Anti-Asian discrimination continues to surge amid pandemic

  • MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE

  • State Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE

  • Members of Nam Pai Kung Fu Academy participate in Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, Feb. 2, 2020. AP FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/17/2021 5:52:41 PM

When state Rep. Tackey Chan, one of the first Asian American members of the Massachusetts House, heard high school students in his district talk about the discrimination they have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, he could relate.

Strangers shouted racial slurs at him and others asked if he ate cats or dogs, said Chan, D-Quincy.

“In government, it continues to be a challenge for Asian Americans to be recognized as an important part of our community,” he said.

Discrimination and attacks against Asian Americans have surged in the past year in the United States, including Massachusetts, since the start of the pandemic. Former President Donald Trump piled on, referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus” and “kung flu,” terms gleefully embraced by his followers.

The national organization Stop AAPI Hate received 67 reports from Massachusetts of anti-Asian discrimination from March 19 through Dec. 31, 2020, according to data released in February. Since the pandemic began, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. say it has become more common for people to express racist views toward Asian Americans, according to a Pew Research study.

In an incident at Massachusetts General Hospital reported to the organization, a man said, “Why are you Chinese people killing everyone, what is wrong with you, why the f are you killing us?”

In another report, a person said a passenger yelled out his window and asked, “Hey, which one of you got Corona? You? You? You?” Another pedestrian said a white man glared down at her as she was getting off a train and said, “You dirty, disgusting chink.”

Farther afield, the shooting deaths Tuesday of eight, mostly women of Asian descent, at Atlanta-area massage businesses raised fears that the victims were targeted because of their ethnicity. Police who had interviewed the sole suspect in the killings suggested Wednesday, however, that the shootings may not have been racially motivated. (Story, Page A1)

Model minorities

Stop AAPI Hate was launched in March 2020 to track and respond to incidents of hate, violence, harassment and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, according to its website.

Chan said society does not always view Asian Americans as people of color who experience racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination. He said many people stereotype Asian Americans as model minorities who are hard-working and immune from harassment.

“One of the greatest myths out there is that Asians are quiet and don’t say anything,” Chan said. “It’s easy for one to say that, but if you speak and no one hears you, the easy excuse is that you never said anything at all.”

Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese Affirmative Action and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said local government officials should condemn anti-Asian racism. The federal government should invest in mental health resources, educational programs focused on anti-Asian racism and prevention programs, she said.

“It’s really important that as constituents, you contact your elected officials and say, ‘What are you doing to respond to this surge in anti-Asian racism and discrimination?’ and ask them to make sure that they are working with community-based organizations who are doing this work,” Choi said.

A bill to expand Massachusetts’ hate crime statute to include harassment is pending in the Legislature. In order for an incident to be charged as a hate crime, law enforcement officials need evidence that the action was racially motivated.

Choi said hate crime laws do not deter people from being racist and the criminal justice system should not be used to address societal issues. Community mediation or conflict resolution are good alternative approaches, she said.

Astronomical levels

Choi said anti-Asian racism and xenophobia are not new. She mentioned the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that made it illegal for Chinese workers to immigrate into the U.S. and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II when thousands were held in camps.

“The pandemic has led to astronomical levels of hate that we haven’t seen before – certainly not in my lifetime,” Choi said.

State Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, is working with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to reform the hate crime law and said increased representation of Asian Americans in the Legislature is imperative.

“Because there are so many legislators, it falls on us as the few legislators to continue to speak out about this publicly so that people know that this is in fact happening,” she said.

Jessica (Jay) Wong, interim executive director of the Massachusetts Asian American Commission, said many people do not report hate crime incidents because of language barriers and fears surrounding law enforcement and retaliation. She said recounting racial violence and discrimination often takes a toll on a person’s mental health and racism is a public health issue.

Wong said state legislators need to invest more in human translators who can understand different cultures and mental health resources. She also said government officials should be publicly denouncing discriminatory acts.

“Some of our highest authorities have been quite silent, and I understand that COVID and crushing the vaccination is the number one priority,” she said. “But silence is compliance.”

The Asian American Commission is planning to co-sponsor a public virtual town hall on March 25 at 6 p.m.with the Massachusetts House Asian Caucus and other organizations to provide an opportunity for Asian-American legislators to hear directly from community members. The event will also bestreamed on Facebook Live. The commission also has created a reporting system to track local hate incidents.

Wong said the data and tracking system help government leaders gain a deeper understanding of what is happening in their communities.

State Rep. Nika Elugardo, D-Boston, and Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, D-Somerville, filed a bill to address anti-racism, equity and justice in education.

The bill will advance “racial justice through establishment of a new permanent commission and public-private trust fund to support anti-racism efforts, curriculum development, professional development, and educator diversity in our public schools.”

Chan said there’s a poor history of Asian American issues taught in schools. He said that in order for communities to fully address the discrimination, people need to recognize Asian Americans as people of color and understand the history of racism against these communities.

Kami Rieck writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.


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