Growing up, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng remembers the slurs and name-calling she and her fellow Asian Americans occasionally endured on the playgrounds of New York.
“It was just something we grew up with,” said Meng, who is now in her 40s. “We were taught to mind our own business, not to rock the boat. But what’s changed for my generation – even before the tragedy in Atlanta – is that people like me were starting to see people who look like their fathers and mothers and grandfathers getting beaten up. That really struck a nerve.”
Across the nation, such attacks, part of a rising wave of anti-Asian incidents over the past year, have shocked many Asian Americans. The March 16 slaying of eight people at three Atlanta spas, six of them Asian women, has further sparked both a sense of heightened activism from within the Asian American community and broad-based support from beyond.
The moment seems rich with opportunity. What’s to be done with this solidarity? For Asian American community leaders and activists, the answers range from creating better ballot access and greater political representation, expanding Asian American history instruction in schools and emboldening activist participation from untapped groups such as youth and the greater religious community.
“It’s really important and meaningful that we have had such widespread support from all over the country,” Meng said. “As an Asian American born and raised here, I have never felt that in my entire life. We need to make the most of this moment.”
Anti-Asian sentiment has grown significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many in the community citing the disparaging rhetoric of the Trump administration as a factor. San Francisco-based Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks discrimination and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, tallied nearly 3,800 such incidents from March 2020 through February 2021.
More recently, results of an annual survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League showed that Asian Americans had suffered the largest spike in severe incidents of hate and harassment online.
Throughout the United States and in Canada this weekend, #StopAsianHate marches were scheduled as a response to such sentiments in places like Princeton, New Jersey; Buffalo, New York; Portland, Maine; and Calgary, Alberta.
The activism extends beyond the streets. Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth threatened Tuesday to vote against white nominees to President Joe Biden’s administration until more Asian Americans were appointed to high-ranking roles, then withdrew that threat after she received assurances the White House would do better. While Vice President Kamala Harris is of Indian descent, there are no Cabinet secretaries of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent in Biden’s administration despite the president’s pledge to reflect the nation’s diversity.
This weekend, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was set to host a virtual conversation for the public on anti-Asian discrimination and violence with Meng and U.S. Rep. Judy Chu of California. The event will be broadcast on Zoom and on Johnson’s Facebook page.
“One of the interesting things I’ve been hearing is that this is the first time that Asian Americans have being asked to share their stories in their workplaces,” said Aarti Kohli, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, a national legal advocacy group. “And people are often surprised to hear the racism that their colleagues have faced. So I’m seeing a much broader recognition of the racism that has been aimed at our community.”
Frank Wu, president of Queens College, City University of New York, compares the moment to the mood following the 1982 killing in Detroit of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American mistaken for Japanese by two struggling auto workers who beat him to death with a baseball bat. The two were eventually fined $3,000 and sentenced to probation.
The resulting outrage and subsequent sense of solidarity, Wu said, crossed lines of ethnicity, generation, language and class and prompted renewed Asian American civil-rights activism. But like all movements, it eventually lost momentum.
So while many Black, Latino and Jewish leaders and colleagues have reached out to him in unprecedented partnership since the Atlanta killings, it’s crucial, Wu said, to capitalize on that unity while it lasts.
“Out of this tragedy,” he said, “there is something I always hoped for but hadn’t seen until now: Real bridge-building intentions. We just need to follow through.”
Stopping Asian hate with data and education
Making the most of the current energy was the thinking behind a “National Day of Action and Healing,” a virtual conversation conducted by Chu Friday with fellow legislators, activists and victims of anti-Asian attacks.
“We wanted to give people a tool to share with their co-workers, their bosses, their neighbors,” Meng said. “We’re hopeful it can be a spark for creating long-term partnerships. That’s the immediate next step – to have this continue.”
Among the long-term solutions Meng said she’d like to see is for Americans to better understand each others’ histories and contributions – with public education being one way to do that.
“Think about what we learned in school about the contributions of Asian Americans to American history,” she said. “Just a paragraph. I think we can make the most of this moment to expand the curriculum we’re teaching our kids.”
Stop AAPI Hate has likewise advocated for ethnic studies curricula as a means to curtail bullying, as well as community-based violence protection programs to protect the elderly and the expansion of civil rights protections to end harassment in business.
“I look forward to seeing this movement continue to grow,” said Russell Jeung, the group’s co-founder and professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University.
Chu is also among those pushing two hate-related bills for Congressional approval, the No Hate Act and the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, both meant to improve tracking of hate crimes.
“These are things that should have been improved a long time ago,” Chu said, noting that the FBI relies on individual states to submit their hate-crime data, “which means that many don’t report anything. Eighteen states don’t have a mandate, and three states don’t even have a hate crime statute. We need to have change there on a national basis.”
Asians need more support services, activists say
In Atlanta, where the slayings took place, the disconnect between the Asian American community and police became strikingly clear in the aftermath, said executive director Stephanie Cho of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. Law enforcement said the shootings were not race-driven.
“People keep wondering, ‘How come people don’t trust the police?’ or ‘Why aren’t these incidents being reported?’ And it’s because we aren’t taken seriously,” said Cho, who has been busy juggling funerals and meeting with victims’ families. She also met with President Joe Biden, who she said pledged commitment to the community beyond the crisis during his visit to Atlanta last week.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta called on state and local leaders last week to boost crisis-intervention resources and multilingual support across mental health, legal and employment services, in addition to dealing with the root causes of race-based violence and hate.
Cho hopes the momentum can ultimately be used to persuade state leaders to mandate multilingual election ballots statewide; even as of November’s election, which saw Asian voter participation nearly double over 2016, the group was able to lobby just one county to print ballots in Korean, she said.
Raising levels of political involvement and representation is among the goals for national Asian American leaders, too.
“In light of all the things that have happened, the level of frustration is almost at a boiling point with regard to representation,” said Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, which offers training for those thinking about running for municipal or state office. “Without representation in public office, we aren’t at the table.”
The lack of representation in Biden’s administration has been even more galling, Mielke said, given Georgia’s Asian American turnout in November, an increase that eclipsed Biden’s margin of victory.
Kohli, of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said that while having Asian Americans in political leadership roles is important, those leaders will ultimately be judged on their actions.
“The actual work that our leaders do is what will ultimately create trust in our community,” said Kohli, who counts among her priorities going forward ensuring that the needs of low-income Asian Americans are met. “Many Asian Americans are energized, and we need to leverage that energy into social change.”
Such transformation is already underway, said Russell Leong, former editor of Amerasia Journal.
Younger generations of Asian Americans not affected or unaware of the Chin case are taking to the streets – and in Oakland, San Francisco and New York, they’re helping to provide alternatives to heavier law enforcement by accompanying elderly community pedestrians as a safety measure.
Until recent events, Leong said, “a lot of young people saw organizing as posting something on Instagram or Facebook. That was the extent of political organizing. But with the attacks on women and the elderly – that’s a tangible event, and you have to walk the walk. That’s made a difference.”
Urging churches to stand up against white supremacy
Meanwhile, calls are growing for religious leaders to take a stand against the violence. This week, the Asian American Christian Collaborative issued a strongly worded statement condemning what it described as an “evasion of responsibility” on the part of U.S. churches and denominations that it accused of perpetuating social conditions that have led to “unequal, unjust and ungodly treatment and murders of racial minorities.”
The group’s statement, signed by hundreds of faith leaders, calls on church leaders to, among other things, increase representation of Asian Americans in church leadership and to commit to educational efforts to eliminate nationalism, misogyny and xenophobia in their congregations.
On Sunday, the coalition is organizing simultaneous prayer rallies nationwide in a show of solidarity against hate, including in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, New York, Baltimore and Atlanta.
“We felt like we needed to do something,” said Michelle Ami Reyes, the group’s vice president. “The response of the church as a whole to anti-Asian racism has been anemic.”
While Black church leaders are climbing on board, she said that larger evangelical denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, or fundamentalists like Los Angeles pastor John MacArthur, have been reluctant to embrace the fight against injustice or to suggest that the issue extends beyond their Asian American congregants.
“They say that if you as a Christian care about confronting systemic injustice and oppression that you’re just buying into neo-Marxist ideology, and you’re a danger to the church,” Reyes said.
But it’s not just largely white churches that have shied away from taking a stand, said coalition president Raymond Chang. Many Asian churches, he said, have also refrained from activism, a gesture he called at odds with their origins, which saw them as centers of community and advocacy for emerging immigrant populations.
“Our focus is to get Asian American Christians engaged in activism and to see that it is not contrary to the gospel or Christian faith by any means,” Chang said. “That’s something we’ve lost and need to recover – to be engaged with the realities of our society.”
Next month, he said, the coalition will hold a summit in Chicago with local Asian American and Black church leaders to discuss the common issues they face and how to combine forces.
“The Christian message is one that brings people who are divided together,” Chang said. “That’s the whole message of reconciliation. But in the U.S., because our churches were established on top of a segregated society shaped by white supremacy, they’ve never found ways to meaningfully interact with each other.”
In calling for systemic change and organizing around public hate crimes and deaths, Asian American leaders said they’re taking cues from the Movement for Black Lives coalition, as well as from Muslim and Asian activists who dealt with Islamophobia after 9/11 and previous generations of community leaders who sought justice for Chin after his killing.
Understanding how other communities have achieved political power is always important, said Mielke, of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.
“We don’t do this alone,” she said. “When we talk about what is needed, it’s community-based, and whatever work we’re doing to prevent this from happening to the Asian American community, we’re also doing to prevent it from happening to any community.”
Georgia state senator Michelle Au, who introduced bills prompted by the Atlanta killings to mandate gun safety and language-specific social services, said there’s an urgent need for action.
“This is the best time to take this energy and attention and turn it into something good,” she said.