News·11 min read

Stop AAPI Hate Co-Founder on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, Model Minority Myth, and More

Manjusha Kulkarni, Stop AAPI Hate
May 13, 2021

In the last year, more than 6,600 hate incidents against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have been reported. And despite growing calls for AAPI support, the bulk of those (think nearly 3,000) reports —  of first-hand discrimination, racism, harassment, and assault — were filed in March 2021. While this behavior isn’t new, the escalation of anti-AAPI hate during the pandemic has climbed to staggering heights.

Enter: Stop AAPI Hate (aka the org reporting all of this data). Its founders, Manjusha Kulkarni, Cynthia Choi, and Russell Jeung created the reporting center as a response to the growing violence and xenophobia the AAPI community is facing amid the pandemic. Kulkarni — who is also a lecturer at UCLA and the executive director of A3PCON — talked to theSkimm about her organization's impact following spikes in anti-AAPI hate incidents across the US. She also dives deep into topics like: the model minority myth, avenues for justice, mental health, and why women are reporting more incidents than men.

How it Started

What was the moment you realized you had to take action? 

"In Feb. 2020, we got involved in this issue involving a middle school child here in Los Angeles who was physically attacked and verbally assaulted. It happened in the schoolyard, he was out during recess or lunch and another child approached him and said, 'You're a coronavirus carrier, go back to China.' And he responded by saying, 'I'm not Chinese.' Then the other child punched him in the face and head 20 times — after which he fell to the ground. 

"We became aware of the incident, I think a day or two later, and immediately began working on it. We put together a press conference of our local leaders to say that this type of hate wouldn't be tolerated in Los Angeles. And more importantly, we began to work with the school district to make sure that the family's needs were being addressed."

What is the purpose of Stop AAPI Hate?

"We started Stop AAPI Hate in March 2020, because of the emergence of anti-AAPI hate against our community. We first approached California's attorney general to ask if they would collect data on [anti-AAPI hate crimes], and we were told that they rely on local law enforcement [for those reports]. 

"After that, we decided, 'Well hey, let's collect the data ourselves and see what's going on.' I will tell you that we were actually quite surprised that we got several hundred incident reports within a few weeks, not just in California, but across the country. And that number grew over the course of the summer, fall, and winter. And now, here we are at 6,600 self-reported incidents, from all across the country.”

What Does Having All This Data Do?

Does gathering this information reduce the number of hate crimes committed?

"What we're trying to do is to better understand what's happening. [Individuals] are reporting to us in a way that they're not reporting to other nonprofits, government agencies, and law enforcement. For example, here in Los Angeles, we've received 360 incident reports, whereas law enforcement's received a handful — so we're a trusted source in the community. 

"And when we get the data, we do a rigorous analysis of it. And then we share it with the public and with policymakers. Our hope is four things:

1. Serve as a reporting center. 

2. Provide resources to the community through our website. 

3. Provide direct assistance to folks in the community.

4. Begin to change policies. 

"We think if we have stronger civil rights laws, if we have greater mechanisms, really a civil rights infrastructure for addressing these hate incidents, then we will see this deck decrease and hopefully even diminish down the road through the end of 2021 and moving on to 2022 and beyond."

Is the current rate of AAPI hate and discrimination we're seeing considered to be at a historic level?

"From the mid-1800s with the Chinese Exclusion Act and Page Act, there was already [this idea] embedded in the fiber of America. This idea of the perpetual foreigner toward Asians, and ideas around what we call 'Yellow Peril,' and seeing individuals from Asia as unclean, unsanitary, having unusual dietary habits, being sly and cunning. You saw that continue through the 1900s with the Asiatic Barred Zone Act or the Immigration Act of 1917, which barred Asians from all countries from entering the US. Then you had the Japanese American incarceration.

“So really, we see this problem [the rise in anti-AAPI hate] as the latest iteration. And when we look at it beyond sort of the vacuum of here and now we see that it is part of that phenomenon of viewing Asians as 'others,' viewing them as foreigners and viewing them as essentially less than human.”

More women are reporting incidents than men, according to Stop AAPI Hate data. What's driving that trend?

"I think there are a couple of factors at play. One is, we know from the #MeToo movement that sadly sexual harassment is ubiquitous. In the US, the Stop Street Harassment Coalition found that 80% of women experienced sexual harassment in their lifetimes.

"So now when we look at this with an eye toward intersectionality, we see that it's not only sexual harassment but also harassment that's based on race and ethnicity. And so many of the individuals who've reported to us say that it's in that context that they're getting harassed and assaulted.

"I think there's also the factor of women often being seen as more vulnerable because of their physical size and shape and not being able to necessarily respond to attacks by perpetrators. We see this with other populations as well, youth are being targeted as are the elderly.

"After Atlanta, we were also made aware as a country of the issues around hypersexuality and sexualized misogyny that takes place and targets Asian-American women, more specifically."

How it’s Going

In April, the Senate passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. Does it go far enough to address the surge in attacks? 

"It's certainly a promising step. But what I see as the limitation is that it only addresses hate crimes. And when we look at the Stop AAPI Hate data, the vast majority of what has been reported to us — 90% to 95% — are hate incidents and not hate crimes. [These incidents] don’t involve an underlying criminal element whatsoever.

"These are acts of verbal harassment and discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations. And what I'd like to see more of is addressing hate incidents. 

"There are also some significant gaps in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that need to be addressed. In many of our states, we have a robust civil rights enforcement mechanism [in existence], but it's not actually operationalized in a way that's meaningful for our community members. 

"In California, we're working with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, as well as other entities, to address those 'non-hate crimes' because they also require and deserve redress.

"And that's what I would really like to see moving forward and not simply for the Asian-American Pacific Islander community, but for all marginalized communities, including LGBTQ+, African-American, Latinx, and Jewish communities."

Besides being able to seek justice in criminal court, what other avenues exist for victims right now?

"Well in the cases of public accommodations, discrimination, or discrimination in the workplace, individuals can bring [civil] lawsuits against the perpetrators. Those often [target] corporations and businesses we go to like our grocery stores or pharmacies. Cases can even be brought against ride-hailing services or social media sites.

"Additionally, they can use administrative tools like state and local agencies, where there are complaint processes — then governments can get involved. For example, in California, it would be the Department of Fair Employment and Housing that would [get involved] and issue a finding against a company, then determine what the redress is. It could be some sort of financial settlement or award. It can also be an injunction to stop it from happening again. 

"There is an immense scope for this type of work. And we don't need to simply look at law enforcement as the only answer. We're not going to police our way out of this problem. And like so many of the other problems we have in our country, we need comprehensive solutions."

How does criminal justice reform tie into Stop AAPI Hate’s mission?

"That's something that we are working on with our African-American and Latinx sisters and brothers because we know that there are issues in terms of racial equity and law enforcement. We saw that very clearly in the Derek Chauvin trial, but we also see it every day in terms of what's happening with law enforcement — essentially [committing] homicides of mostly African-American men and sometimes women.

"And it informs our policies and what we advocate for going forward, which is that hate crimes enforcement too often alongside other types of enforcement or criminal justice is meted out against communities of color. And not against white perpetrators who do the same or, in fact, more heinous crimes.

"You look at the shootings in Atlanta and Indianapolis, both of those perpetrators were young white men. And what did we see from law enforcement in Atlanta? In the press conference, we saw the officer acting as a defense attorney for the perpetrator giving all sorts of reasons why [the crime] wasn't racist. 'Oh, he just had a bad day. He had a sexual addiction. He's not racist, so let's believe him.' This is frankly ridiculous and unacceptable for law enforcement to engage in this [behavior]."

Let’s Bust it: The Model Minority Myth

What do people need to know about the model minority myth associated with the AAPI community?

"In 1966 William Petersen, [a sociologist]  from the University of California coined this term 'model minority.' And he juxtaposed [minority] communities, in a way that is grossly inaccurate. [He was] looking at Japanese Americans specifically, but broadened that out to the Asian-American communities and said 'Look at them, they're doing so well financially and economically, and look at African-Americans they're not doing well.'

"So one group is the model supposedly, and the other one is a problem. Our [AAPI] community, like all other communities, has individuals who are low-income and has individuals who are quite affluent. For those of us who came from affluent backgrounds, it's simply because of the privilege we had back home. I will tell you my own parents were both physicians and the reason they got to come to the US is because they were doctors and the US wanted doctors in the 1960s and ‘70s.

"It's not because of any particular characteristics they had that others in our community didn't have. But the second part is equally problematic to that framing, which is that he said that Asians were a model because essentially we kept our mouth shut after the [Japanese] internment. We didn't complain or demand civil rights the way African-Americans did.

"Mind you, he said this during the heart of the civil rights movement — think of the audacity of that [statement] to name [demanding civil rights] as being problematic. Sadly, he also said he liked the fact that he thought Asian-Americans were silent. 

"I will say first off, that's not true. But to an extent, we have been silenced, more than perhaps other communities because we essentially knew that talking or speaking up during those eras was problematic for us. It meant losing our safety and wellbeing. I encourage folks now to speak out for that very reason so we aren't silent anymore — if we ever were."

Your Reality: Mental Health

How do you or other members of your organization take care of your mental health while continuing your advocacy and reporting work and receiving violent news of AAPI hate crimes?

"It's hard because [these crimes] really have been devastating. The week after the Atlanta [shootings] we broke down several times on conference calls and in some of our web meetings because it really was beyond our worst nightmares.

"[Recently], there were stabbings in [California’s] Bay Area. We spend time processing [these events] with our families and colleagues. One thing I will say is that I'm heartened by the work that we get to do every day.

"And, honestly seeing so many of our community members stand up to what's happening. I appreciate that. There’s one individual who was unemployed and [they] just started baking bread and raised $11,000 for this movement. When I went on a run a few days ago, someone two streets down from me had a big sign up that said 'Stop Asian Hate.' I don't even know them.

"I just know that that's there and our community members are speaking out, and those are community members who are not just simply Asian-American, but also African-American, Latinx, and white."

The Push Forward

What are the steps that people can take to stop AAPI hate right now and be an ally to the community?

"There's a lot that folks can do right now. First off, if you see something, say something, be an upstander. If you see someone being discriminated against at a grocery store, say something to the manager. If you see an individual sending racist memes online, say something about it.

"But there's even more [you could do], which is to go to your city council folks and demand action. It's up to each and every one of us to be actively involved against not only hate directed toward Asian-Americans but also against police violence and against so many of the issues that are impacting our communities right now. I would just urge you to take part in our democracy. It's not a spectator sport."


This story was made in collaboration with Skimm This. You can listen to the podcast episode here for audible excerpts from this interview.

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