[OPINION] Being Asian American in the time of coronavirus racism, hate speech and hate crimes

Photo by Rolande PG on Unsplash

THE majority of folks who experience racism are African Americans. But the pandemic has seen an upturn in incidents of racism, hate speech and hate crimes against Asians largely from the coronavirus’ association with Asia, particularly China, where the virus is said to have originated.

Many of these incidents, especially hate speech and related behavior, have remained largely unreported and invisible. This is because speech, including hate speech, is protected by the First Amendment unless it incites violence.

Most law enforcement agencies including the FBI do not track hate speech incidents. The database they keep focuses on hate crimes, crimes motivated by bias against the victim’s race/ethnicity, gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation or disability. They are bias-motivated crimes against persons or property.

I will use the term “hate speech” to refer not just to speech acts, but to hate-motivated behavior that does not rise to the level of a crime. For example, I was trying to cautiously maneuver out of a tight parking lot, when another driver yelled out, “go back to where you came from, chink, and take your virus with you.” I have heard this “chink” racist slur before, so I did not even bother to look, and after a slight pause, continued to carefully maneuver my car out of the parking lot.

During this pandemic, many of us have most likely experienced racial slurs, and bias-motivated behavior. An Asian sales clerk reported being asked to replace a fashion face-mask with another one like it, after she had scanned it for check-out. When she asked why, the customer said, “you touched it.” Although jarring, we do not normally take the time to report such incidents; we just move on.

Precisely because we do not even bother to report these incidents, or call out the perpetrators, perpetrators feel safe — the sales clerk could have simply stopped assisting the customer, called her supervisor and explained that she cannot continue to assist the customer, letting the supervisor complete the transaction. This emboldens them the next time to escalate the attack to something more consequential, such as the recent unprovoked attack on an elderly Filipina riding a San Diego Trolley, or the recent attack on a Filipino riding the L train to work in New York. He was slashed across his face with a box cutter that required almost 100 stitches at a hospital. Both these incidents were reported in the Asian Journal.

Hate speech is bias-motivated behavior, different from a hate crime only by a matter of degree and consequences. The recent rise of bias-motivated attacks on Asians may stem from ignorance, and misinformation about the coronavirus. But the underwhelming response by Asians to such bias-motivated attacks may also be emboldening perpetrators to escalate this behavior the next time around. Like sexual harassment, the lack of consequences from bias-motivated aggression emboldens the perpetrator towards more daring behavior.

There is another factor that may explain the rise of hate speech and crimes against Asians. Anti-immigrant sentiment and the erosion of white privilege through demographic change.

There is a latent strain of anti-immigrant sentiment, which gets activated when circumstances draw attention to immigrants. The recent rise in Europe’s anti-immigrant feelings coincides with the massive refugee influx from Africa and the Middle East. This feeling did not abate until a picture of a drowned 3-year-old refugee boy became viral prompting increased international concern over refugees.

About a century ago, Asian immigrants were the object of racist and anti-immigrant sentiments when their ‘alien’ numbers made Americans uncomfortable: the Chinese exclusion act of 1882; the 1907 “Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan” where Japan agreed to curtail Japanese immigration to the U.S.; the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 which banned all immigration from Asia but excluded Filipinos since the Philippines was a colonial territory; and finally, the Filipino exclusion act, also known as the Philippine Independence Act of 1934, which severely restricted immigration from the Philippines to no more than 50 per year, ending unrestricted Filipino migration to the U.S. Carlos Bulosan poignantly captures this anti-immigrant sentiment when he wrote, “I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And the crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”

The latest rise in anti-Asian sentiment appears to coincide with the COVID-19 pandemic believed to have originated in China. The pandemic has tarred Asians, including Filipinos, and may explain the recent hate-crime incidents against them.

The erosion of white privilege due to immigration and increasing demographic diversity may also explain the upturn in hate crimes.

When I arrived in the late 1960s for graduate studies at UCLA, Los Angeles and California were predominantly white demographically. This was illustrated by food. If you wanted Chinese food, go to Chinatown. Japanese food, Japan town or Little Tokyo, and Mexican food, at least the better versions of it, required a trip to East LA. Nowadays, one can find noodles, taco, and sushi places everywhere. Magazine covers and television ads featured only white faces back then. Now, car and even toothpaste ads feature ethnically diverse actors.

During the 1970s onto the 1980s, I recall being uncomfortable going into grocery stores in Beverly Hills—you get stared at. Today, I do not think twice about going for groceries in tony neighborhoods; I know that Asians and Middle Easterners live and shop there, and I can shop incognito, so to speak. Now think of Caucasians who are long-term residents of these neighborhoods. If I now feel much more comfortable walking around there, it’s not hard to imagine a growing discomfort among some whites in seeing their neighborhoods become more diverse. This sense of growing discomfort was graphically illustrated not long ago when a white woman called the police to report a kidnapping of a toddler by a Latino man (LA Times Oct. 2, 2020). It turns out the toddler was his grandson—the caller and the man were actually neighbors, living almost across from each other on the same street.

Most Americans have welcomed this increased diversity, as it brings a global smorgasbord of cultural offerings, especially food, to American cities. But there are a few who seem to be uncomfortable with this loss of white cultural dominance and the erosion of white privilege. They push back through microaggressions with hate speech, and more violent crimes.

What can we do?

Asians have largely tried to ignore the microaggressions through silence, by just ignoring them and carrying on. This is ineffective, as it encourages bolder and bolder acts of racist aggression. Taking a page from the #MeToo movement, I believe that the way forward is to make anti-Asian hate speech and hate crime visible.

We need to be vigilant about anti-Asian aggressions, whether they are at the micro-level, and especially if they rise to the level of a crime. Let’s take the time to document them (this is essential), and post them on social media, and report them to authorities, mainstream news, and our community papers. Several Asian groups offer resources for victims and for reporting on hate-motivated aggressions. Stop AAPI Hate focuses on Asians. If you have been a victim of bias-motivated aggression, report it to make it visible.

Silence about hate-motivated aggressions only emboldens perpetrators. Making hate motivated-aggressions visible creates a cultural climate of consciousness and support where these acts will not be tolerated. It’s a step toward eliminating white supremacy and racism in American society.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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Enrique de la Cruz is Professor Emeritus of Asian American Studies at Cal State University, Northridge.

Enrique de la Cruz

*** Enrique B. dela Cruz, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at the California State University-Northridge. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy (Mathematical Logic) from UCLA and has written on Asian Americans, Filipino-Americans and Philippine-U.S. relations.  You can e-mail him at [email protected]

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