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Anti-AAPI Hate: A Conversation With Dr. Jennifer Lee

The rise in anti-AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) hate incidents and hate crimes has finally started a national conversation on the history of anti-AAPI hate in this country, what might be driving the latest increase, and how to address it.

While there was a 7% decrease overall in hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities in 2020, those targeting Asian people increased by almost 150%, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

The violence has resulted in deaths, most recently in the Atlanta area when a young white man targeted spas at which Asian women worked. Police say he shot and killed eight people March 16, six of whom were Asian women ranging in age from 44 to 74.

Dr. Jennifer Lee
Dr. Jennifer Lee (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lee)

Hatewatch conducted an interview with Dr. Jennifer Lee, the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Social Sciences at Columbia University, who has written and researched extensively on the recent wave of anti-AAPI hate and violence. She is also a senior researcher at AAPI Data. In this interview, Lee discusses anti-AAPI hate, its history, current drivers and what allies can do to help.

Hatewatch: This country is seeing a horrible increase in anti-AAPI hate incidents and violence. What are you seeing with regard to the targets of this violence?

JL: First I’ll address the prevalence of the violence, which earlier estimates show that there have been close to 4,000 self-reported incidents of anti-Asian hate since early 2020, according to the website Stop AAPI Hate. This website was created because the Trump administration did not provide any kind of resources by which we could measure or help victims who were targeted because of their race or their gender or the intersection of both. Stop AAPI Hate allows victims to safely and anonymously report incidents that they’ve experienced, and the website also provides resources for individuals who have experienced any kind of anti-Asian or anti-AAPI hate.

San Francisco protest
People march against racism and violence on Asian Americans from City Hall to Union Square in San Francisco, California, on March 27. (Photo by Xinhua/Wu Xiaoling via Getty Images)

Now, one of the things we know as social scientists is that the number of people who report incidents is only capturing the tip of the iceberg of the number of all hate incidents. Because if you’re going to report something, you’re first identifying it, defining it and processing it as a hate incident, and then you’re going one step further to report it, whether it’s on a website or to local authorities. So, the numbers that we’re seeing are extremely low because they really are just the tip of the iceberg – they are the self-reports, and since most people don’t self-report, the numbers are under-reports.

Second, our team at AAPI Data worked with Survey Monkey to field a survey immediately after the mass shooting in Atlanta. We surveyed not only Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but also whites, Blacks, and Hispanics or Latinx [people]. And what we found was rates of anti-Asian hate incidents are far higher than the 4,000 self-reported to Stop AAPI Hate. So just to give you a figure, upwards of 2 million Asian American adults experienced an anti-Asian hate incident since the onset of COVID-19. We calculated that based on our survey. We found that in 2020 about one in 8 Asian American adults – these are just adults, not even children – experienced an anti-Asian hate incident.

In 2021 – in the first quarter of 2021, mind you – and this was fielded in mid-March, this was one in 10. So when you calculate that, it winds up being at least 2 million based on the survey data. So I should caution that anti-Asian hate incidents aren’t always the things that become most viral in the media. So, the mass shooting in Atlanta or the horrific videos of elderly Asian Americans being punched, being shoved to the ground and kicked, hurled with anti-Asian epithets. They’re everything from being verbally harassed; being told that you are the reason for the coronavirus; being shoved; being body-slammed, which happened to one of my colleagues at Columbia. Being spit on, being coughed on – these are the less physical kinds of assaults, but these are much more prevalent.

This is one of the reasons why a number of Asian American civil rights organizations have said that just increasing law enforcement is not going to solve this problem because the harassment doesn’t meet the bar of a hate crime. So being told to go back to China or go back to where you came from or being hurled an insult that you are the reason for the coronavirus – that does not meet the bar for a hate crime, so these kinds of incidents are not able to be prosecuted legally.

This is where bystander training can be incredibly helpful. This type of training is so invaluable for allies and not only for people who see anti-Asian hate incidents, but people who see all sorts of hate incidents. Often, we’re so shocked in the moment that we freeze. What this kind of bystander training does is help you to think about how to intervene safely on the part of yourself and the part of the victim but to do so in such a way that you are not in harm’s way. And what research has shown is that an assailant will react and respond more positively toward the bystander who intervenes than to a victim who intervenes, which is why bystander training is so invaluable.

HW: What do you see as the primary drivers of this most recent upswing of violence?

JL: Let me say that at the beginning, we can’t deny the role of the former President Trump. He described COVID-19 with racist and ethnic rhetoric in which he not only assigned blame to a country but an ethnic group and by extension, to all Chinese Americans and to all Asian Americans. In research that I’ve done with my colleague Karthick Ramakrishnan, one of the things we find is that “Chinese” is often synonymous with “Asian,” because they’re the largest ethnic Asian group and they’ve been in this country longer than other Asians. One of every five Asians in the U.S. is of Chinese descent, so people often use “Chinese” and “Asian” interchangeably, even though Asians are very diverse.

When you blame a specific Asian country for a pandemic and, by extension, Chinese and Asian Americans, you put a target on a group that has nothing to do with the import or spread of the coronavirus. And so that is the immediate cause.

I have to admit that as soon as former President Trump started calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and the “China virus,” and “Kung flu” and “Wuhan virus,” I immediately knew to expect instances of anti-Asian hate because of our history.

One of the tropes that I see constantly among some of the most conservative of us is that the violence against Asian people is attributed to a certain group, and particularly to Black Americans. One of the things that research has shown consistently is that most anti-Asian violence is from the hands of whites. But that is not what we see in media. Also, reports focus on just arrest rates, and we know that Blacks are arrested at a much higher rate than whites for the same crime.

People seem to forget, for instance, that the mass shooter in Atlanta is white. There are a number of cases in our history and in contemporary society that show that anti-Asian violence is more likely to be attributed to whites, but the most recent viral footage that we see widely circulated is at the hands of Blacks and thus leads a lot of people to mistakenly believe that this is a Black-Asian issue, and it’s absolutely not.

HW: Can you talk a bit about the historical antecedents of anti-Asian violence and sentiment in this country?

JL: Immigrants throughout our history – and Chinese immigrants in particular – have been vilified as dirty, filthy, immoral, vectors of disease, and vectors of sickness and illness. That is not new, and it doesn’t take much in a climate of increasing white nationalism or ethnonationalism to stir up anti-Asian hate. I cease to say just white nationalism, because it’s not just about whites, it’s about evoking a sense that the country is under threat by some outside and foreign source. In this case, that source was perceived as Asian, which resulted in the scapegoating of Asian Americans.

Chinatown butcher shop
Butcher shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, circa 1885. Some of the earliest arrivals of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. were around 1815 via Chinese and U.S. maritime trade, when a few merchants and former sailors came to the country. Other Chinese immigrants who came later worked in mining, agriculture and fisheries, helping create the latter two industries in California. Some left China to escape unrest like the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century. Still others built many commercial businesses in 19th-century America despite the country’s efforts to drive them out and destroy their livelihoods. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

If you look at our history, we have a very, very ugly and brutal history of anti-Asian violence in the United States. One of the things I try to do is link this current moment of violence with our history. For example, we know about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; what many don’t know about is the [1875] Page Act that emerged earlier, which excluded Chinese women from immigrating into this country based on the assumption that they were lewd, immoral prostitutes and carriers of venereal disease.

During the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century, there was enormous violence against Chinese people. One of the largest mass lynchings in American history took place in Los Angeles in 1871. Nineteen Chinese residents were killed by a white mob, which was about 10% of the city’s Chinese population at the time. We also have the Rock Springs [Wyoming] massacre in 1885, in which white miners killed 28 Chinese workers. The white miners wounded 15 and then expelled hundreds more before setting fire to the Chinese living quarters. And for a 20th-century example, we have the internment of American citizens or residents of Japanese ancestry during World War II in camps in this country through federal Executive Order 9906 during the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

And more recently, in 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American engineer, was beaten to death by two white autoworkers in Detroit. In the context of Japan’s growing dominance in the auto industry, these two white men blamed Vincent Chin for stealing their jobs. It didn’t matter that he’s not Japanese; it didn’t matter that he’s Chinese American; and it didn’t matter that he’s an engineer. All these two white men saw in Chin was a foreign, economic threat.

We thus have a brutal history of anti-Asian violence, particularly in times of economic and political insecurity which can result in a minority group becoming targeted as the source of the threat.

HW: Why do you think that this kind of violence and this history of violence against Asian Americans is not only underreported, but hidden?

JL: I’ve thought a lot about this, too. First, I should say that one of the things I’ve been most surprised by is the surprise of others. I had to think about that, about why did I anticipate this a year ago along with many others who know Asian American history and who work on these issues? Why were we not surprised whereas so many others – even those who are very liberal-leaning and very politically informed – why were they so shocked? And one of the things I realized is one, this history is not taught in our textbooks or in our college and our university curricula, so when hate incidents against Asians erupted, this seemed like a very new, unprecedented time. While people may not know this history, the stereotypes of Asians that emerged from the history are familiar – that Asians are foreigners, economic threats, disease carriers, and that Asian women are promiscuous and hyper-sexual.

Japanese internment
Cpl. George Bushy, left, a member of the military guard that supervised the departure of 237 Japanese people for California, holds the youngest child of Shigeho Kitamoto, center, as she and her children are evacuated from Bainbridge Island, Washington. Throughout American history, during times of war and unrest, authorities have cited various reasons and laws to take children away from their parents. Examples include Native American boarding schools, Japanese internment camps and deportations that happened during the Great Depression. (Photo via AP Images)

There’s another reason. We’ve learned from our survey that Asian Americans are the group least likely to report a hate crime or hate incident compared to other groups. Nearly two-thirds – about 62% – of Asians are reluctant to do so because they worry about being attacked again, and 63% worry about bringing unwanted attention to themselves or their families.

The fact that also two-thirds of Asians are immigrants and four out of five among Asian American adults are immigrants explains some of this reluctance. They have language barriers, and there are cultural barriers in understanding how to navigate the criminal justice system in the United States. This is where we think about what we can do. We can direct more resources to language assistance so that people who are bilingual can serve as cultural brokers to help Asian Americans who are not fluent in English report a crime. Because when these crimes are not counted in statistics, you don’t see a problem. And that is a problem.

HW: I’d like to go back to the Page Act, which specifically forbade the importation of women from Asian countries “for the purposes of prostitution.” That language is in the act, and in practice, the act was designed to prevent Chinese women in particular from entering the country, as you said. Those who tried were subjected to invasive and humiliating interrogations by immigration officials. We see this gendered and racialized violence toward Asian women throughout U.S. history, most recently in Atlanta. Could you address these intersecting types of violence?

JL: I’m glad you’re bringing that up. I think one of the things that the Atlanta shooting has brought to the fore is how violence against Asians is very intersectional. So it’s not only racialized, it’s gendered, and the toxicity of misogyny makes Asian American women particularly vulnerable.

With Atlanta – I think what that horrid incident showed is not only the vulnerability of race and gender, but of nativity and citizenship. These women were immigrants who were trying to make a better life for themselves and provide for their families, and they were also working-class immigrants. They were working during a pandemic in a job that required not only their physical presence but also their physical touch, and they didn’t have the luxury of sheltering in place. They were vulnerable in intersecting ways that became very clear with that shooting.

Working in massage parlors, the white male who murdered them targeted them because he marked them as objects of illicit temptation.

If I can get personal for a moment, the lives of the six Asian women murdered in Atlanta may seem remote and unconnected to mine, but as an Asian woman, an immigrant and a daughter of Korean immigrant entrepreneurs, I know that my fate is intimately connected to theirs. The Page Act, and subsequently, how Asian women have been treated, portrayed and perceived ever since intertwine our fates.

I also want to point out that our data [at AAPI] show some interesting gender patterns. We found that Asian American women are significantly more likely to worry about being targeted for anti-Asian hate crime, harassment and discrimination than men. Another thing we found with our survey data is that Asian American women are likely to be targeted not only for their race, but also for their gender, and sometimes they think it’s primarily for gender more than race. So there’s an intersectional quality that makes Asian American women – including myself – extremely vulnerable. One of the things many of us have done is change our behavior in order to reduce the possibility of being attacked, either physically, verbally or in many other ways.

HW: Are you satisfied with the response of the Biden administration and state officials to the documented increase in anti-AAPI discrimination, slurs and bias-motivated violence?

Let me say this: After living through four years of the Trump administration, just to have a president recognize that anti-Asian bias, harassment and violence is wrong was a huge step forward. We’re starting from such a low base that just recognizing that, really, I think, so many of us just felt emotional because we had all lived with an administration that really spawned hatred, and spawned so much vitriol, that the Biden administration – at least recognizing that was a step in a much better direction.

I think there are a couple of things that I would like to see move forward during this administration, and that’s thinking about resources directed specifically to community organizations that are on the ground that are working with the victims and can help them report crimes and with other sorts of victim assistance. They’re the ones that are also forming multiracial coalitions and organizing rallies, particularly where Black and Asian American groups have come together to voice opposition to anti-Asian hate, which is a really important thing.

I think one of the things that is also important is making sure that Asian Americans are represented at the highest levels of government, because we see now what happens when you need an AAPI voice to talk about many of these issues. We know now that even the most educated among Americans may not know the history of anti-Asian violence and discrimination in our society and the unique and vulnerable position of Asian Americans in times of crises. I would not go so far as to say that someone who’s not AAPI wouldn’t understand this, but if you are an AAPI individual, you’re more likely to know this history, to understand the nuances of the history, and to be able to more fully advocate for a community in times of need. Especially in times of need.

HW: Some have suggested that more police patrols in AAPI communities and neighborhoods might help. Does that seem like a good idea?

I think what I would say is those acts – the most violent acts – are a fraction, are just a very small fraction of the kind of anti-Asian hate incidents that we’re seeing.

First, more stringent police presence will not address the mountain below the tip of the iceberg. You’re not likely to catch the person who coughs on you, who screams at you, who tells you to go back to China, who body slams you, who spits on you. These are the majority of anti-Asian hate incidents.

Second, so much research in criminal justice shows that just a blanketed increase in police presence especially in minority communities can escalate violence and can escalate hate incidents. In a way, I understand a community response thinking the answer is just more police, but I think people have to know the literature a bit more about what that entails.

For many people in minority communities, a greater police presence does not make them feel safer. It makes them feel more vulnerable, more threatened, and can generate more violence. And so – and this is not to say that I don’t understand the concern – but that alone is not the answer. This is a dialogue we’re having now among Asian Americans. For example, if you are an immigrant who is a store owner, as my parents once were, and you’re being harassed, you want police presence. And I understand that store owner. At the same time, greater police presence won’t address the larger issue of anti-Asian hate incidents at all.

So, when I think about the police presence that could be useful, I think about ways in which police could partner with community organizations and address how to help victims report incidents, to form allyships among residents, to reaffirm that most people want to stop Asian hate. Police working closely with community organizations and residents, not police just blanketed in these communities.

HW: Can you offer some concrete suggestions for what people can do to help?

JL: I would say the first thing is sign up with an organization like Hollaback for that bystander training.

Editor’s note: Hollaback offers several types of free bystander intervention training, currently all virtual. You can find out more at the Hollaback website.

JL: One of the things I realized is there are a number of community organizations that are doing a fantastic job to not only educate, but also help on the ground. One of the community organizations that we’ve been working very closely with is Asian Americans Advancing Justice. To give you an example, they have a national chapter and a number of chapters in major cities including Atlanta. After the mass shooting in Atlanta, Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta was one of the first to respond to that incident and one of the first to really speak out very publicly about the vulnerability and intersectional vulnerability of the women who were senselessly murdered. Connecting with one of those groups, I think, is an effective way to help get organized. There are many rallies that are happening, and this is a very low-cost way of getting involved. One of the things that is so beautiful is seeing not only members of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities at these rallies, but seeing people of other racial groups [there too]. When you see people of different groups coming together and forming a multiracial coalition, you realize the strength in the community to stand against hate.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that sometimes people think, you know, “I’m not Asian; it’s not my place to say anything; I don’t want to say anything wrong.” And I understand that. But when the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, during the protests, we saw a number of allies coming forward who were not Black but who very much supported the cause. You don’t have to be Asian to speak out against Asian hate, to speak out against AAPI hate. What makes that statement extremely powerful is having allies across the board.

Speaking out is a low-cost way to start and once you do, what you find is that you have allies and the fact that you bravely spoke out first, you will open the doors for many others to speak out and for many others to take bystander training who can then know how to act and react to stand in alliance with a victim.

Whether it’s through protests, through speaking, whether it’s a tweet on social media – if that’s what your comfort level is – whether it’s getting involved with community organizations or directly working on the ground, on the street with those community organizations – there are all sorts of ways to help that don’t require financial assistance, for instance. You don’t have to have a huge platform. It’s using whatever platform you have to say that you disagree with this, that you understand it has an ugly history and that it’s seeping into our present moment, and that it won’t be tolerated.

You can also become an ally by learning about Asian Americans, learning about our history – which is part and parcel of U.S. history – learn about our experiences, and learn the challenges we face. If we don’t know our history, we can’t take the steps necessary to change it.

This is where educational institutions come in. Colleges and universities must do more than pay lip service to admonishing anti-Asian hate. They must include the study of Asian Americans in their curricula, which means that they must hire faculty whose research and teaching focuses on the study of Asian Americans. Universities have been at the forefront of innovation and change, and it is high time for them to step up to make Asian Americans central to our understanding of racial justice.

If we want to address anti-Asian violence and hate, it has to be working across domains, across racial groups, across gender, across all sorts of different kinds of intersections so that we understand the common commitment. And one of the things I think we find is that most people find this horrifying and abominable. But right now, I would like to see more voices apart from Asian American and Pacific Islander voices speaking out. That would make us feel like we’re not alone. I don’t feel like we are; I just think that most people are not as comfortable speaking about this.

I also think that understanding the importance of the study of Asian Americans and centering on the experiences of Asian Americans into our discussions about race is critical. We can’t just think of this as an Asian issue or just a sideline issue. If we don’t understand the history of Asians in America, if we don’t center on the unique experiences of Asians and how it informs our narratives of American history, we’re going to find ourselves here again.

Dr. Lee can be found on Twitter: @JLeeSoc

Photo illustration by SPLC

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