The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid national attention on bias crimes, Asian American leaders struggle over where to take their movement

New Yorkers gather in Union Square on March 19 for a vigil to mourn the eight people killed in shootings at three Atlanta spas on Tuesday. Six of the victims were Asian women. (Ed Ou for The Washington Post)

After a year of warnings, Asian Americans have focused national attention on a series of violent attacks to highlight the threat of anti-Asian bias, winning rhetorical support from the White House, solidarity from prominent cultural figures and prime-time news coverage.

But as the movement has gained purchase, its leaders are laboring to turn their political reckoning into a tangible and sustained path forward to address a problem that defies simple or speedy solutions. More than a year into a global pandemic that has sparked racist rhetoric and attacks against Asians in the United States, questions over what to do about it and what the community is asking for remain fraught and unsettled.

On Friday, President Biden met with community leaders in Atlanta in the wake of a mass shooting that left eight people, including six Asian women, dead. Police have charged a 21-year-old White man in the killings.

Biden has denounced the xenophobic language used by former president Donald Trump blaming China for the coronavirus, and he has directed his administration to improve the federal government’s tracking and prosecutions of hate crimes.

Georgia shootings could test state’s new hate-crimes law as debate rages over suspect’s motive

So far, though, conversations between administration officials and advocates have hinted at the limits of the government’s powers. White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice and Attorney General Merrick Garland have held separate video calls with Asian American community leaders, but they presented few concrete ideas and spent the time mostly listening, according to people who participated.

Last month, the Justice Department announced plans to develop federal grant programs to help local police agencies bolster training and reporting of hate crimes. And the federal agency said it will translate the federal hate crimes reporting portal into Chinese and other Asian languages. John Carlin, one of Garland’s deputies, has requested data from U.S. attorneys in cities with large Asian populations.

“The fact that Attorney General Garland spent the time addressing the community directly made it clear to us they took it seriously,” said John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC.

One person who was on the call with Garland said the high-level attention “gives us comfort” but added that the officials “did not offer any more specifics. Candidly, I think that’s a struggle. They recognized the limits of how you can address the problem.”

Garland pledged at his confirmation hearing that the Justice Department will “vigorously” prosecute hate crimes.

In wake of Atlanta slayings, lawmakers clash during emotional hearing about attacks on Asian Americans

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) have introduced a bill that would require the Justice Department to appoint an official to review all pandemic-related incidents that are reported to federal or local officials. But previous legislative attempts to bolster hate-crime tracking have been blocked by Republicans, who have said existing laws are adequate to punish crimes.

“We need a comprehensive effort from our local communities to the federal level,” Meng said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday. “We cannot turn a blind eye to people living in fear.”

During his remarks in Atlanta on Friday, Biden called on lawmakers to pass the legislation, but he also emphasized that Americans must “change our hearts. Hate can have no safe harbor in America. It must stop. It’s on all of us together to make us stop.”

Complicating the path forward is that Asian American advocates have quarreled over their aims, with some focusing on calls for swift accountability for perpetrators of specific attacks and others on a long-term restorative justice approach to address the root causes of racial bias, mental illness, poverty and education.

The flurry of media attention around a pair of brazen attacks — caught on video — against elderly residents last month in the San Francisco Bay area illustrated the challenges of trying to bring attention to these incidents on social media in real-time.

In early February, actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a $25,000 reward for information that would lead to an arrest in the attack on a 91-year-old man in Oakland’s Chinatown who was described in news stories as Asian.

“The skyrocketing number of hate crimes against Asian Americans continues to grow, despite our repeated pleas for help. The crimes ignored and even excused. Remember Vincent Chin,” Kim wrote on Twitter. He was referring to the case of a Chinese American man beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two White autoworkers who blamed him for the success of Japan’s auto industry.

Beyond the pandemic, Asian American leaders fear U.S. conflict with China will fan racist backlash

The Hollywood star power helped draw more attention to the case, but it also sparked a backlash from grass-roots organizers who cited long-standing tensions between Asian and Black communities over previous episodes of violence and mutual mistrust. Some Asian activists said they feared the reward would be seen as a “bounty” that would further inflame tensions and potentially lead to vigilantism or racial profiling.

“I do feel as though social media and the hyper-focus on these horrific interpersonal attacks has skewed the issue a bit,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action. “On one hand, we’re finally getting some attention around this issue. On the other hand, there are concerns that we need to not be reactive, that we need to understand all this within a broader context. But nobody wants to hear that in the wake of another elder being killed or violently assaulted.”

Days after the reward was offered, police charged Yahya Muslim, 28, a Black man who was already in custody on another case, in three separate assaults on elderly residents. Court documents identified the elderly man whose assault captured the actors’ attention as Gilbert Diaz, who is Latino.

Kim and Wu defended their efforts during an interview at a Washington Post Live event this month, with Kim emphasizing that the reward “came from a place of frustration, heartbreak and exasperation.”

The actors did not view the case as “a Black-against-Asian issue or an Asian-against-Black issue,” Kim said. “This is an everybody-against-racism issue. There was never an assumption on our part that the perpetrator of this crime was Black.”

Helen Zia, a Chinese American activist and author, recognized the need to be mindful of the ongoing discussions around demilitarizing the police and reining in abusive tactics. But she said “the part that gets lost is the accountability. How to hold, whether it’s governments or individuals, people accountable for their actions.”

She pointed to the case of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant who died after being violently pushed to the ground in San Francisco last month.

Police have filed murder charges against Antoine Watson, 19, a Black man whose lawyer cited “a break in the mental health of a teenager” for prompting the attack. But San Francisco’s district attorney has said there is no evidence the attack was racially motivated.

“Their family feels the father is being pushed under the bus,” Zia said. She views the reward offered by Kim and Wu in the Oakland attack as “a statement that law enforcement and the government are not doing enough.”

The debate has provoked discomfort among some Black leaders who have warned of racial profiling at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed for a sweeping reimagining of the criminal justice system, with some advocates calling to “defund the police” by shifting resources to social services and other areas.

“A public safety response typically means more suppression and harsher sentencing that disproportionately hurts our community. It’s a very real dynamic we have to be consistently present on,” said Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, who participated in a solidarity rally in San Francisco with Asian American leaders in mid-February.

On Wednesday an elderly Asian woman in San Francisco was attacked when a man ran up to her and punched her in the face. A 39-year-old White man was arrested the next day and is charged in that attack and another assault on an elderly Asian.

Some prominent Asian Americans have criticized activists for moving too rapidly to frame the attacks, which are based largely on anecdotal accounts, as part of a spike in hate crimes attributable to Trump’s xenophobic language and his stoking of white supremacy.

Stop AAPI Hate, an advocacy group launched last year to track bias incidents during the pandemic, has tallied nearly 3,800 cases through a self-reporting portal. About 68 percent of the incidents were name-calling and slurs, while 11 percent constituted physical assault, according to a report released this month.

Lawmakers addressed hundreds of demonstrators on March 20 and demanded justice for the eight people shot dead at three spas in the Atlanta area. (Video: Robert Ray /The Washington Post)

“These resources are valuable, but they also use as their comparison point spotty and famously unreliable official hate crime statistics from law enforcement,” Jay Caspian Kang, a Korean American writer, argued in a New York Times essay earlier this month. “If we cannot really tell how many hate crimes took place before, can we really argue that there has been a surge?”

Kang warned that liberal activists’ efforts to blame Trump risked overlooking deeper, more complicated racial resentment between minority communities that could push some Asian Americans toward a conservative, law-and-order message that helped propel Trump’s rise.

To others, the attention is valuable, even if a path forward remains uncertain.

Jeff Yang, a Chinese American columnist who co-hosts a podcast on Asian American issues, said the pandemic era has been a wake-up call for a community that had appeared to be on the precipice of racial validation behind the cultural cache of the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” and the television series “Fresh Off the Boat,” in which his son Hudson portrayed a leading character, among other milestones.

“It’s easy for us to forget we’re only a global pandemic away from being treated as scapegoats in our own country,” said Yang, who predicted that the nascent movement would give rise to a new generation of political leaders. “It took this most recent spate of attacks to realize it’s not just going to be people cursing us out and talking trash to us or otherwise posting empty threats. We have to lay down the path forward. We have to struggle. The fight is not over; it’s just begun.”