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Opinion The surge of attacks against Asian Americans requires attention and swift solutions

A poster encourages people to call a police tip line in San Francisco’s Chinatown on March 8.
A poster encourages people to call a police tip line in San Francisco’s Chinatown on March 8. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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“I WAS in line at the pharmacy when a woman approached me and sprayed Lysol all over me. She was yelling out, ‘You’re the infection. Go home. We don’t want you here.’ I was in shock and cried and left the building. No one came to my help.” That is the account of an Asian American woman in Marietta, Ga. What is so sad and chilling is that she is far from alone in being subjected to racial hatred and bigotry.

The online site that catalogued her story has compiled more than 3,000 firsthand accounts of discrimination, verbal aggression, shunning, spitting and other forms of assault against Asian Americans since it was launched last March at the start of the pandemic. It is time for this issue to get the attention — and solutions — it needs.

“I can’t describe the actual amount of hate that the Asian American community is experiencing now,” Russell Jeung, chair of San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies department who helped launch the Stop AAPI Hate website, told NPR. Recent high-profile assaults on Asian Americans — an 84-year-old San Francisco man who died in January after being pushed to the ground; a 61-year-old man slashed on the face with a box cutter on a New York City subway last month; a 52-year-old woman violently shoved to the ground while in line at a bakery in Flushing, Queens, last month — bring that problem into stark relief.

The elderly are often the targets; it is sometimes unclear whether the violence is racially motivated or if the perpetrator just sees opportunity in picking out the vulnerable, or both. New York police reported 28 hate crimes targeting Asian Americans in 2020, compared with three the previous year. An analysis released this month by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found that hate crimes in 16 of the country’s largest cities decreased overall by 7 percent in 2020, but those targeting Asian people rose by nearly 150 percent. Hate crimes are underreported, and actual numbers likely are higher.

Even when incidents don’t rise to the level of criminally prosecutable hate crimes — which is most often the case — the effects can be devastating. A 14-year-old girl harangued at a store is now afraid to go out in public, restaurant workers need to change their commuting patterns, parents worry about sending their children to school. “It’s been a cold, sobering reminder that regardless of your immigration status, how many generations you’ve been here, we continue to have conditional status and to be ‘otherized,’ ” Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, told USA Today.

Advocates for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have called for improved enforcement of existing hate-crime laws, and police in San Francisco and New York City have established task forces and increased their presence in predominantly Asian neighborhoods. In his first address to the nation Thursday night, President Biden delivered a blistering condemnation of the hate and harassment Asian Americans are facing. “They’re forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets in America,” he said, “It’s wrong. It’s un-American. And it must stop.” It was a welcome contrast to the inflammatory rhetoric of President Donald Trump, who played an outsize role in stoking the hatred that has put so many Asian Americans at risk. But it’s just a first step.

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