The coronavirus pandemic has amplified issues of race and inequality in the United States. Thousands have marched for Black Lives Matter. Data has shown that Black and Latino communities are disproportionately hurt by COVID-19. But it was the Asian American community that first felt targeted by a virus of hate.
Activists say anti-Asian hate incidents renewed the push for civil rights in communities across the country.
Early on in the pandemic, when Asian and Pacific Americans started to experience a spike in bias attacks, New York’s Attorney General launched a special hotline. The civil rights division of the office used it to track reports of COVID-19 harassment.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong wishes his office could also have a hotline and track cases. But Tong doesn’t have the power to prosecute hate incidents and civil rights violations.
“Half the states do, but we don’t. And I think people presume already that we do.”
Tong wants to change that, but says the coronavirus has made it impossible for lawmakers to meet and vote on his proposal. It’s personal, too. Tong is the first Asian American to be elected to statewide office in Connecticut. But he still remembers how one Democratic delegate said she supported his record—not him.
“She said, ‘Well, because you know, you just don’t look what I think an attorney general should look like.’”
That was two years ago. Today, Tong’s office fields calls like this:
“Someone in Stamford [Connecticut] recently was at a supermarket and she was asked ‘When was the last time you went to China? Or are you from China?’ and she said, ‘I’ve lived in this country for decades.’” Tong says, “The checkout attendant sprayed her and her groceries with disinfectant.”
Tong says the victim wants to remain anonymous. It’s tough to talk about. He says today’s rise in hate against Asian Americans puts all marginalized communities at risk—immigrant, LGBTQ, religious, Latinx and Black, to name a few.
“When you give license to people to hate, and when people act out on that hate, it raises the risk and endangers people’s personal safety well beyond the group that’s being targeted,” Tong says.
He believes tougher law enforcement is part of the solution, but some communities don’t feel safe calling police, or don’t trust the justice system. One symbol for him—and for many Asian Americans—of how rarely hate victims get justice is the story of Vincent Chin.
His mother, Lily was featured in the documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” Chin is a Chinese immigrant whose son Vincent was killed by two laid off auto workers in 1982.
“Do you know how they killed my son?” Lily Chin asks a news anchor in archival footage on the documentary. “One person held him up, the father hit him, killed my son!”
The two men beat Vincent Chin with a baseball bat after a barroom brawl in Detroit.
Christine Choy directed the documentary about the aftermath of the crime. The killing of Vincent Chin led to the first federal civil rights trial involving an Asian American. It prompted a nationwide, pan-Asian political awakening. Choy says even Black civil rights leader Jesse Jackson rallied in support.
“It was incredible!” Choy says, “So many Asian Americans...younger ones, feel that you cannot live in this country without understanding the law. You cannot live in this country without understanding politics.”
A jury found only one of the killers, Ronald Ebens, guilty of a federal hate crime. A dancer at the bar testified that she heard Ebens tell Chin “it’s because of you little mother f-ers that we’re out of work.” Jurors didn’t believe the other man, Michael Nitz, dealt any fatal blows, but they did think Ebens beat Chin because he’s Asian. Many in Detroit believed Japanese car companies were responsible for plunging Detroit auto workers into unemployment. Choy says Ebens’ defense team quietly filed an appeal.
“People in the Asian community just stopped demonstrating, so there was no publicity whatsoever. I thought the trial was over, you know? Because that was the end. He got 25 years,” Choy says, “but they won the retrial.”
Ebens walked free. Vincent’s mother, Lily Chin, begged federal prosecutors to appeal. In documentary footage, she sits speechless for several minutes after the verdict until she is moved to say, with tears:
“I want everybody to tell the government not to drop this case. I want justice for Vincent. I want justice for my son.”
Neither of Chin’s killers went to prison. Choy says Lily Chin was too inconsolable to stay in the U.S. She went back to China.
Steven Choi is the executive director of the advocacy group New York Immigration Coalition. He works with immigrant communities in the city, and the largest group is Chinese. He says many in the Chinese immigrant community feel the city has neglected them during the pandemic.
“There’s a feeling that the NYPD was not doing enough to protect some of these community members from being the targets of assault and hate crimes,” Choi says.
He sees more New Yorkers channel that disappointment into activism to overhaul the criminal justice system.
“I do think that’s one of the underlying reasons why you see more instances of solidarity within the Asian American community for some of the Black Lives Matter protests,” Choi says.
These protests bring up complicated feelings for those in the Asian community who remember the unrest of 1992, according to Choi. That’s when a jury acquitted white Los Angeles police officers, who beat up a Black man named Rodney King. Residents of all races looted, but Choi says the media focused on images of Korean immigrants defending their shops only from African Americans. He says those images created a story of animosity between the Asian and Black communities.
“I think a lot of folks in the community recognized there’s going to be an effort to try to pit other communities against each other,” Choi says of the current protest movement, “Let’s avoid that. Let’s not buy into the narrative of immigrant shopkeepers being attacked by Black community members. Let’s actively renounce and denounce that.”
When businesses were being looted in Minnesota, some Asian restaurateurs in Minneapolis posted on social media in support of Black Lives Matter, saying things like ‘my property can be replaced, lives cannot.’ Not everybody feels this way. Choi says there are thorny conversations happening in the Asian community now.
“These issues are all related, the president calling us purveyors of the “Kung Flu,” hate crimes being committed against Asian Americans, Black Lives Matter issues,” Choi says, “We all need to be connected around those things. One fight around those things, and one fight for this community, has to be everybody’s fight.”
Choi says he and several Asian and Pacific American advocacy groups have joined with Black-led protests to demand the New York Police Department direct $1 billion for social services. Last month, the city moved that amount from the NYPD. Activists say the funds are not being reinvested in their communities.
This story concludes WSHU’s series “Virus of Hate,” reporting on anti-Asian racism in the age of Covid-19. This series is supported by the Graustein Memorial Fund.