A week after the fatal shootings at three massage parlours in the Atlanta area, I am still waiting for the police to declare it a hate crime. Six of the eight people killed by gunman Robert Aaron Long were Asian women, but the shooter’s claim that he was somehow making up for his “addiction” to sex seems to have been given more weight than the fact that the majority of his victims shared Asian ethnicity.
Coming soon after widely reported harassment and attacks on Asian Americans in California and New York, the Atlanta killings at first had a numbing effect on me. Then there was anger at the police. But there is some consolation in the fact that this senseless crime has raised awareness of anti-Asian hate and harassment in the US.
For lack of a better word, the issue is now mainstream. Across major cities around the country, peaceful rallies attended by people of various ethnicities and all ages dominated the news. Many of the faces shown had so much sadness and insecurity in them that I felt their anguish and fear.
As a woman of Asian and Pacific Island ethnicity living in the Bay Area of San Francisco – where a Thai man was killed recently – I find the recent unprovoked violence alarming. Until last week, the most common motivation for the surge was thought to be linked to the pandemic.
According to a paper published by the law firm Paul, Weiss and the Asian American Bar Association of New York, “Across the country, there were more than 2,500 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents related to Covid-19 between March and September 2020. And this number understates the actual number of anti-Asian hate incidents because most incidents are not reported.”
The vast majority consist of verbal harassment and name-calling, often in the transport system and online, but the report also gives examples of some very serious physical assaults. Complaints of anti-Asian hate incidents to the New York City Police rose 20 percent in the second quarter of 2020 and fell back to 5 percent in the third quarter.
This reflects a historical pattern in America of flare-ups against Chinese or other ethnic groups during times of economic downturn, war, and disease.
Has Covid-19 brought to the surface a hidden bigotry many of us might have suspected was lurking underneath? Asian Americans have become scapegoats for what seems to have been an official cover-up in a country that most of us have no links to whatsoever. And now with the Atlanta slayings, things have become very serious for us.
The discussion of race is nothing new in America. It has been dissected, written about and panel discussions on the subject abound. In my experience, it can be safely discussed at dinner tables, unlike the trickier subject of religion and politics. But we Asians are generally missing from these discussions.
We are assumed to be the model minorities who are doing well. My own children have pointed this out to me. We tend to be reluctant, for cultural reasons, to raise a fuss. And, of course, we are not the only ones to suffer attacks from disturbed and angry people.
But targeting of the elderly, as in some recent incidents, is especially painful for us. It is unbearable to watch videos of such attacks as I think of my own frail parents. Their generation tends to stick with their own, so I imagine that the fear of a stranger hurting them will compound their sense of being different.
Traditionally, our elders are treated with respect and reverence. Their oral stories are often repeated as pearls of wisdom in each family. What would grandma say or do in this situation? The Paul, Weiss report notes that our elders remind us to bring honour to the family.
“Internalized, this could mean not revealing you have been a victim, not attracting controversy and remedying the situation privately and on your own. The image of Asian Americans is quiet, passive and docile.”
I mean, I live this! Seriously, is this why we become easy targets?
As long as I’ve lived in the US, but especially during the early years, I shied away from whatever made me feel my minority status. I don’t look like the people in my adopted country; I don’t talk like them. But through the years, notably during a career at Stanford University – a diverse place – I came to forget that I’m a woman of colour each time I entered a room. There was a consciousness and unconsciousness that maybe others of colour can relate to. This took many years, although my teams were always welcoming. Yet not everyone will find themselves in my shoes.
My own children have grown up with diversity. My daughter realized she was Filipino during kindergarten because of multicultural day at her school. She and her brothers have awareness and their friends are from various ethnicities. So far it has not held them back or made them feel vulnerable. Do they now have to think twice about walking down the street for fear of being harassed – or worse?
There is ongoing debate on the best way forward. From where I write, an awareness of this issue is a powerful beginning.
In a January Memorandum from the White House President Biden assumed federal responsibility for combatting racism and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the US. Since the Atlanta shootings, the President and Vice President Harris have visited the city and met with Asian groups and their leaders.
The demand and cry for attention in the form of legislation is growing louder and gaining traction. Encouragingly, there are also commissions, outreach and education efforts for the impacted communities. In February, after a brutal attack on a 91-year-old man in the city’s Chinatown, a young man in Oakland organized volunteers to accompany the elderly when they walk about. That’s the kind of creativity and spirit of service we need to see.
After the events in Atlanta, there is simply no way this issue will go away or be forgotten in history. At least, that is my sincerest hope.
Asian America has its share of social failures and drop-outs, but its diverse membership still constitutes the best-educated, highest-income, and fastest-growing racial group in the nation. In other words, we are collectively a national asset. The Asian success story is not just about hard work; it is, more importantly, about family values.
According to these sociologists, “Asian Americans are significantly more likely to forge strong and stable marriages than any other racial or ethnic group in the nation—including whites—even after accounting for their superior education and income.”
Arguably, there is nothing America needs more today than strong, stable and loving families. America needs us, as much as we need America. Let’s get over envy and hate and start looking after each other.
P.S. This article was inspired and is dedicated to my children, nephews and nieces. The next generation of Asian Americans. May you have a positive and meaningful contribution in all the rooms you enter.