By Arena Lam, Senior Research Associate and Anthony Petrosino, Director of the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center. This interview is based on an article that first appeared as a special feature in the JPRC newsletter and is modified and posted here with permission.

Note: This post discusses sensitive issues related to incidents of anti-Asian bias and violence.

One of the many justice-related consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the rise of anti-Asian bias and hate crimes. Analyses of police crime reports collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and news reports identified by the Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander (AAAPI) advocacy and support groups indicate that there has been a rise in anti-Asian bias and hate incidents since the pandemic started.

These incidents range from acts of murder—such as the mass killings of eight women, including six individuals of Asian descent, in Georgia—to verbal microaggressions and incivilities that are intimidating and can result in severe emotional distress. The devastation of the Atlanta shootings, attacks on elderly Asian Americans, and assaults on the streets have compelled Asian Americans to speak out on the spike of hate crimes and to raise national awareness of anti-Asian racism through rallies, vigils, and social media outlets.

We asked Dr. Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, Professor Emerita at Bridgewater State University (BSU) and Co-Chair of the BSU President’s Special Task Force on Racial Justice, to respond to some questions about the rise of anti-Asian bias and hatred.

Dr. Turpin-Petrosino is author of numerous scholarly works on hate crime and bias. In 2020, BSU established the Dr. Carolyn Petrosino Challenging Racial Bigotry and Strengthening Unity Scholarship in honor of these and other contributions. Her 2015 book, Understanding Hate Crimes: Acts, Motives, Offenders, Victims, and Justice, discusses the historical underpinnings and data on hate crimes committed against different groups, including Asian Americans.

Q: The nation has been stunned by the increase of anti-Asian bias and hatred. Why do you think we are seeing a rise in anti-Asian bias crime?

Although the rise in bias and hate crimes against Asian Americans is very concerning, one important thing to remember is that there have always been anti-Asian sentiments in the United States. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was rooted in xenophobic notions, prohibited the continued immigration of Chinese laborers to this country. Today, many experts point to the use of inflammatory language by politicians declaring that the pandemic was caused by China and is responsible for the illnesses and deaths that resulted from COVID. It is almost like approval has been given to blame and vilify Asians. The boldness of the vicious acts, captured on video, targeting Asian Americans has been extremely disturbing.

Q: Can you give a few examples of the history of anti-Asian bias in the United States?

Due to labor shortage (and before the 1882 Act excluding Chinese labor immigration), the federal government encouraged laborers from China in the 1800s to expedite construction of the transcontinental railway system in the United States. That led to a large influx of Chinese male labor immigrants. Historical accounts indicate that they were mistreated categorically as laborers (e.g., forced to work on the most dangerous tasks, under extreme weather conditions while being underpaid). Once the railway was completed, many Chinese immigrants remained in the U.S. and settled in California. White resentment grew especially as the ‘non-White’ Chinese immigrants started thriving businesses. Anti-Asian resentment was whipped up by labor leader, Denis Kearney, which resulted in periodic violent sprees committed by “threatened” Whites. This violence, termed “Kearneyism,” led not only to destroyed businesses but also the murders of Chinese persons.

The most well-known example of anti-Asian acts in our more recent history is Executive Order 9066, the forced relocation of Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. There was great fear that these citizens could not be trusted and that their loyalties were with a wartime enemy, Japan. Records indicate, for example, that all people of Japanese ancestry were required to leave the state of Alaska (as well as parts of California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona). Many American citizens of Japanese ancestry were interned; “one drop of Japanese blood” made a person eligible for internment. The racial bias was perhaps best evidenced by the following: Although we were also at war at the time with Germany and Italy, there was no similar effort broadly targeting Americans of German or Italian descent.

Q: Your earlier point underscores that many believe the political rhetoric around COVID-19 originating in China is what has spurred the recent acts of anti-Asian bias and hatred. Do the data show that the recent hate acts are against people of Chinese descent?

No. The data indicate that any person perceived by the attacker to be Asian is vulnerable. Although the rhetoric targets China as the source of the virus, you don’t have to be of Chinese descent to be targeted. In one university, Korean students who had come to the United States to study were upset by the bigotry and insults they were experiencing. They asked one professor, “Should we wear shirts that say, ‘We are not Chinese’?” The fear of being targeted has led some Asian students to not remain in the U.S. to continue their studies. We have seen similar anger aimed at Muslim Americans. Spikes in attacks against Muslim Americans are also seen in data on attacks of Sikh and Hindu communities. The perpetrators lump persons together based on perceived characteristics. Bigotry categorizes people in simple binary ways (us versus them) and denies targeted people their uniqueness and humanity.

Q: Do the data indicate who the perpetrators are? Is it generally Whites?

Perpetrators have been Black, Latinx, and White individuals. We do not know with certainty what the motivations are. Is it stoked up fear and scapegoating on the virus? Likely. Are there other factors at play as well? Hate crimes are nothing new in the United States but a primary and longstanding motive is racism, fear, and resentment towards the “other.” It is sad that some of the most publicized incidents have shown elderly Asian Americans subjected to the more brutal assaults. It is not surprising that the most vulnerable would be targeted, but it is horrific to witness such an incident which has a chilling impact on Asian and other communities.

Q: The key question for our society is what can we do about this? What do you recommend as policy solutions?

Two immediate things come to mind, at a government level and a community level. At the government level, criminal acts that are motivated by anti-Asian bias need to be vigorously prosecuted. Prosecutors should not hesitate to bring hate crime charges when appropriate to do so. Likewise, communities must  rally around victims of these crimes. The Asian community must know that they do not stand alone. Remember that a hate crime is sending a message of fear and intimidation to the entire community targeted, so that everyone is afraid. Similarly, hate crime punishment of offenders and community support of victims send strong signals that local and state governments and the community will not tolerate these acts which ultimately threaten liberty for the entire public writ large. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Q: What advice do you have for the JPRC going forward?

The most important thing the Center can do is study this issue. Anti-Asian hatred has been among the least studied by researchers. Studying the issue and publicizing your research will help to shed light on this problem.

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About the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center

The WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center (JPRC) conducts and disseminates research and evaluation to address crime, violence, and injustice. A primary goal of the Center is to become a trusted source of evidence on the effects of policies and programs in areas such as violence prevention, juvenile and adult justice, school safety, and public health.

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