California Asian-American civil rights groups join to stop virus-related discrimination

Screen capture from a Gavin Newson press conference live streamed on Twitter

By Stella Lorence
BU News Service

SAN FRANCISCO – Asian Americans facing discrimination related to the coronavirus have reported over 900 incidents of harassment through a new reporting center that was launched by two California Asian American civil rights groups last month.

The STOP AAPI HATE Reporting Center is the result of collaboration between the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), based in Los Angeles; Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), based in San Francisco; and San Francisco State University. The anonymous form is available on both organizations’ websites for anyone, including residents in other states and abroad, to report incidents of discrimination.

Analysis of the first week’s responses showed 100 incidents reported per day since the form went live on March 19. “Verbal harassment” and “name calling” was the most commonly reported type of discrimination, making up 67.3% of reports, according to the incident report.

“We were not expecting anything like this,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of A3PCON. “We knew that this was an issue. I can’t say we understood the severity or magnitude of it, so really it’s been sort of overwhelming.”

As the total number of deaths related to the COVID-19 virus climbs in the nation, the organizations collaborating on STOP AAPI HATE are working to translate the reporting webform into more languages and focusing on outreach in limited-English-speaking communities in anticipation of more incidents.

“We’re deeply concerned that as the situation worsens here [nationwide] because of lack of preparedness on the fight against the coronavirus that we will see potentially a rise in anti-Asian sentiment, much more than we’re seeing now,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of CAA.

Kulkarni said she got the idea for the reporting center after being alerted to the fact that there was an incident involving a child at a local Los Angeles middle school who had been physically attacked and accused of having the COVID-19 virus simply because he was Asian-American.

A student accused the child of being a coronavirus carrier and told him to go back to China, Kulkarni said. When the child said he wasn’t Chinese, the first student punched the child in the head 20 times.

“It was after that incident we held a press conference with our local leaders to ensure that the message was clear that hate was not accepted in L.A.,” Kulkarni said.

Kulkarni and A3PCON worked with the family of the assaulted child and the school district where the incident took place to make sure the child was okay and ensure that the district faculty received proper training to deal with and prevent further issues.

After being contacted by CAA and Russell Jeung, chair of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, the groups worked together to put in a request with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to document the cases.  Becerra’s office said they rely on local data, so the organizations launched the reporting center.

“I was not seen by the employee at my local post office where I have been a regular customer for over 20 years,” said one anonymous respondent via the reporting center form.  “After patiently waiting as she pointed to others behind me for nearly 45 minutes, I approached the desk when she prompted me to take several steps backwards in a very hostile tone … The sting of her racism and coldness towards me made me feel less than and frankly, dehumanized.”

Even Kulkarni said she has experienced the type of discrimination that her organization is helping to track and analyze. She heard two women making racist comments about Asians while she was at the hair salon. Though she was in the middle of getting her hair washed, Kulkarni politely interrupted the women, saying she was an expert in the field and that their statements were inaccurate. The women told Kulkarni that she had misinterpreted their comments.

The STOP AAPI HATE campaign plans to use the data gathered from the reporting center to make policy recommendations and advocate for programs dedicated to curtailing racial profiling, according to their company statement.

“We’re not looking to fill up the jails and prisons,” Kulkarni said. “What we do want to see is ensuring that people can go about living their daily lives as needed without suffering the harm of a hate crime, without suffering the harm of workplace discrimination, without worrying about being evicted from their homes or apartments because they’re Asian American.”

While they are working on analyzing data from the reporting center and existing legislation that protect against hate crimes, workplace and housing discrimination, A3PCON and CAA have reached out to the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus and urged its members to make strong statements against Asian Pacific Islander discrimination.

“We know that many in our Asian American communities are suffering acts of discrimination, hate crimes and microaggressions due to fears of COVID-19,” said Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco), chair of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, in a statement on March 19. “To address what is happening, we need your help. This reporting website will help us create effective policy solutions for long-lasting change with a deeper impact so this doesn’t happen again to our communities or any other community.”

The California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus also asked California Gov. Gavin Newsom to make statements condemning Asian Pacific Islander discrimination.

“One thing I also want to express is deep, deep recognition of the xenophobia and the racism that is being perpetuated against Asians in our state,” said Newsom in response during a March 23 press briefing. “We have seen a huge increase in people that are assaulting people on the basis of how they were born and the way they look. I just want folks to know that we are better than that. We’re watching that, we’re going to begin to enforce that more aggressively.”  

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made similar statements denouncing hate crimes against Asian Americans in his home state.

“There’s a cacophony of individuals speaking out against this type of bigotry, and so we can effectively drown this out,” Choi said. “I do firmly believe that most decent people would find this horrific.”

Federal officials have not been as fast to codemn discrimination.  Although President Donald Trump tweeted his support for Asian Americans, calling them “amazing people” on March 23, he has repeatedly referred to the COVID-19 virus as the “Chinese virus” in national press briefings.

The G-7 failed to release a joint statement on March 25 after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on referring to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus,” referring to the capital city of China’s Hubei province where the virus is said to have originated.

“Some people have specifically reported [Trump]” Kulkarni said.  “Typically we don’t live in a country where you have to report your president.”

Despite the mixed messaging coming from the White House, the organizations behind STOP AAPI HATE are keeping their mission focused on providing resources to communities affected by discriminaition related to the COVID-19 virus and developing education campaigns to prevent further incidents.

“It’s in these times of crises that we really need to come together as a country,” Choi said.  “Our biggest enemy right now is the virus, and I think that’s the most important thing right now.”

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