'It has been infuriating how casually our community continues to be dismissed,' one expert says.
Lawmakers and advocates say more must be done to address the ongoing spate of violent, racist attacks against Asian Americans, which have taken a deadly turn in recent weeks.
In San Francisco last month, Thai American man Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, was taking his daily walk when he was brutally assailed and knocked to the ground by a 19-year-old boy. He was taken to the hospital and died two days later.
Elsewhere in California, in an Oakland Chinatown neighborhood, a 91-year-old Asian man was also taking a walk on Jan. 31 when a man suddenly and forcefully shoved him down onto the curb. A viral video of the attack, which took place in broad daylight, has since prompted public outcry. Authorities said the suspect in that attack, arrested Tuesday, had also targeted a 60-year-old man and a 55-year-old woman the same day.
In San Jose, California, a 64-year-old Vietnamese grandmother was assaulted and robbed of $1,000 in cash intended for Lunar New Year celebrations, as she left the bank last Wednesday. And another older Asian man in San Leandro was robbed and beaten as well, while trying to deposit money in the bank, but luckily sustained only minor injuries. According to reports, the suspects made off with thousands of dollars.
As a result of the recent attacks, in preparation for the New Year celebrations, the Oakland Police Department said it was reallocating resources and increasing its presence in the community. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley also announced a special response unit to address the hate crimes.
AAPI lawmakers themselves have condemned the racist attacks, but have said more must be done to tackle what is a much bigger problem.
New York Rep. Grace Meng (D) demanded justice for Ratanapakdee in a statement last Thursday, calling his death "horrifying."
"Those who commit heinous crimes against Asian Americans," she said "... must be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible."
"I am enraged, disgusted, and heartbroken by the brutal attacks against Asian Americans, especially the elderly. The spike in incidents is gravely concerning," she continued. "Last year, the House of Representatives passed my resolution condemning anti-Asian sentiment related to the virus, and President Biden affirmed as much in a presidential memorandum ... but more must be done."
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) echoed that sentiment, stating, "[W]e must do more to ensure what happened to Mr. Ratanapakdee doesn’t happen again. ...We must stand up together against racism and bigotry."
Across the country, experts say there has been a massive increase in attacks on the AAPI community in the past year. The Queens Chronicle reported in September, for instance, that in New York City alone, there was a 1,900% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020, according to NYPD data. And in places like Oakland, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce reported 20 incidents in a two-week span — with many others likely unreported, "because it can take hours for the police to arrive at the scene," the group told the New York Times.
Manjusha P. Kulkarni is executive director for the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, and part of the leadership for the Stop AAPI Hate initiative, which tracks and works to combat racism. In an interview with the American Independent Foundation, she explained that, at the federal level, it was up to the Justice Department to prosecute hate crimes. But a vast majority of reported cases actually called for non-law enforcement solutions that involve policymaking.
Kulkarni pointed to Stop AAPI Hate's policy platform as a "broad outline, broad strokes about what we recommend," some of which includes federal legislation, like the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, which "seeks to promote better hate crimes data collection as well as a more informed approach to hate crime prevention at the federal, state, and local levels," according to the Human Rights Campaign.
The NO HATE Act already has the backing of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
A February Stop AAPI Hate report revealed 2,808 anti-Asian hate incidents nationwide from March to December 2020, but Kulkarni said there are likely many more. She cited a recent California Health Interview Survey that found 6.8% of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experienced discrimination due to COVID-19, which translates to nearly 400,000 people in the state alone.
"That's really just the tip of the iceberg," Connie Chung Joe, CEO of the legal nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, said over the phone, referring to the incident report and emphasizing as well that many cases go unreported due to language and cultural barriers.
"Although we're seeing an uptick right now and part of that has to do with Lunar New Year, when back in March, there were so many of these cases happening, and people weren't really talking about it that much," she added. "We need to bring it to the forefront and remind people."
Gregg Orton, national director at the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said in an email that the issue was one that more members of Congress were "being forced to confront," however, he added, "it is clear more needs to be done."
The solution? "More people in positions of power need to step up and take action," he said. "Asian American leaders across the country ... have been trying to call attention to these incidents, and it has been infuriating how casually our community continues to be dismissed."
The recent spate of attacks is part of an ongoing trend that was exacerbated when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck. Racist beliefs that Asian Americans were spreading the virus worsened when Donald Trump and GOP lawmakers propagated racist language, referring to the coronavirus using incendiary terms that placed the blame on the AAPI community.
The World Health Organization noted previously that the names of diseases can have "serious consequences on people's lives and livelihoods" and "unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors."
Alvina Wong of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network told a local affiliate earlier in February that Trump was at least in part behind the increase in violence.
"He was inciting more violence and attacks on our community based on how it was Asian," she told ABC 7. "I mean it is heartbreaking. Heartbreaking and sad and it makes me angry."
An October Stop AAPI Hate report also linked the rise in anti-Asian racism to Trump and GOP lawmakers' racist rhetoric. Their research suggested that Trump "is the greatest spreader among politicians of anti-Asian American rhetoric related to the pandemic," the report said, adding that Trump, along with Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Bill Hagerty (R-TN), "accounted for the great majority (93%) of tweets with stigmatizing rhetoric."
In October, U.N. experts released a mandate expressing "serious concern" that racist attacks against Asian Americans had reached an "alarming level," and called on more action from U.S. authorities, saying that, thus far, they had "utterly failed."
One of its authors, E. Tendayi Achiume, a special rapporteur on racism, told NBC News, "I think it's absolutely the case that if you have the head of government speaking about groups in ways that stigmatizes them and associates them with the virus, it creates an environment where violence ... and attacks are more permissible."
Despite the spike in violence, some GOP lawmakers are still bent on using those same racist terms.
Hagerty himself tweeted in December that "China gave us the Wuhan virus," continuing his pattern of racist language and parroting Trump's need to scapegoat China for his own botched coronavirus pandemic response.
President Joe Biden, for his part, is aware of the general rise in attacks, according to the White House. So far, however, his administration has not issued a direct mandate to address the problem, though he released a memorandum on Jan. 26 condemning anti-AAPI hate.
Press secretary Jen Psaki stated in a press conference that she was unsure whether Biden had seen any of the videos of the more recent incidents, but said he remained committed to speaking out about the issue.
"I'm not aware that he's seen the videos," she said on Feb. 8. "But he is concerned about the discrimination against, the actions against the Asian American community, which is why he signed the executive order and why he's been outspoken in making clear that attacks, verbal attacks, any attacks of any form, are unacceptable."
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black and Asian American woman to hold the position, responded to the recent attacks on Friday, stating in a tweet, "We must continue to commit ourselves to combating racism and discrimination."
This article was updated to correct a quote attribution.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.