Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
As reports of harassment and assault against Asian Americans increase, community advocates are finding new ways to tackle the spread of xenophobia.
Even as San Franciscans are ordered to stay home, Max Leung and a group of volunteers regularly walk the streets of Chinatown. They take shifts, patrolling by car and on foot in groups of just two or three, and staying at least six feet from each other.
They’re part of the SF Peace Collective, a grassroots organization that Leung helped found shortly after the city became the first in the country to issue a shelter-in-place order back in March. The organization started after Leung and a few “ragtag” strangers in the popular Crimes Against Asians Facebook group connected over their frustration about recurring stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders being attacked and harassed, particularly older folks. After one person insisted on patrolling around San Francisco’s Chinatown, Leung and a few others decided to follow along.
With streets now mostly empty, their presence offers the community a sense of security. “Some storekeepers tell us they’re afraid when they lock up at night — that’s when they feel very vulnerable. So we’ll stand watch during closing time,” he says.
Now, the Peace Collective has roughly 30 volunteers and works closely with the city’s Chinatown Merchants Association. Just the other day, they were even able to intervene in a shoplifting incident.
Having grown up in Chinatown, Leung knows that anti-Asian racism isn’t new in America. But the creation of his organization is one of the many ways the Asian American community is responding to the intensifying xenophobia amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Like disease outbreaks of the past, the spread of the new coronavirus has become a vehicle for racism and scapegoating. Echoing the Yellow Peril rhetoric that helped shape the American public’s opinion of Chinese immigrants as “dirty” in the late-19th century, some of today’s political leaders and commentators have insisted on using “Chinese flu” and “Wuhan virus” to describe the coronavirus.
President Donald Trump regularly used “Chinese virus” in official White House briefings. It wasn’t until March 24, after the U.S. had confirmed more than 43,000 cases of Covid-19, that he publicly denounced any violence against Asian Americans, saying that the pandemic was “not their fault.” He later told Fox News that he’d stop using the term. “Everyone knows it came out of China,” he said, “but I decided we shouldn’t make any more of a big deal out of it.”
But for Asian Americans who are the victims of these stereotypes, “it’s too little, too late,” says Vivian Chang, civic engagement manager at the workers’ rights organization, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. “Once the lie has spread, it’s so much harder to catch.”
On March 27, ABC News obtained an FBI intelligence report warning local law enforcement that hate crimes against Asian Americans will likely surge as the pandemic evolves. That assessment, according to the report, is “based on the assumption that a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.” It also noted that, already, there had been a surge of hate crime reports nationwide. New York City’s Hate Crime Task Force, for example, had investigated 23 such cases by the beginning of April, compared to just four by the same time in 2019, according to the city police department.
Official hate crime statistics, though, fail to reflect the extent of discrimination, harassment and anxiety that Asian Americans — and the rest of the global Asian diaspora — have faced since the outbreak began in China at the start of 2020. Asian restaurants saw their business drop, children of Asian immigrants were subjected to bullying and public transit became a breeding ground for verbal assaults.
Leung worries, in particular, that the elderly are vulnerable targets of assault who may be less able to speak up about it. “A lot of elderly people in Chinatown live alone and don’t have the means to stockpile for two to three weeks, so they still do daily shopping,” he says. “As long as they are still out there, they are still at risk.”
That’s why it was crucial that the community had a way of tracking these incidents, says Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), which is based in California. Yet when her group sent a letter to the state attorney’s office asking for them to create an official reporting platform, they were told the state did not have the capacity. So, A3PCON teamed up with the Chinese for Affirmative Action and San Francisco State University’s Department of Asian Studies to launch their own community tool, called Stop AAPI Hate.
It went live on March 19, and within two weeks, it had collected over 1,100 reports. “Asian Americans are experiencing harrowing incidents of being yelled at, shunned and even physically attacked,” San Francisco State University professor Russell Jeung said during a virtual town hall of Asian American advocates last Thursday. “What’s striking is that a lot of time, people are being spat and coughed upon, so it has a sort of public health threat as well.” A breakdown of the reports showed that those particular types of harassment made up nearly 10% of all cases.
More common is verbal harassment, which made up nearly 70% of all reports. Another 25% of victims were shunned, 10% physically assaulted, while others were barred from establishments, discriminated against at work, or harassed online. The analysis also showed that women were twice as likely as men to be harassed. Most cases came from California (43%) and New York (29%), and because of shelter-in-place orders, most incidents took place inside grocery stores, pharmacies and big-box retail centers.
The data will help organizations like A3PCON better direct resources to local officials and community leaders to set up public education campaigns, train staff about avoiding and responding to discriminatory behavior and provide legal and public health assistance as needed. “It’s a very challenging time; we already fear for our own health and that of seniors, parents and grandparents,” she says. “Unfortunately, this is one more challenge” — with long-term consequences.
A recent data analysis from the Crisis Text Line showed that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had reached out to the free mental health support service to talk about the coronavirus at higher rates than other user demographics. And the fear of discrimination could erode trust in the local health systems. ”Whenever we characterize a particularly infectious disease with suggestions that it originates with certain people, you essentially ostracize them,” says Winston Wong, the medical director of community health at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. “Effectively, there is a potential for that group to avoid public interaction, including with public health officials and/or the clinical delivery system.” It could also go the other way, with non-Asian patients refusing the help of Asian American health care workers.
It wouldn’t be uncommon for civil rights groups to build a movement against the bigotry through mass gatherings, says Vivian Chang at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. “If we weren’t in this time, it would've looked like, ‘Oh Boston has a rally, and Houston and San Francisco would have a rally,’ and they would’ve been separate,” she says. “Maybe we’d see the pictures on Twitter.”
But with many major cities under stay-at-home orders, much of the advocacy has been pushed online. It’s turned into social media movements that call out the bigotry like #Hateisavirus and Wash the Hate, which encourages people to share their experience via a 20-second videos of them washing their hands. Campaigns like #SaveChinatown and #IWillEatWithYou aim to raise money for small businesses in Chinatowns in major cities like New York and San Francisco.
Meanwhile, groups like APALA are also experimenting with virtual rallies, town halls and community video calls, bringing dozens of organizations together to discuss the various social justice issues amid Covid-19. “A lot of us are thinking about what happens after a pandemic, and so for us, it’s helpful to break down barriers with partner organizations, with community leaders, or to spaces we weren’t in before,” Chang says. “APALA is being connected with Latinx and LGBT leaders, who want to bring our guidelines around Covid-19 to their communities.”
Chang’s organization is also working behind the scenes, drafting up anti-discrimination guidelines that immigrant and Asian American workers’ unions can use to hold employers accountable. APALA is also working with community leaders to address concerns that the rise in discrimination might exacerbate fears over the confidentiality of census data and discourage some from filling out this year’s form. Organization members in other cities are supporting the population in various ways. The Pittsburgh chapter is conducting wellness checks for workers, and in Massachusetts, they’ve set up a community relief fund.
In San Francisco, Max Leung, who’s been home fighting off a cold, has gone from patrolling to working behind the scenes to make sure the SF Peace Collective runs smoothly. He’s helping coordinate volunteers and talking with the local police department to ensure that operations are within the city’s social distancing guidelines.
He’s also been trying to spread the movement to other Chinatowns.
“We have people from all walks of life — students, retirees, techies, firefighters,” he says. “Anybody can do this.”