The World Health Organization officially gave COVID-19 its name in February. Before anyone knew what to call it, some U.S. politicians and journalists dubbed it “the Chinese virus” or “Wuhan Coronavirus,” referring to the city that saw the first cases.
Those early labels fit into a long-ignored history of anti-Asian racism in the United States, which may be why Asian American business owners in Connecticut and New York reported drastic drops in revenue well before any local outbreaks. Now, many Asian and Pacific Americans fear anyone who may look Chinese is a possible target of racism.
In early March, an Asian student got punched in the jaw in Midtown Manhattan. She told a local WABC reporter she wanted to remain anonymous as she recalled being attacked by a woman on the street:
“She said ‘where is your f****** mask, you f****** coronavirus b****,” she remembers, “I don’t know why she did that to me. Right after that she just punched my chin. I was really shocked.”
It’s one of several incidents since the coronavirus that prompted investigations of bias attacks. The NYPD arrested two anti-Asian hate crime suspects that same month. One, who police say shouted expletives and pushed a father. Another they say yelled anti-Asian comments and kicked a man.
Two days later, a reporter at a White House press briefing asked President Donald Trump about the rise in attacks: “Why do you keep calling this the ‘Chinese virus’? There are reports of dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese Americans in this country. Your own aide, Secretary Azar, says he does not use this term because ethnicity does not cause the virus. Why do you keep using this?”
President Trump speaks over her: “Because it comes from China.”
The reporter says, “A lot of people say it’s racist.”
Trump replies, “It’s not racist at all. Not at all, no. It comes from China.”
A Republican communications strategy that leaked the following month outlined talking points that directed blame for the coronavirus away from the president and towards China. The president had already tried backpedaling.
“There was a tweet where he said don’t blame Asian Americans for this,” says Rita Pin Ahrens, executive director of a civil rights group in Washington, D.C., called OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates.
The tweet from President Trump drew strong criticism from prominent Asian American journalists, including CBS White House Correspondent Weijia Jiang.
Trump: Asian *Americans* need protection.
Also Trump: “They” are working with “us”. pic.twitter.com/BrN6yfTkCu
— Weijia Jiang (@weijia) March 23, 2020
Or, as Rita Pin Ahrens says:
“There has been a longstanding feeling that we have not been fully accepted as Americans. That we have been perpetually stigmatized as foreign, and other.”
Pin Ahrens still wants Trump to take action against anti-Asian bias.
“We need to have an executive order forming another task force that looks at this problem across the country,” she says.
Her group isn’t just waiting around for that to happen. OCA created a website back in the ‘90s where people can report if they experience or observe anti-Asian hate incidents. They now work with several other nonprofits to compile this data nationwide.
“There hadn’t been too much activity in hate incidents before COVID-19, and so I think within the last few months we’ve certainly seen a spike,” Pin Ahrens says.
One of their partner groups is Stop Asian American And Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate. The group tracked these incidents from March through June and counted more than 2,000 nationwide. They spiked when Trump started to call the pandemic “the Chinese virus.” Over 800 incidents were reported in California and nearly 300 in New York.
“Everything from being taunted by strangers that we have coronavirus to spitting and physical assaults on our elders and our children,” Pin Ahrens says.
The data even show who has been targeted.
“Women were three times more likely to have a hate incident than men were.” Pin Ahrens says that detail helps determine where to focus solutions, like bystander intervention training. “Is this because AAPI women are more likely to be out doing the grocery shopping or out in the community? Is it that people feel that, you know, they’re more vulnerable?”
She hopes this data fills the gaps, so harassment that falls short of a police hate crime investigation can at least be tracked. It’s hard to prove a crime was motivated by bias and the Department of Justice says more than half of hate crimes don’t get solved because they don’t get reported.
“People aren’t always comfortable reporting because they don’t know what happens to the data,” Pin Ahrens says, “Also, they aren’t sure what can be done afterwards.”
Even if police could do more, would a hate crime survivor feel any safer? Some restaurant workers in New Haven, Connecticut, struggled with this.
Maylene Malichanh is a rising junior in college. She works at a Lao and Thai eatery called Pho Ketkeo. Back in April, she finished a morning shift, walked to her car, and noticed something strange.
“I thought it was like crumbs on the front seat, but it was just like, glass.” Malichanh says someone shattered her windshield while her car was parked downtown at the restaurant storefront. She didn’t know what to do, so she called her parents.
“They initially thought it was a hate crime,” she says, “They’re kinda still paranoid about the whole Covid situation, but there was actually no proof of it being one.”
There was no anti-Asian slur written near the scene that made Malichanh think to report a hate crime, so she reported vandalism. New Haven Police told her street camera angles didn’t capture her car, so they had no leads.
“I understand where the cops are coming from,” says Christine Son, daughter of the store owner. She manages her mother’s restaurant books while working at a local biotech firm.
Son says she first assumed Malichanh’s windshield was random vandalism. Then, her mother told her she found a large dent on her car, too. She thought it looked like it got hit with a baseball bat.
“My first thought was, ‘I think it had to be because they’re Asian,’” Son says, “Someone was watching. We’re the only store on that block that’s open right now and we happen to be an Asian restaurant. They can’t classify it as a hate crime because they don’t have proof, but it just — it adds up.”
So, Son took to the restaurant’s Facebook and Instagram to ask for leads.
“I went to social media because I was mad,” she says, “My mom’s just trying to make ends meet and pay rent for her restaurant, because rent is still due, utilities are still due. So she’s there because she needs to make money to keep her restaurant afloat.”
Son says the restaurant was able to keep a quarter of its revenue by offering takeout and delivery. And then The New Haven Independent reported the vandalism as a possible racist attack. That led to a bump in business and a GoFundMe page that raised more than $1,000 to help with car repairs.
“Before the GoFundMe, an actual customer walked in and said ‘I just read the article’ and asked to speak to my mom and handed her $200,” Son says.
The restaurant is still recovering, like many Asian businesses hit hard before the shutdown. Days before the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, New Yorkers crowded brunch spots in Brooklyn, but many avoided going for dim sum in Chinatown. In March, unemployment spiked for Asians in New York, at a rate at least three times higher than any other race.
Son urges everyone of Asian descent to be hyper-aware of their surroundings — especially her mother: “My cousin, who used to manage the restaurant, actually bought her pepper spray for her birthday this year. [laughs] So she has that.”
Son says a group of teenagers recently mugged her mother in the parking garage near her restaurant. Whether or not that incident was hate-related, server Maylene Malichanh says her coworkers are still scared. They don’t like to park on the street and she keeps checking the restaurant windows.
Cassandra Basler’s story is the first of a three-part WSHU Series, “Virus of Hate,” reporting on anti-Asian racism in the age of COVID-19. This series is supported by the Graustein Memorial Fund.