Taking On the Vile Factor: Biden Moves Against Anti-Asian American Hate
Shortly after the 2016 election, Mai, a Vietnamese American college student, was on a train in Miami when a large white man wearing a Make America Great Again cap approached her. "He just looked at me and spat at me," Mai says. "I just moved to a different car because I didn't want to cause any trouble." This sort of thing wasn't new. She has been taunted with slurs like "Chin Chong" and called a "Chink B----."
Since COVID-19 began, says Mai, now a Ph.D. student at a prestigious New England university, what has long been bad has gotten worse. Sitting in the front of a bus last year, she says, a passenger boarded, looked at her, muttered "Oh, heck, no" and got back off. Last week, two men followed her at a train station, loudly coughing at her. She has been told "Go back to your country," even though her country is America. "You just have to hope they don't hurt you," says Mai. "I try to stay silent or run away. I just pray every day that from the time I leave home to when I come home at night nothing scary will happen to me."
The sharp rise in physical assaults and verbal harassment directed at Asian Americans has once again garnered attention, and it is clear that this isn't "merely" vile people doing vile things, but a national disgrace. A recent report by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of America's largest cities rose by 149% last year. This was especially notable since hate crimes overall declined slightly, attributable to reduced public interaction during the pandemic. Harassment of Asian Americans is almost certainly underreported given the language limitations and the culture of silence and fear often extant in their communities.
In recent weeks, a fresh spate of anti-Asian American violence has intensified anxiety. Noel Quintana, a Filipino American, was slashed in the face with a box cutter on a New York City train, requiring about 100 stitches. "Nobody came, nobody helped, nobody made a video," he said afterward. In San Francisco, an 84-year-old Thai American, Vicha Ratanapakdee, was assaulted while on his morning walk and later died of his injuries. Iona Chong, a Chinese American epidemiologist, was called "Coronavirus" while jogging in Oakland last year, and then, last December, shoved to the ground after delivering a Christmas gift.
"Everybody I know who is Asian is going through something similar to me," says Mai. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, is pointed about the ugliness. "Even before COVID-19 had reached the United States," says Wu, a candidate for mayor of Boston, "Chinatowns and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the country were hit by the virus of racism and xenophobia, crushing local businesses and fueling hate crimes."
Part of the horror of the pandemic has been seeing Asian Americans, an estimated 2 million of whom have been in the vanguard of our nation's response as frontline workers, subjected to schoolyard taunting by their president. Former President Donald Trump missed few opportunities to use phrases such as "China virus" and "Kung Flu" to describe the disease, relishing the glee that this pointless cruelty animated among his most ardent supporters.
President Joe Biden has wasted little time trying to make the virus-within-a-virus a top priority. Six days after taking office, he issued an executive order directing federal agencies to combat anti-Asian discrimination. On March 5, his Justice Department announced a battery of initiatives to focus investigative and prosecutorial resources against it. During his first national prime-time address, on March 11, Biden denounced "vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated. ... It's wrong," Biden emphasized. "It's un-American."
Biden's administration has a lot to tackle, to be sure. Part of its daunting task is confronting a decay of American decency. Its emphasis on shaming those guilty of targeting Asian Americans, and on prosecuting them, is an excellent start.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast. To find out more about Jeff Robbins and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.