The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Anti-Asian hate is as bad as ever. Why has attention to it waned?

Young activists stand for a portrait with their "stop Asian hate" signs after a rally in D.C. on March 21. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

Arthur Tam is a journalist based in the United States and a former editor at Time Out Hong Kong and Cedar Hong Kong.

I was getting my monthly haircut in Manhattan’s Chinatown a few weeks ago when my stylist, Nikki, told me she was scared. She’d recently gone next door to pick up lunch at a Sichuan restaurant and had seen an Asian man in his 30s whose head was completely bandaged up.

“It was horrible,” she said. “He was swollen all over with gashes peeking through, and you could see that he was missing his teeth.” He’d been the victim of an unprovoked assault a few weeks earlier, off Delancey Street.

I sat in the salon chair trying to look up reports of the incident but couldn’t find a thing.

“I don’t think people are talking about us anymore,” Nikki said.

This was almost five months after Robert Aaron Long went on his horrific shooting rampage in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, most of Asian descent, at three different spas. Almost four months after the shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis that killed eight people, half from the Sikh community. And almost two months after a man in San Francisco stabbed a 94-year-old Chinese Vietnamese woman in broad daylight.

What Nikki noticed, and what I’ve seen, too, is that the #StopAsianHate narrative that erupted in response to those crimes has dulled in recent months, as media coverage has moved on to other crises and spectacles: wildfires, the Olympics, the rise of the delta variant. Even Long’s recent guilty plea to four counts of murder in Georgia’s Cherokee County didn’t make big headlines — though this was the case that brought anti-Asian hate into the national spotlight.

The doom loop of failed social progress has left me upset, perpetually — but also numb and detached. First, a man commits a hate crime but is not convicted under the enhanced hate-crime penalty because the district attorney in Cherokee County said her investigators couldn’t prove racial bias — although Long knowingly targeted spas that employed Asian women. Then, the only live person in the story — the murderer — gets a soapbox for sympathy.

To be clear, Long is a racist misogynist who committed a hate crime even if this hasn’t yet been proved in the legal sense. His associating his sex addiction with Asian women who work at spas reinforces a historical, racist trope about the sexual servitude of Asian women.

With Long’s guilty plea in Cherokee County, he faces four consecutive life sentences. He’ll next be arraigned in Fulton County, where the prosecutor plans to pursue hate-crimes charges. There, he could also face the death penalty.

Unfortunately, Long’s death wouldn’t be the answer, nor would life sentences bring solace, calm or reassurance to Asian and other vulnerable communities, whose members understand they are still susceptible to attack.

The number of reported anti-Asian hate crimes is higher than ever, even as the number of all reported hate crimes nationally has dropped. When we can’t even name the problem and categorize it properly — as in Long’s case — how can we address it and figure out how to dismantle it?

The legal system, rooted in medieval ideas about retribution, has achieved the bare minimum by punishing Long and curbing public outrage. Perhaps in a more progressive, nuanced system, resources from the state would go toward protecting the communities Long has harmed and preventing men such as him from falling into despair. Instead, it has failed to untangle the systemic issues at the heart of all the heartbreak: racism, misogyny, attention to mental health, religious guilt, repression.

Nikki told me she doesn’t go out anymore — she goes straight to work and back home because Chinatown feels only more dangerous this summer. Recently, a man entered her salon and wanted to sell her a curling iron. When she refused, he took the sanitizing dispenser from the reception desk and smashed it on the ground before storming out.

She told me after my haircut that I’m lucky I at least have a husband who can accompany me around the city. Well, sort of.

My husband is a queer Indian American with purple hair, and I’m a queer Chinese American with fuchsia hair who wears heels and skirts — so any protection our maleness might add is offset by our ethnicities and visible queerness. We still avoid traveling to many parts of the United States because we embody identities representing a new America, not the old, which a large segment of this country’s population is attempting to preserve through social, economic and physical violence.

As I walked home from the salon, my husband forwarded me a story about a 28-year-old gay Asian man named Joshua Dowd, who was found beaten and left for dead on train tracks — in Atlanta. Dowd is part of our community. A friend of a friend. When I sought more information, I learned only that he was in a coma and had suffered a severe brain injury. As I stared at his picture, I stared into a face much like my own. My husband texted me: “That’s why I worry about you.”