This is an outrage. This should lead to a national reckoning. But will it?
It’s a question the Black community asked itself after the senseless killing of George Floyd last May in police custody in Minneapolis. It’s now the question Asian Americans are asking themselves after the stunning murders of eight people — including six Asian American women — by a lone gunman in Georgia.
Violence and racist acts against Asian Americans are not new — see the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, Vincent Chin in Detroit. They’ve only been ratcheted up by a virus that emerged in China and a former president who stoked xenophobia to his own political gain.
History keeps repeating itself because Asian Americans suffer from structural invisibility. This country needs to realize that many groups are targets of hate, and discrimination against Asian Americans counts.
That lack of awareness was on full display when a captain in the Cherokee County sheriff’s office suggested the shootings were about misogyny and not racially motivated.
Really? Six victims were Asian American women at three spas, including one called Young’s Asian Massage. The accused has motive to quickly deny racist intent: Perhaps he didn’t want to be charged with additional hate crimes and face the death penalty.
The sheriff’s department fed into a vicious cycle of denial that keeps Asian Americans oppressed and unsafe. Far from being the model minority, Asian Americans have a higher poverty rate than white households. They have vastly different economic experiences, ranging from those whose families have been here for generations and are college educated to new immigrants without high school degrees.
The pandemic, coupled with racist rhetoric, has brought on a new wave of anti-Asian sentiment with incidents of racial harassment, violence, and bullying nearing 3,800 cases nationwide, a number that is woefully underreported, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that formed last year to track and respond to these matters. The group recorded 96 reports from Massachusetts between March 2020 and February 2021, among the highest in the nation.
This is a fraught moment for Asian Americans everywhere. The community is on edge, bringing us back to the 1980s when anti-Asian sentiment ran high as Japanese carmakers crippled the US auto industry. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American, became collateral damage when he was beaten to death with a baseball bat in Michigan by a Chrysler autoworker and his out-of-work stepson. The two white men received zero prison time.
Chin’s killing ushered in a new era of Asian American activism. The Atlanta murders must serve as another tipping point in this country to recognize that the racism against Asian Americans is deeper than most people realize and that we need to stamp it out.
As scared as I am about the current climate, I am also filled with more hope about how the future can be better.
The work begins within the Asian American community itself. We’re not used to acknowledging the pain of bias and harassment. Too often society doesn’t give us that space; that is reserved for other people of color. We’re viewed as perpetual foreigners. It is easier to compartmentalize and move on. As a Chinese American woman, I’m guilty of that myself and have become numb to racist tweets and reader comments.
But I’m inspired by Lisa Wong, the former Fitchburg mayor who is now the town manager of Winchester. On Thursday, she told me a story she only now feels comfortable sharing. When she was mayor, she had a stalker who threatened sexual violence and dismemberment, and who took pictures of her and left disturbing notes at City Hall that targeted her race. Wong got a restraining order, but only after a lot of effort.
Then last July, as she participated in a virtual Winchester select board meeting, another participant called her a racial slur. No one else at the meeting said anything. When she replayed the recording later, the epithet was clearly audible.
“The trauma is not only the incident of racism itself, but the lack of supports afterwards,” said Wong. “Too often there has been victim blaming and victim shaming.”
Wong took time off this week to process the Atlanta murders and to organize. On Wednesday, she finally reported the July epithet to Stop AAPI Hate at its website, stopaapihate.org/reportincident.
Her parents tried to dissuade her from going public because they feared it could incite more harassment. But to Wong, the alternative isn’t any better. “My silence has not made me any safer,” she said.
This time, however, it can’t be Asian Americans fighting alone. We need allies.
After Floyd’s killing and the nationwide protests that followed, an array of groups and companies issued statements of support. Would they do the same for us? When I looked at my inbox on Wednesday night, my heart sank. The statements were almost exclusively from Asian American advocacy groups.
By Thursday, however, I could feel the tide turning. From nonprofits to Corporate America to my children’s elementary school principal, we are being seen.
From Barr Foundation president Jim Canales: “Today, we speak out against this violence and to express our grief in solidarity with the families and loved ones of those whose lives were taken. And we speak for action, and for investing in leaders engaging our Asian and Asian American communities in determining solutions to assure they are respected, protected, safe, and supported.”
From the Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston: “Challenging white supremacy must include combating anti-Asian violence, bias, and hate. This also entails combating efforts to invisibilize Asian-Americans . . . Lawyers for Civil Rights calls on local, state, and national leaders — as well as local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies — to address this epidemic of violence against Asian-Pacific Islander communities.”
From Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce president Jim Rooney: “As the country and the Commonwealth look to vaccinations and a new beginning, we can’t look away from the Asian American community. Moving forward means prioritizing healing from the pandemic, suffering, loss, economic hardships and acts of divisive racism so we can all work, live, and thrive in peace together.”
This time can be different for one other reason: Asian Americans have power and influence like we never have before. Vice President Kamala Harris is a Black and Asian American woman, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that President Biden in a primetime speech marking the one-year anniversary of the pandemic condemned hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Biden and Harris plan to be in Atlanta on Friday to meet with Asian American leaders, and US flags on federal buildings have been lowered to half-staff through Monday to honor the victims of the Georgia massacre.
Locally, Asian American politicians are gaining ground. Michelle Wu, a city councilor and past council president, is a formidable candidate for Boston mayor who has a real shot of winning. Then there’s Nina Liang who presides over the Quincy City Council as its president. And on Beacon Hill, the House Asian caucus is now the largest caucus of color: Tackey Chan, Donald Wong, Paul Schmid III, Rady Mom, Tram Nguyen, and Maria Duaime Robinson.
This time needs to be different. It has to be.
Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, offers a rallying cry: “We are Asian Americans, and we are not going to take it anymore.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.