Pandemics fade. Racism does not. And when a president like Donald Trump unfairly blames an entire ethnic group for the Covid-19 crisis, it can result in discrimination and violence — or worse.
On a recent January morning, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old man from Thailand, was walking in the Anza Vista neighborhood of San Francisco. Suddenly, out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, a 19-year-old man ran up and slammed into him, sending Mr. Ratanapakdeeforcefully to the ground. He died two days later in the hospital.
Mr. Ratanapakdee’s family believe the attack was a hate crime, that he was targeted because he was Asian. Unfortunately, Mr. Ratanapakdee is far from the only victim of anti-Asian violence in recent months.
In late January, a 91-year-old man was shoved from behind by a stranger while he was walking down a street in Oakland’s Chinatown. The elderly man fell down face-first but survived. The assault happened in broad daylight directly outside the Asian Resource Center, a gathering spot for the local Asian-American community. Fortunately, the police quickly identified the individualwho may have been involved in the attack.
Both altercations were caught on tape by security cameras. But many other acts of violence have occurred with no record of the incidents.
From March 19 to Dec. 31 last year, the organization Stop AAPI Hate received 2,808 firsthand reports of violence against the Asian community from 47 states and the District of Columbia. Stop AAPI Hate was created in California in 2020 to track acts of violence committed against Asian-Americans, which have risen dramatically during the pandemic (AAPI stands for Asian-American and Pacific Islander). These incidents have ranged from robbery and physical assault to spitting and verbal abuse. The victim’s race was cited as the primary reason for the attack in over 90 percent of the 2,808 reported cases.
Why is this happening? It’s clear that certain words, spoken by certain leaders, can have real consequences.
“Well, I think obviously the rhetoric spurred by the previous administration when the pandemic started — using China virus, kung flu and all that kind of stuff — has made Asian-Americans a target to basically people who are racist,” Daniel Wu, star of the television series “Into the Badlands,” told me in a recent interview. Mr. Wu was born in Berkeley, California, worked as an actor in Hong Kong for many years and is now active in the campaign to prevent attacks against Asian-Americans. He believes it is deeply unfair to blame the coronavirus pandemic on Asian-Americans when they are American citizens themselves.
It is hard to understand what would drive a young man to violently shove an older man to the ground on a deserted street or cause him to steal an Asian woman’s purse in a store.
What is clear is that these attacks are occurring not only during a pandemic but during a cultural and demographic revolution in the United States: In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the country’s Asian-American population.
According to the Pew Research Center, the Asian-American population grew by 72 percent between 2000 and 2015, making it the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, surpassing even the Latino population, which grew 60 percent over that same time period. This significant increase is partly due to the fact that a greater number of Asian rather than Latin American immigrants have entered the country in recent years.
Based on 2018 data, the United States Census Bureau estimates that there are 22.6 million people of Asian descent living in the United States (representing nearly 7 percent of the country’s total population), with the largest communities coming from China, India and the Philippines.
By 2044, America’s white population may no longer represent a majority of the country, according to the Census Bureau’s calculations. And what we’ve been witnessing in the United States — on the streets of the nation’s Chinatowns, in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 — is the resentment and incomprehension of a small yet aggressive segment of the population that simply refuses to accept the idea that the country is changing, that it is increasingly comprised of people from many different backgrounds.
As more nonwhite immigrants come to the United States, generating more economic and political power, their visibility will only increase. But so will the xenophobia and criticism they face.
The assaults and insults against the Asian-American community bear a striking resemblance to the plight we Latinos have endured for decades in the United States. A common racist attack used against the Latino community — and now, increasingly, the Asian-American community — is that we should “Go back to our country!” Even though millions of us are American citizens.
On top of these everyday attacks, Asian-Americans have had to contend with the prejudices of the world’s most powerful leader — “I beat this crazy, horrible China virus,” then-President Donald Trump said after recovering from Covid-19 last year. This combination of anti-immigrant resentment and Mr. Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric has produced an explosive situation on the streets of California and throughout the country.
Thankfully, many Americans have had enough — and are ready to fight back. Recently, I spoke to two community activists and organizers, Forrest Liu and Will Lex Ham, just as they were embarking on a safety patrol through San Francisco’s Chinatown. They were distributing leaflets to merchants and visitors with information in their language about how to protect themselves from potential attacks. Mr. Lex Ham, who also works as an actor, told me that he and Mr. Liu were giving whistles to community members and that they would “be their eyes out there to deter any possible crime.”
Community efforts like these have been backed by a recent memorandum signed by President Biden directing the government to fight prejudice against Asian-Americans, as well as a pledge from the Department of Justice to investigate incidents of racist violence.
These new attacks are remnants of a fading past. But they remain extremely painful. “I think just racism in general has gotten rampant in this country in the past few years and everybody is feeling the brunt of it,” Mr. Wu, the actor, told me.
Sooner or later, the pandemic will disappear. But there is no vaccine for racism. That is why the idea of a society in which we are all equal — as described in the Declaration of Independence — is a promise we must continue to fight for every day.