state’s hate crime statute is pending in the Legislature and would expand the law to cover harassment. Attorney General Maura Healey is co-sponsoring the legislation.
On Tuesday, she encouraged people to report hate crimes against Asian Americans to her office.
“Anti-Asian violence is on the rise,” she wrote. “The recent assaults on our elders are deeply disturbing.”
The state’s Asian American Commission has developed a system for collecting reports about hate incidents and has been using its online platforms to promote resources to combat the violence. Last spring, the commission published a manual for responding to anti-Asian violence.
While several prominent activists and organizers said they haven’t received reports about local Asian communities being subjected to the same type of violence documented in California and New York, the incidents have taken a psychological toll.
“It just adds to their level of stress,” said Ben Hires, chief executive of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.
Boston City Councilor Ed Flynn, who represents Chinatown, said some of the neighborhood’s elderly residents worry about leaving their homes to buy food or get fresh air because they fear being harassed in public.
“We have to show more empathy to the Asian community for the very difficult year that they’ve had,” said Flynn. “They need to know that we’re on their side and we’re going to do everything we can to be helpful when there is discrimination and bullying and intimidation or name calling.”
One way some advocates are trying to fight anti-Asian bias is by encouraging bystanders to speak up when they witness wrongdoing. Distrust of law enforcement, language barriers, and immigration status sometimes prevent victims from coming forward and that’s why it’s important for others to step up, they said.
“A lot of the folks that are being targeted, they’re not going to be able to defend themselves or they’re not going to report it so we need to the community speak up for them,” Hires said.
President Biden addressed the racism, harassment, and hate crimes directed in a video marking the Lunar New Year.
“It’s simply wrong,” he said. “It’s a stain on our national character. Every person, no matter their race, background, religion, or language they speak, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Last month, Biden signed an executive order condemning anti-Asian racism and directed the Department of Justice to tackle the problem more aggressively.
Jessica “Jay” Wong, interim executive director of the Asian American Commission, said her community needs to hear more messages of support from local leaders.
“We need our leaders to show that they are actively working to make our community feel safe and not feel alone,” she said. “None of this should ever be tolerated.”