In Brooklyn, an Asian man is fighting for his life after being stabbed more than a dozen times in a suspected coronavirus-related hate crime. The attack isn’t the first of its kind, and with infection fears heightening around the globe, the number of racist incidents targeting the Asian community is on the rise.
The outbreak of coronavirus, or COVID-19, began in late 2019 and has resulted in thousands of deaths worldwide, many of them in China where the illness reportedly originated. But in addition to fears of infection, the virus has led to an uptick in discrimination, violence, vandalism, and racist incidents targeting the Asian community in the U.S. and abroad. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has made clear that people of Asian descent are no more likely to get infected than anyone else, but that hasn’t prevented widespread anxiety.
“There is still a lot of misinformation that has escalated stereotypes into harmful myths,” said Rita Pin Ahrens, executive director of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates. “Asian Americans have long been the target of racial harassment and discrimination. It didn’t start with coronavirus, but fear around the coronavirus, which we still don’t have enough information about, has amplified existing xenophobia. There’s a longstanding stereotype that Asian Americans are inherently ‘foreign’ to the United States, and bring foreign diseases with them. That’s the historical source of this xenophobia.”
The high level of panic has led to near-empty streets in Chinatown neighborhoods around the world. Amid concerns of the outbreak, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a publicized stop to San Francisco’s Chinatown to help show that the area is safe. Businesses in Chinatown neighborhoods, however, are still suffering: Chinese restaurants and Chinese-owned businesses have been dealing with a decline in clientele, and school field trips to Chinatown neighborhoods have been cancelled due to “safety concerns.”
In response to the climate of xenophobia and the rash of racist incidents, several groups and organizations in the U.S. are working to combat anti-Asian harassment, and direct the public toward reliable, nondiscriminatory resources to stay informed about the outbreak.
Discrimination in schools
To help combat school bullying, the U.S. Department of Education has called on educators to make an effort to stop harassment and pay special attention to students who might be targeted due to the outbreak. “Some individuals may regrettably turn toward racial or ethnic stereotypes,” the statement read. “Worse, ethnic harassment or bullying exacerbates hatred, harms students, and is never justified. These incidents can create a climate of misunderstanding and fear. This hurts all of us.”
OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates also released a statement urging schools to take proactive measures to prevent school bullying. The organization gave some remarks on Capitol Hill with members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), who released a statement denouncing the violence against the Asian American community, and encouraging leaders not to stoke xenophobia.
Calling out the media
The media has been called out on numerous occasions for its use of Chinatown photos and even photos from outside the U.S. when providing updates on the coronavirus. The Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) issued a statement expressing concerns about the rise in xenophobia, urging news outlets to be mindful when selecting photos for their coverage of the virus. In the statement, AAJA specifically draws attention to the careless use of Chinatown images and photos of people wearing face masks without offering proper context. They also discourage the use of the term “Wuhan virus,” since using geographic locations when discussing illnesses can stigmatize the people living there.
“Using pictures of Chinatown or Asian Americans wearing masks in coronavirus-related coverage is incredibly irresponsible,” said Pin Ahrens. “It is a catalyst for further racial harassment and attacks. We know the virus has been impacting people all over the world, of all ethnicities. Using an appropriate stock photo should be the bare minimum.”
“Reputable sources” are the key
Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) released a statement in January condemning the racism surrounding the virus. To help reduce the number of racist incidents, the organization is urging the public to rely on facts from reputable sources that are grounded in science, like the CDC, which has been encouraging people to visit their COVID-19 website to learn more about the stigmas surrounding the virus. In addition to asking for Asian Americans to report discrimination, AAJC is also encouraging them to go to standagainsthatred.org to report hate crimes and discriminatory incidents. The website has several resources available for those who have been targeted.
“We had been hearing from community groups that Asian Americans were being targeted for harassment and even physical attacks because they were suspected of, I guess, sharing the virus or transmitting the virus, which of course was very concerning to us,” said Marita Etcubañez, the director of strategic initiatives for AAJC. “I understand people are fearful, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to scapegoat.”
For ideas on how bystanders can offer support to the Asian community, AAJC is leaning on groups within their hate crime coalition, such as Hollaback, an organization that works to end harassment in all forms. The site gives tips on how to intervene and defuse potentially harmful situations, offers guidance on how to get help from people in authority, and shows how to check in on someone who is being harassed.
“I think their materials are really great because it recognizes that people have different privileges and different comfort levels when it comes to intervening,” Etcubanez said. “It just provides a range of options for folks so you can sort of choose what you’re comfortable doing. Some of the actions they recommend are pretty innocuous, but I think they have the potential to be really effective.”
Making new friends
One of the biggest gestures of solidarity has come from the Jewish community. In January, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs organized a letter signed by 74 Jewish organizations acknowledging the uptick in xenophobia toward the Chinese American community and offering support.
“[The letter] was all over social media, it was all over every Chinese domestic publication,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “They printed the whole letter. One of the things we did that worked really well was we had it translated into Chinese. I think that was very much appreciated, and it allowed it to show up in places where it otherwise wouldn’t have been seen.”
The letter was well-received by the Asian American community. In response, one Chinese American organization wrote a letter to the greater Jewish community to express their gratitude. “That letter meant a lot to us,” said Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans. “The Jewish and Chinese American community has had a close relationship over the years, but it wasn’t formal. When the letter was put together, it really moved us a step closer.”
Bernstein was surprised to learn groups in the Chinese community had penned an open letter to the Jewish community in 2018 after the deadly synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. More than 100 Chinese American organizations signed on to the letter, but it wasn’t broadly put onto the Jewish community’s radar at the time. “If we had had a stronger connection, they would have known exactly what to do and where to send that letter and we would have known that they were in our corner,” Bernstein said.
Shue says that as far as he knows, the Jewish community is the only group that has sent a public letter to show solidarity. In recent weeks, his organization sent letters to the Congressional Black Caucus and other members of Congress, urging them to be vigilant and to speak out on the rising discrimination against the Asian American community. Though Shue makes it clear he doesn’t want to burden other communities, he says offerings of public support can go a long way.
“Letters of this nature that David [Bernstein’s organization] has put together are really reassuring to [the] Chinese American community,” he said. “We are very edgy, we’re very nervous, and sometimes frustrated.”
Shue says the new virus adds “oil to the fire,” since it hit during an already contentious period for Chinese-U.S. relations. Chinese Americans, he says, have been caught in the crossfire. “That feeling of having a target on your back has been going on for two years,” he said. “If it gets any worse than it is now, I really think we may need emergency action from the other Asian and non-Asian communities.”