A spate of recent assaults on Asian Americans has sparked outrage in recent weeks. Min An/Pexels
A spate of recent assaults on Asian Americans has sparked outrage in recent weeks. (Min An/Pexels)

'Tip of the Iceberg' : How Effects of Anti-Asian Attacks Run Deep

'Tip of the Iceberg' : How Effects of Anti-Asian Attacks Run Deep

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The Bay Area is still reeling from a recent spate of violent attacks against elderly Asian Americans that left one 84-year-old San Francisco resident dead and several others injured, including a 91-year-old man in Oakland's Chinatown.

Even before these incidents, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities were seeing an uptick in hate crimes and incidents nationwide. This week, members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus are holding a press conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to denounce the recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes and violence.

KQED Forum's Mina Kim spoke with experts and state officials about how anti-Asian violence is impacting communities and individuals, and what can be done to stop it. Read on for highlights from the conversation, and listen to the full Forum episode here.

The Trauma Behind the Statistics

Since early on in the pandemic, Stop AAPI Hate, a project based out of San Francisco State University, has been tracking self-reported anti-Asian hate incidents.

Now, a new report from Stop AAPI Hate found there were 2,808 self-reported anti-Asian hate incidents in the U.S. between March and December 2020. And more than 40% of those attacks took place in California.

According to the group, around 8% of the reported cases are physical assaults, where people are pushed and shoved, or have items like rocks and bottles thrown at them. But a majority of the reported incidents involve verbal harassment, often using racist and xenophobic language.

"We're not finding that they're just microaggressions that people could easily brush off it. It does become traumatizing after a while, and when it's repeated," said Russell Jeung, one of the co-founders of Stop AAPI Hate. "We've been surveying our respondents and they are showing signs of racial trauma."

Not only is the pandemic itself affecting the mental health of Asian Americans, Jeung said, but "those who experience racism have increased anxiety, sleeplessness and triggering responses. They avoid places now because of the trauma."

Jeung said these attacks, which are often loaded with profanity and slurs, "heightens that sense for Asian Americans that we're perceived as outsiders who don't belong." These incidents, Jeung said, are compounding the mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic.

And these numerous incidents nationwide are likely an undercount. "We're just the tip of the iceberg," Jeung said. "It's much more pervasive and widespread than our numbers indicate."

Dr. Sherry Wang, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara County, has also been collecting data from clients about hate incidents. One of her findings is that in a majority of these incidents there were almost no instances of bystander intervention.

"When we think about racial trauma, I think it isn't just what happened — it's not just the overt violence that happened. It's also what happens in the moment when nobody comes to help you," she said.

"And then it's also [what happens] afterwards, in terms of when you seek support and you're sharing to people that you trust and you're being told like 'it's not a big deal, get over it,' or maybe you're imagining it or it's not as bad as other people's experiences."

Pedestrians cross the street at Stockton and Jackson streets in Chinatown in San Francisco on Aug. 30, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Conflicting Feelings About Reporting Incidents

One of the other striking findings in Wang's surveys is that respondents said they were anxious about naming race as a factor in incidents of physical and emotional harm — because they felt their experiences weren't as bad as those that Black and African American people experience.

"There is the sense and the fear that people have of, 'If we talk about the fact that the perpetrators have been Black, does that mean I'm anti-Black?' " she said, "Or if I talk about my experience of racism, does that take away from Black Lives Matter and all the work and the efforts that we've been putting in in terms of wanting to build solidarity and wanting to really add our voice to amplify that movement? Do we take away from it or do we inadvertently then perpetrate anti-Blackness?"

Wang says there has been a lot of division and work within the AAPI community to reckon with these questions and ensure that the response to violence does not perpetuate anti-Blackness.

But Wang said these concerns about reporting racist incidents are reflections of the wider effect that white supremacy has had on both Asian American community and the Black community.

"The model minority stereotype was coined specifically and purposely to keep the Black community down," Wang said.

"So white America has also positioned Asian Americans as a weapon not only against Black America, but also to minimize our suffering and our pain. Because we're always pitched against blackness or whiteness. We're never our own," she said.

Wang also notes that while reporting the incidents is important, people may not want to report these incidents because the act of reporting them can be re-traumatizing — and she encourages bystanders to report incidents.

What's the 'Right' Way to Respond to Violence?

While Russell Jeung noted that it's not clear if this particular spate of attacks against Asian American elders was racially motivated, he said the violence we saw in 2020 and are seeing now are "separate but related events."

While some in the community are calling for more police patrols as a way to curb violence, others are asking for a community-based response. Last week, dozens of Asian American organizations from the Bay Area banded together to issue a joint statement calling for a non-police response, like patrols by volunteers, tailored support for victims and mental health resources.

Jeung said one program that would likely satisfy the needs of both sides is the community ambassador program, where nonprofits hire local residents to be a presence in the community: picking up garbage, providing directions and helping keep the area safe.

"These types of community ambassador programs — not necessarily more policing or patrolling but just having people out there watching out for our community — have actually been proven with ... data-based evidence to reduce crime," he said. "So this type of approach is more preventative, is actually less expensive and I think needs to be promoted even more."

In response to these attacks, state Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said he and other Asian American legislators are pushing a number of efforts, including reintroducing a bill that would require the California Department of Justice to create a toll-free hotline to report hate crimes and incidents.

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Chiu said the hotline would not only help callers report the incident to law enforcement, but also connect them with resources and support for survivors and victims. He also said this tool would help the state track incidents, rather than relying on others to do so.

"We can't have it be on the Asian American community and Asian nonprofits and scholars to track this. We need our state to do this," Chiu said.

Officials are also asking for the creation of a racial bias task force to address these issues, Chiu said.

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