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But we do know that hate crimes against Asian Americans have been on the rise since the start of the Covid pandemic in the US.
Asian Americans have reported being targeted at least 500 times in the first two months of this year, according to the organization Stop AAPI Hate with a total of 3,795 complaints received over the past year. The majority of these — 68% — were verbal harassment, while 11% involved physical assaults.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the murder of an 87-year-old Thai immigrant Vichar Ratanapakdee as well as the brutal assault of a 67-year old man in San Francisco not named publicly, and the beating of 27-year-old Denny Kim in LA’s Koreatown, who says his attackers shouted “You have the Chinese Virus, go back to China.”
In 2020, there were 29 racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans in New York City, according to the NYPD — 24 of which are described as having “coronavirus motivation.”
This rising tide of violence led many minds toward a racial motive after news of the Atlanta-area killings broke.
It’s a fact that the first outbreak of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan, China. But pandemics don’t care about race or politics or even national borders. That doesn’t stop racial scapegoating. We saw a variation on the theme during the 1918 influenza epidemic, which some labeled the “Spanish flu” — and which is actually believed to have generated from a US Army base in Kansas — when immigrants and Native Americans were baselessly blamed for spreading the disease in western US cities.
That’s why there was a pushback on attempts to label this pandemic the China Flu — or “Kung-Flu” — by President Donald Trump, members of his administration, and allies in right wing media. The point wasn’t political correctness run amuck — it was an awareness of the ugly impulses it could unleash.
We’ve seen too many contemporary examples of extreme rhetoric leading to violence. The El Paso shooter — who killed 22 and wounded 24 others who were shopping at a local Walmart — told investigators he drove 11 hours so he could target Mexicans, echoing extremist talking points about a “Hispanic invasion.”
There’s a lot we don’t know about the alleged Atlanta spa shooter at this point — and motivation can be difficult to distill. It should not need to be said that his embrace of God and guns on social media does not signify anything negative in and of itself. Those are both loved by millions of law-abiding Americans. It could turn out that he was motivated by a more personal form of sickness that led him to kill.
But these impulses rarely incubate in a vacuum — and we have seen anti-immigrant and anti-Asian sentiments stirred up in our society, especially in recent months.
According to an analysis by the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Asian American hostility and conspiracy theories spiked 85% on Twitter in the 12 hours after Trump’s Covid diagnosis.
Hate speech has been a growing problem in the USA, with a new report from the ADL showing that white supremacist propaganda nearly doubled in 2020 to the highest levels they’ve ever recorded. Much of it featured “White supremacist language with a patriotic slant” in an effort to “normalize white supremacist message and bolster recruitment while targeting minority groups.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an threat assessment on domestic violent extremism, which Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described “greatest threat” to the US. The report highlights the particular challenges of confronting lone wolf extremists, who Mayorkas described as being “willing and able to take those ideologies and execute on them in unlawful, illegal, violent ways.” These threats are not new to the US but they are again on the rise.
America is a nation of immigrants. We are the most diverse large nation on earth, which we should count as our greatest renewable resource. Studies show that immigrants are far more likely than native born Americans to start businesses and more than a third of the Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in the sciences were awarded to immigrants. Asian Americans are not only the fastest growing immigrant group in the US, but they also have higher rates of college degrees and income than the population at large.
But Asian Americans have also been part of the American tapestry for a long time — and it’s not the first time they have experienced periods of profound discrimination. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a notorious law that codified anti-Asian discrimination back in 1882, making immigration illegal and barring existing Chinese-Americans from becoming citizens. It was repealed in 1943– at roughly the same time that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established Japanese-American internment camps.
This is a horrific side of American history — but it needs to be remembered so that we do not repeat it.
Discrimination does not define us as a nation. A decade after the internment camps, America elected its first Asian American Senator, Hiram Fong of Hawaii, the son of Chinese immigrants. He was joined a few years later by Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Japanese American who had fought with the celebrated 442nd Infantry during World War Two and served in the Senate for a half century.
A fundamental commitment to inclusiveness and equality under the law is the alternate American tradition, fitfully pursued but ultimately making measurable progress over time. As Frederick Douglass declared in a great 1869 speech in which he defended the rights of Asian Americans who were already coming under attack, we are — at our best — a “composite nation.”
“We are a country of all extremes, ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world,” Douglass said. “There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are eternal, universal and indestructible.”
In the face of prejudice and violence even today, that commitment to equal rights, under law, is all that is required to recognize injustice and demand a different path – consistent with American ideals, not our fears.
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