South Bay panel discusses violence against Asian Americans
Supervisor Otto Lee, left, with Milpitas elected officials at a "Stop Asian Hate" rally in Milpitas earlier this year. Photo courtesy Eric Stroker.

Violence against Asian Americans has increased since the start of the pandemic, but isn’t new to American history.

That was the focus of a panel hosted earlier this month by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and Asian Americans for Community Involvement. The panel on violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community featured California Attorney General Rob Bonta, county Superior Court judge Johnny Gogo and Stanford University psychologist and lecturer Helen Hsu.

During World War II,  Japanese-Americans were interned at military prison camps. In the 1800s, Yellow Peril stereotypes linked Asian immigrants to disease and provoked violence such as the Chinese Massacre of 1871, where 500 white men lynched 20 Chinese men in Los Angeles.

“This is a long, ugly part of history,” Hsu said. “To see an almost same kind of scapegoating and xenophobic slurs now is quite painful, but it’s not new.”

For Bonta, the topic hits close to home. He recalled a time when his mom was attacked for being Filipina.

“She was shoved to the ground and left in a heap like a piece of trash,” he said. “This pandemic has created new wounds and reopened old ones.”

Bonta is creating a racial justice bureau to address hate crimes and white supremacy groups statewide. He noted that 50% of hate crimes are not identified or investigated as hate crimes. Prosecuting suspects for hate crimes can be difficult, he said, because of all the evidence needed to prove that a crime was racially motivated.

“We need to build trust between law enforcement and communities,” he said. “If we do, witnesses and victims will come forward and report. We need to be victim-centered in our approaches, helping victims heal in a way that is culturally competent.”

Gogo discussed a new strategy the FBI’s San Franciso office is using to combat hate crimes. He explained that the strategy focuses on more community outreach and awareness, provides more training for agents to investigate these crimes and offers more collaboration with law enforcement at the local, state and federal level.

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden signed a bill to counter the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes. The bill aims to make reporting hate crimes more accessible at the local and state levels with public outreach and resources in multiple languages. Some activists opposed the bill for its reliance on law enforcement.

“It’s very important, because it acknowledges the issue at the highest level,” Gogo said.

When asked about what caused the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic, Bonta pointed to former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the coronavirus and his use of terms such as “China virus” or “kung flu.”

“It’s the lingering effects of the former occupant of the White House, who had the largest megaphone and used it to push out statements of hate, cruelty, xenophobia and racism and invited people to act on hate,” he said.

Panelists noted that hate crimes against the AAPI community are on the rise and are under-reported, partly due to cultural and language barriers, as well as lack of trust in the government to act.

Hsu encouraged community members to report incidents because it provides data that lawmakers can use when making decisions.

“I hope AAPIs will really realize that we have to take a more active role in creating the kind of community we want and deserve,” she said. “But that does require data, planning and funding, which requires that there are things we can show.”

Gogo echoed her encouragement.

“One misconception is that the media is blowing the crimes against the AAPI community out of proportion,” he said. “It’s far from it.”

In the past few weeks, several incidents of violence against Asian Americans have occurred, including the stabbing of two Asian women in San Francisco and an Asian woman who was robbed and beaten on the BART. Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit documenting these cases, recorded 3,795 cases of violence against the AAPI community from March 2020 to February 2021. The numbers have increased since then.

Hsu urged attendees not to view the AAPI community as a monolith. AAPIs are one of the most bimodal communities, she said, with both the highest and lowest incomes and education attainment levels. The model minority myth, which is common in media portrayals of the AAPI community, was created by a sociologist in the 1950s to pit AAPIs against Black and brown communities, she said.

“So much of the media portrayal that you see is repetitively Black individuals attacking Asians,” Hsu said. “But the data supports that it’s mostly white individuals. There’s a divisiveness that doesn’t represent the full picture that is really harmful.”

Simitian noted how Santa Clara County’s demographics have changed quickly over the past decade. 50 years ago, just 3% of the county was AAPI. Now, that number is 39-40%. The change demonstrates the need of conversations like this, he said, to better understand the AAPI community.

“Close to 40% of people in the county are AAPI, but in other parts of the country it’s just 5-6%,” Simitian said. “There’s a real need and opportunity to share and understand these experiences.”

Gogo called for non-AAPI allies to have more conversations about the issue and to spend time listening to community members about their pain and experiences.

“We need to get out and meet our neighbors and see that they’re human beings just like us,” he said. “We have much more in common than we don’t.”

A third, final panel discussion on notions of identity will take place Thursday. Viewers can register for the webinar and request languages for translation here, or stream the webinar live on through Simitian’s Facebook page.

Contact Patricia Wei at [email protected].

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