Editorial: Hate and discrimination during COVID-19

The ISD Editorial Board discusses the history of discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and how it impacts present-day events during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Editorial Board

There were over 3,700 hate incidents against Asian Americans reported in the last year. 

The organization Stop AAPI Hate, formed in March of last year, collects data on discrimination, harassment and hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

According to a report released by Stop AAPI Hate in March, verbal harassment, shunning and physical assault comprises the three largest proportions of the incidents reported in the last year (68 percent, 20.5 percent and 11.1 percent, respectively). 

Across the nation, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by nearly 150 percent in 2020.

In 2021, much of the anti-Asian violence, of which there has been yet another recent increase, is centered in the Bay Area — particularly in Oakland’s Chinatown and San Francisco. 

It’s important to note that these are only reported crimes and incidents. As Stop AAPI Hate noted, these represent only a small portion of the number of incidents that actually occur. How can we really quantify hate?

The United States has a long and complex history of anti-Asian sentiments, which often goes unacknowledged in discussions of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. This, unfortunately, is not a new phenomenon. 

“This yellow peril fear [is] resurrected during times of war, pandemic and economic downturn,” Russell Jeung, professor at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, told the Today Show. “The same fears and stereotypes … [are] always sort of lurking underneath.”

For the perpetrators of anti-Asian violence and crimes, the pandemic — and the racist rhetoric from our nation’s leaders — are simply opportunities to act on their internal views of Asian Americans as bearers of disease

When former President Donald Trump chose to emphasize the virus’ link to China, he and his administration exacerbated xenophobic and racially motivated tensions in the U.S. 

Trump and his political supporters consistently referred to coronavirus as the “China virus,” the “Kung flu” and even the “Wuhan plague.

This goes against all guidelines from the World Health Organization, which, in 2015, warned against naming viruses after places or people. Yes, there is a history of doing so, such as the Spanish Flu, but these guidelines do not retroactively change previously used names. There is evidence that names such as the “Swine Flu” and “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” had negative impacts on the people directly affected

History shows us that racism and xenophobia directly follow disease outbreaks. The rhetoric used by Trump and his administration not only emphasized the virus’ link to China — thereby increasing racism against Chinese Americans specifically — but also inflamed the xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans that historically has always been present in our country.

In January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order condemning “racism, xenophobia and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”

“The Federal Government must recognize that it has played a role in furthering these xenophobic sentiments through the actions of political leaders, including references to the COVID-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin,” the statement reads. “These actions defied the best practices and guidelines of public health officials and have caused significant harm to AAPI families and communities that must be addressed.”

This is an incredibly important change from the incendiary, racist rhetoric of the previous administration. But it’s not going to change what’s already occurring. Hate crimes against Asian Americans continue to rise in major cities. 

It’s easier to encourage hate than to prevent it. 

What our leaders say and do matters, but it’s also not the only thing that matters. Legislation and rhetoric, while important, does not always have power over people. 

The AAPI community has experienced hate and tragedy time and time again. The last year has resulted in increased discrimination, hate and violence.

On March 16, a 21-year-old white man opened fire in three spas in Atlanta, killing eight people and injuring one more. 

Of the eight victims, six were women of Asian descent, with four victims being ethnic Koreans.  

The Atlanta police have consistently stated that it’s too early to know the shooter’s motivation (and infamously said that the shooter was having “a really bad day” before he murdered eight people). 

It is important not to speculate too much in the aftermath of a mass casualty, but it’s hard not to draw conclusions when six of eight victims were women of Asian descent. That’s not a coincidence; that’s a target.

According to law enforcement, the gunman himself said this was a result of a “sex addiction,” not racism. The implication that it has to be one or the other — racism or misogyny — directly contradicts the long history of racialized misogyny experienced by Asian women in America.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, shared her experience as an immigrant from Korea with the New York Times.

“I’ve experienced racism. I’ve experienced sexism. But I never experienced the two like that as I have when I came to the United States,” she said. 

How could anyone exclude race as a motive in these killings? Racism and misogyny are often intertwined, particularly against Asian American women. It’s impossible to separate the two in this situation. 

We must continue to focus on the victims of this horrific crime. The gunman’s motives matter, but he himself does not. 

The eight victims of this shooting were deeply loved by friends and family. 

Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, is survived by her two children and her husband, Mario Gonzalez. Her friend described her as a friendly person “who seemed to have a light around her that just drew you in.”

Hyun Jung Grant, 51, was a single mother to two sons who “dedicated her whole life to raising us,” her son Randy Park said.  

Xiaojie Tan, 49, who also went by Emily, owned Young’s Asian Spa and is survived by her daughter and husband. “She did everything for me and for the family. She provided everything,” her daughter, Jamie Webb, said

Paul Michels, 54, lived in Atlanta for 26 years with his wife, Bonnie. “We did everything together growing up,” his brother John, 52, said about him.

Yong Ae Yue, 63, came from South Korea in the 1970s with her husband, Mac Peterson. “She was a good mother,” her husband told the New York Times. “She was always there for her kids.” 

Suncha Kim, 69, was a grandmother and had been married for more than 50 years: “Suncha was such a strong, loving presence in all of our lives, and we miss her so much,” an organizer said on behalf of her family

Soon Chung Park, 74, spent most of her life in New York before moving to Atlanta. Her son-in-law, Scott Lee, said she was very healthy. “Everybody said she was going to live past 100 years old,” he told the Post

Daoyou Feng, 44, was described as “kind and quiet” by a friend of Tan in an interview

Remember their names and read more about their lives. We must continue to fight against racism, misogyny and xenophobia every day. 

Read more about efforts to help the victims’ families here