The Contagion of Anti-Asian Discrimination

The streets of Manhattan's Chinatown began to empty as fears of the coronavirus drove people away / Photo courtesy of Bebeto Matthews for AP

It would have been yet another unfortunate case of verbal harassment if not for the shadow of the pandemic that hung over the city, one that she could brush off and forget about, at least for the night. One evening in late February, Criss, who is Korean, was in Penn Station, weaving her way through the rush-hour crowd to the No. 1 train that would take her uptown, where she lived, when a man spun toward her.

“Yo, f-ck the Chinese,” he yelled. “Go back to your country! F-cking chinks.”

Taken aback, Criss, who did not want to reveal her full name for privacy reasons, just laughed and walked past. Amusement, she says, is a defense mechanism she’s adopted to diffuse any aggression toward her. But what she really wanted was a bystander, an ally, to acknowledge what had just happened.

“Society makes us feel as if our racial experience is not real,” Criss said. She explained that because Asians are, controversially, regarded as a model minority—the notion that they are perceived to achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success than the average—their experiences of racism tend to be less systemic and instead can be less overt. Asian people tend to suffer from lack of representation rather than police brutality, for example.

But as the United States reported its first case of the coronavirus in January and the situation quickly escalated into a global pandemic, these xenophobic incidents began to take on an even darker, more targeted tone.

“It felt like the beginning of something. I knew it was only going to get worse,” said Criss in a phone interview.

Asian-American discrimination and hate crimes have been on the rise since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, which some accuse China for starting. More than 30 percent of Americans have witnessed someone blaming Asian people for the coronavirus epidemic, according to a recent survey by the Center for Public Integrity. The anti-Asian rhetoric employed by people like the president, who has referred to the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” perpetuates the fear and blame toward Asian populations, even as new research suggests that travelers to the United States most likely brought the virus mainly from Europe, not Asia.

Although major crimes overall fell by 4 percent last month, New York City has seen a spike in hate crimes toward Asians. Last week, the NYPD reported at least 17 anti-Asian hate crimes from January 1 to May 3, a fivefold increase from the same period last year. And, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council found that of the nearly 1,500 incidents of coronavirus discrimination reported nationwide in the past month, 16.7 percent came from New York. These reports ranged from refusal of service at an establishment to workplace discrimination. Verbal harassment—statements like “get this coronavirus chink away from me” or “go back to your country”—made up almost 60 percent of the incidents.

Some have escalated into violent attacks. Earlier in April, police reported that an Asian woman in Brooklyn was taking out her trash when a man threw an acid-like substance at her, causing chemical burns over her face and body. A Korean woman who lives in Manhattan, who requested anonymity on grounds of privacy, described how a Caucasian woman shoved her off her bike recently. Though it wasn’t clear if it was because she was Asian, the thought remained a disturbing possibility in her mind. “It felt very unsafe,” she said. “It’s not a good atmosphere here.”

Local government organizations have stepped up to combat the swell of Asian discrimination amid the pandemic. The NYC Human Rights Commission, for example, recently announced that it is launching a special task force dedicated to anti-Asian incidents. The move comes in response to concerning data where, of the 248 reports they collected of COVID-related incidents of harassment and discriminations, 42 percent of them targeted Asians.

“All New Yorkers are facing extraordinary levels of stress right now; discrimination and harassment should not be among them,” said Carmelyn P. Malalis, chair and commissioner of the NYC Human Rights Commission.

New York Attorney General Letitia James also launched a hotline to field coronavirus hate crimes and similar incidents. “No one should live in fear for their life because of who they are, what they look like, or where they come from,” she said.

So far, the hotline has received more than 100 such complaints, according to a state official.

These efforts are an important first step in addressing hate crimes and verbal assaults, but many observers contend that they may not be enough to cover the extent of the discrimination. Micro-aggressions—brief and almost commonplace indignities that communicate prejudice—are subtler and more difficult to track. Criss recalled an event in February when subway riders got up from their seats when she sat down next to them. Another time on the train, she coughed once, sending a group of people to the other end of the car.

Both overt and covert acts of discrimination can leave marks on its victims, whether physically or mentally. Criss described a heightened hyper-vigilance whenever she found herself alone in public. A simple act like grocery shopping has become a menacing feat, and she no longer leaves the house without a friend who is not East Asian.

“The discrimination is becoming more physical, more violent,” Criss said. “Things have never felt more intense.”