In February of 2020, Covid-19 had not yet hit American shores.
But even before the pandemic emerged in the U.S., Manju Kulkarni, executive director of the AAPI Equity Alliance, noticed a menacing trend: the rise in hate-motivated violence and speech targeting Asian Americans, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s xenophobic remarks on the origins of the virus and its carriers. “The China virus,” proclaimed Trump. “Kung Flu,” he stated, to his cheering fans on the campaign trail.
The first incident Kulkarni became aware of was a young boy who was physically and verbally attacked at his school in a bias-motivated incident. The AAPI Equity Alliance worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to address the crime.
Confronting bias, head on
Kulkarni herself was exposed to racism as she visited a hair salon. “Two white women were making really racist comments about Asian Americans: their food habits, and how they brought the virus on.” Kulkarni’s stylist, who is Japanese American, was the apparent target of the women’s remarks.
“I confronted them, and told them they were factually incorrect,” Kulkarni told Ethnic Media Services. “They said I had misunderstood them,” she added, noting that the women summarily dismissed her concerns.
Then out of the blue Kulkarni received a call from Russell Jeung, a sociologist at San Francisco State University. Immediately, Kulkarni and Jeung, along with Cynthia Choi, co executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, embarked on collecting signatures for a letter they presented to former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, asking his office to collect and share data on hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Stop AAPI hate
Becerra, according to Kulkarni, said his office was not in the business of doing data collection, and relied instead on local law enforcement agencies. The trio decided it was time to do some data collection of their own. On March 19, 2020, they launched the web portal stopAAPIHate.org.
The portal allows victims of hate crimes or bias-related incidents to self-report the occurrence, in one of several Asian languages. To date, the site has collected more than 11,000 instances of bias-related crimes and incidents.
This year, the three organizations — along with 98 community-based organizations and 49 ethnic media outlets — received a portion of a $166 million grant from the state of California, aimed at combating anti Asian American hate. In partnership with the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs, the campaign is being managed by the California State Library. Grantees support the public awareness efforts of the Stop the Hate Program administered by the California Department of Social Services, which provides support and services to victims and survivors of hate incidents and hate crimes.
“I want to express my deep gratitude to the AAPI Legislative Caucus for this $166 million investment in our community. Our communities have experienced under-funding for decades,” said Kulkarni. “It is monumental. No other state has done this. The investment is exactly what we need to create the infrastructure to combat hate.”
Mental health toll
The community activist said she cannot predict trends or patterns as to whether hate crimes have increased or decreased as a result of community awareness. “We get reports every day, but often people report several weeks or even months after they have been attacked.”
“They may still be processing what has happened. There is a huge mental health toll,” she said.
On the legislative front, the three organizations have managed to get two anti-hate bills through the California state Legislature and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. SB 1161, sponsored by State Senator Dave Min, aims to reduce harassment in public transport systems throughout California.
AB 2448, sponsored by Assemblymember Phil Ting, calls on businesses to train their employees against discrimination. The bill also creates a program that trains employees on how to report, protect and respond to hate incidents in cases of customer harassment.
The initiative is also focused on getting Asian American studies into the K-12 school curriculum. It is also working on community safety solutions, such as safe housing, and living wage jobs. “These are factors that prevent hate and crime,” said Kulkarni.
“It is so important that our government stands by its people, and doesn’t allow people to violate the civil rights of others. We want self actualization that enables people to be who they really want to be, without fear,” said Kulkarni. (Sunita Sohrabji/Ethnic Media Services)