Asked in a poll to name a prominent Asian American, the top answer was ‘don’t know.’ Wake up, America

Despite Vice President Kamala Harris's Asian ancestry, many poll respondents omitted her name when asked to name a prominent Asian American. Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Prominent Asian Americans have been hard to ignore: Kamala Harris became not only the first woman to serve as vice president but also the first Black person and first Asian American. Andrew Yang, fresh off a 2020 White House run, is now among the front-runners in the New York City mayoral race. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, has become even more of a fixture in living rooms because of the pandemic.

Yet in a recent online survey of 2,766 American adults in which participants were asked to name a well-known Asian American, the most common answer was “don’t know” (42 percent), followed by Jackie Chan (11 percent), and Bruce Lee (9 percent).

There’s only one response to the fact that an aging martial arts movie star (who is not even American) and martial arts legend who’s been dead nearly 50 years make the biggest impression: My fellow Americans, crawl out of your closet of ignorance.

“Even though we’re in the news, we’re still not top of mind for most Americans,” said Norman Chen, cofounder and chief executive of Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change, or LAAUNCH, the nonprofit that commissioned the survey. “Asian Americans remain largely invisible in US society.”

The survey, released on Monday, is among the most comprehensive of its kind to assess attitudes about Asian Americans, who number close to 23 million in the United States, including nearly half a million in Massachusetts. They are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States and Massachusetts. The survey results arrive as members of the Asian American community reel from a frightening rise in violence and hate crimes tied to the pandemic and former President Trump’s racist rants that sought to place blame for COVID-19 on China.

Chen, a health care entrepreneur based in the San Francisco area, started LAAUNCH with a group of Asian American business leaders last fall as a way to address the root cause of growing anti-Asian sentiment. The nonpartisan organization tapped leading Asian American scholars, including University of Massachusetts Boston professor Paul Watanabe, to help craft the survey, which was conducted between March 29 and April 14 with a nationally representative sample and margin of error of less than 2 percent.

Among the survey’s other major findings:

- About 80 percent of Asian Americans report they are discriminated against in the United States, compared with 90 percent of Black Americans and 73 percent of Hispanic Americans.

- Hardly a week goes by without a viral video showing an attack against an elderly Asian American, yet 37 percent of white Americans, 30 percent of Black Americans, and 24 percent of Hispanic Americans said they were unaware of the increase in assaults, hate crimes, or other forms of racism against Asian Americans over the past year.

- The divide in attitudes is more pronounced along political lines: 46 percent of Republicans reported they did not know about growing anti-Asian hate and violence compared with 22 percent of Democrats. More than a quarter of Republicans believe COVID-19 terms used by Trump, such as “China Virus,” “Wuhan Virus,” or “Kung Flu,” are appropriate compared to only 6 percent of Democrats.

- Fewer than 1 in 4 Asian Americans feel respected in this country. Meanwhile, close to 1 in 4 white Americans do not believe that anti-Asian American racism is significant enough of a problem that it needs to be addressed.

- Asians have been immigrating to the United States for about two centuries, yet 20 percent of Americans believe Asian Americans are more loyal to their countries of origin than to the United States.

- Respondents were most comfortable with an Asian American as their doctor, friend, or co-worker (90 percent and above), but less comfortable with an Asian American as their boss (85 percent), future son- or daughter-in-law (83 percent), or as president of the United States (73 percent).

Watanabe, the UMass Boston professor, said the results highlight how Asian Americans are the major ethnic group people know the least about. The lack of awareness, he added, does not go unnoticed by Asian Americans, who seem acutely attuned to it, based on how many reported they do not feel respected.

Watanabe said the real power of the project will come from conducting the survey annually, which LAAUNCH is planning to do, to gauge how attitudes change — or don’t.

“It’s significant in creating a base line,” he said.

Generations of Asian Americans have been taught to assimilate and fly below the radar in American society. That’s how my parents raised me as a first-generation Chinese American. But when our elders are attacked, our children bullied in school, and our workers killed in mass shootings, that’s no longer a strategy for survival.

This is not only the time for Asian Americans to step up and speak up, but also a moment for all of America to face a reckoning. To create a truly equitable society, we have to see Asian Americans as who they really are: Americans, not foreigners in their own home. We all need to learn about the long history of Asian Americans in America. Only then, will people understand how this wave of racism and violence is not new.

There is even a pattern to it all. Consider that the worst periods for Asian Americans coincide with when the country has been at a low ebb: In 1942, just after the United States entered World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt imprisoned 120,000 people of Japanese descent, including children and US citizens, in a misguided effort to prevent espionage; in 1982, as sales of American-made autos sagged, two white autoworkers using a baseball bat beat Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, to death, wrongly blaming him for the growing dominance of Japanese car companies; and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, South Asian Americans endured racial profiling and became victims of hate crimes, wrongly linking them to terrorist acts.

Now America has hit another bottom, a never-ending pandemic that has cost lives and livelihoods, and we’re once again scapegoating Asian Americans. We can’t keep having history repeat itself.

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