By Jintao Zhai
Boston University News Service
Through vigils and petitions, members and supporters of Belmont’s Asian American community are working to address underrepresentation in local government and to reduce racial tensions.
Julie Wu, a Taiwanese American who co-founded Belmont’s Pan-Asian Coalition, said Asians make up nearly 20% of the town’s population but are underrepresented in its committees. For example, among nine members of the Diversity Task Force, only two are of Asian descent.
Wu said she sent the Select Board a petition with 176 signatures requesting a better representation of Asian residents in the Task Force. Select Board Chairman Roy Epstein acknowledged receiving it.
Banding together against anti-Asian violence
In the meantime, Wu said her group has also been working to promote unity by reaching out to other minority organizations in Belmont, including the Belmont Chinese American Association and Human Rights Commission.
“I think if we band together and share our stories in fighting anti-Asian racism, we’ll get more voices to highlight our commitment against racism and crimes,” Wu said.
In a letter to the Belmont Citizen-Herald in March, Wu described her own coalition as “a diverse group of Americans, both American-born and immigrant, with origins all over Asia.” She said the group is “united, in part, by a belief in [their] diversity.”
A number of people have joined the cause of protecting Asian Americans from bigoted attacks, as shown by recent anti-racism protests in the greater Boston area, according to Xinxin Guo, a member of the BCAA.
“Eight organizations, including the Pan-Asian Coalition, sponsored a vigil to honor deceased Asian Americans,” Guo said. “Nearly 1,000 people joined this vigil. We really brought a united, collective voice protesting hate crimes against Asian people.”
Collecting support from local police and lawmakers
Wu has made it her mission to encourage Asians in Belmont to discuss ways of thwarting future hate crimes and protecting themselves. The work will not be finished after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think the vaccine could change much about racial problems here,” Wu said. “People who lashed out at Asians had already developed their anti-Asian sentiments and racial stereotypes. We as Asians really need to work together behind a common cause and goal.”
Preventing future hate crimes remains a goal for local police as well. Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac has urged Asian Americans to notify the police of crimes they believe might be racially motivated, even if they have problems speaking English or are wary of officers.
In an April meeting co-hosted by the Pan-Asian Coalition and BCAA, Chief Maclsaac said declining to seek help from the police will only aggravate resident-police mistrust and leave issues of racially driven crimes and underrepresentation unresolved.
“My biggest hope is to let everyone in the Asian community know that we’re always available and will help in any way possible,” MacIsaac said. “We must knock down the wall [of communication] and connect police officers and residents who need help.”
State Sen. William Brownsberger [D-Belmont], who served as a Belmont selectman from 1998 to 2007, said Asian underrepresentation in Belmont public services is a state-level concern.
“Hopefully we’ll have more inclusion-based employment in police departments,” Brownsberger said during the meeting. “That’s something pending and taking form right now. I strongly support the efforts to make sure everyone feels safe and welcome.”
In addition to new committees formed to address racial equity, several bills on Beacon Hill are also in the works, aimed at addressing similar issues. That includes An Act to Reform the Hate Crime Statutes, designed to raise public vigilance and strengthen state law enforcement’s ability to prosecute racially driven crimes.
Filed as SD972/HD1653, the bill is supported by State Attorney General Maura Healey, in tandem with Sen. Adam Hinds [D-Pittsfield] and Rep. Tram Nguyen [D-Andover]. Both the House and Senate versions are awaiting committee assignments.
A version of this story ran in the Belmont Citizen-Herald