One of the ugly side effects from the health pandemic that overtook the country last year has been the torrent of hate crimes against Asian Americans, who are being scapegoated as those who “brought” or “created” the coronavirus outbreak to the United States.

Unprovoked verbal and physical assaults upon Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans — and those who are “mistaken” as being Asian — have happened nationwide for no reason other than someone’s perceived ethnic appearance.

Nancy Takayama, president of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) — a national organization founded in 1929 and the oldest Asian American civil rights organization in the US — said she fears for the safety of the Asian elderly in Valley communities and elsewhere, and is determining the best way to combat the current surge in hate.

In a recent joint meeting of her chapter, which is in Pacoima and the Nikkei Progressives, an LA-based grassroots civil rights organization, she said the two groups also concluded that “education is primarily the only thing that can be done. Trying to go out to the public is something that would serve no purpose.”

“We plan on [guiding] our own community on how to survive the mental health of it, of how to support each other. Those are our survival mechanisms to continue on,” Takayama said.

CSUN Associate Professor Clement Lai, Ph.D, says this is not simply a local, county or state problem.

Associate Professor Clement Lai, Ph.D

“Addressing anti-Asian American violence comprehensively requires a national attention. Really, addressing systemic racism requires national attention,” said Lai, who — in addition to being an instructor in CSUN’s Asian Studies Department — has worked as a community organizer and volunteer for Asian American social organizations in Northern and Southern California.

It is why the professor, too, says more education and ethnic studies about Asians is crucial. It’s a point Lai is reinforcing to students attending his classes at CSUN, or to those viewing his CSUN webinars.   

“I think… folks need to know a little bit more in general about Asian American history,” he said. “It would help to know something beyond, say for example, the [WW II] incarceration of Japanese Americans — which is super-important — but there is a deeper, longer history of being treated as a racial ‘other.’”

On the streets of LA, and at cultural centers locally and throughout the country, Asian Americans are continuing their organizing efforts to fight back against racism. Demonstrations have been held locally and nationwide. There is also a concerted push, both locally and nationally, for more formal legislation to increase protections.

The professor is pleased to see motivated Asian American social organizations applying pressure for change, and refusing to let others define who they are as a people.

“Movements, in part, are also about identity,” Lai said. “Social scientists refer to that as ‘framing’ — how the movement ‘frames’ its mobilization and what it stands for.

“This has to do with how Asian Americans are [racially profiled] in this country, how they are socially constructed as a racial ‘other.’ This has to do with how Asian Americans are [racially profiled] in this country, how they are socially constructed as a racial ‘other,’” he said.

Lai adds that those living here locally should not assume this type of heinous activity only happens to people in large urban areas.

“The San Fernando Valley is not a means to ‘hate incidents’ against Asian Americans,” the professor said. “[But we should not think] we’re immune to that stuff.”

Pandemic An Excuse For Violence  

There have been other notable hate crimes in the Valley, such as the 1999 killing of Filipino postal carrier Joseph Ileto in Chatsworth by avowed white supremacist Buford Furrow, Jr., because Furrow — who earlier that day had shot up a Jewish community center in Granada Hills before driving to Chatsworth — said he thought Ileto “looked Asian or Latino.”

But the pandemic has created another excuse for fury and backlash from those losing jobs and struggling to maintain homes and healthcare. Many felt emboldened by then President Donald Trump, who constantly referred to COVID-19 as the “kung flu” or “the Chinese virus” while running for (and losing) re-election last year.

Since March of 2020 (through February 2021), nearly 3,800 “hate” incidents from all 50 states and Washington, DC, were documented by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit social organization that created a website to track incidents of discrimination, hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. That includes 245 reported incidents against Asian Americans here in Los Angeles county, who make up approximately 12% of the population.

And there may be as many as 360 incidents that went unreported to the website.

“The vast majority of these are ‘hate incidents’ and not ‘hate crimes.’ And that’s really important to remember,” Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council, a coalition of more than forty community-based organizations that serve and represent the 1.5 million Asian Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles county, said during a recently held webinar.

“I know there’s been a lot of media attention — both in social media and news accounts — of hate crimes,” Kulkarni said. “Those are certainly to be taken very seriously. But 90 percent or more don’t involve an underlining criminal element.”

Chinese Americans were the largest “hate” target, representing 42.2 percent of those reporting an incident to Stop Hate AAPI. There are also Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese Americans — among others — who, after being “accused” of or being “mistaken” as being Chinese, who were harassed or assaulted.

Not all the victims have been Asian, however. And not all of the attackers have been white supremacists.

Attack on Elderly Latina

Indigenous Americans can have facial features that can make them appear to be Asian. It has made those Indigenous people vulnerable to racist and random attacks.

In early April this year, a 70-year-old Latina identified as Becky was a passenger on Metrobus in Eagle Rock. She was trying to exit the bus when another woman — described as African American and between the age of 25 to 30 — started yelling racial slurs. Becky was then physically assaulted and dragged from the rear of the bus to the front.

None of the other passengers — or the bus driver — offered to help the victim, according to her family.

Yasmine Beasley, 23, an African American woman, was arrested by Los Angeles police on suspicion of felony battery. But no other information about the case has been released or published. 

Becky’s face and eyes were left swollen and her nose was broken from the attack. In addition, her hair was pulled out of her head and she suffered a concussion, according to her son, who identified himself as Peter.

Vicious examples like this are among the reasons why anxiety and dread continue to hover over American communities of all ethnicities.

More Than One Response

Takayama said she backs the efforts of younger protesters who have been energized by the activities of other groups such as Black Lives Matter, and employ social media to capture incidents, mobilize and protest. 

“When I sit down with some of the 20- and 30-somethings, students or young adults I know, I learn from them,” she said. “Their approach is definitely different. They understand our past; they’re not just going out there ‘because.’

“They understand what their grandparents and parents went through. And they’re taking the history they’re aware of, and the family experienced, utilizing that knowledge going forward — and doing it the 21st century way.”

Still, she believes the response from groups like hers has to be different.

“You have to remember, the groups I’m talking about…[are] 50-60-70 years old,” Takayama said.

“Our families have been living with and have survived racism since World War II. We didn’t experience it like our grandparents and parents did; we had become very Westernized. But we’ve still experienced what it is like to be ‘different’ and ‘stereotyped.’”