Asian Community

Virus Fears Spur Xenophobic Attacks

By Erin Bank

Pam, a Richmond District resident in her 70s, was on foot waiting for a green light to cross Park Presidio Boulevard when a woman driving by made eye contact and gave her the middle finger. Weeks later, she was approaching the register at a coffee shop and a man shoved her out of line.

“It looked like he was going to hit me,” she said.

Silver, a Sunset resident in her 50s, was enjoying a late afternoon walk around Stow Lake, when a woman she had never seen before growled a racial slur at her.

“I still just find it unbelievable that something like that happened essentially in my backyard. In all of my time in San Francisco, I’ve never been called out by a racist slur,” she said.

Henry, a Sunset resident in his 50s, was trying to give six feet of distance between himself and the two men approaching him in the middle of the sidewalk. When he asked for them to move over, one of them responded: “It’s coming from you.”

“I’m Taiwanese, a US citizen for 30 years. I’ve never even been to China,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. I’ve never been targeted like that.”

The last names of the subjects in this story have been withheld to protect the identity of the victims.

Pam, Silver and Henry represent a growing number of Asians and Asian-Americans who have been the victims of xenophobic attacks since COVID-19 was first detected in China in January 2020.

The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), in partnership with Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Department of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, created the “STOP AAPI HATE” website  to allow victims to self-report incidents.

As of April 23, 2020, A3PCON reported more than 1,500 cases of verbal harassment, shunning and physical assaults in a single month.

“The data reveals three trends,” said Russell Jeung, Ph.D., chair and professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. “First, the high number of hate incidents, especially assaults, reflects the impact of China-bashing by politicians. Second, high proportions of vulnerable populations – children, youth, elderly and limited-English speaking communities – are sadly impacted. Finally, combining cases of workplace discrimination and being barred from businesses indicates that Asian Americans’ civil rights are being violated.” 

These attacks come despite the fact that the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states: “It is important to remember that people – including those of Asian descent – who do not live in or have not recently been in an area of ongoing spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, or have not been in contact with a person who is a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, are not at greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than other Americans.”

However, as the coronavirus spread across the United States, it was not uncommon to see news articles accompanied by photographs of Chinese people wearing masks.

President Donald Trump and other Republican politicians also consistently referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or other monikers invoking a racial undertone to the origin of the virus.

Despite its reputation as a liberal, open-minded city, San Francisco has serious blemishes on its historical record of its treatment of Chinese and other Asian immigrants and citizens, including anti-Chinese riots in 1877.

“Being in this situation is not lost on me,” Pam said. “I am 72 years old, born in San Francisco. My loving grandmother and I rode the bus to Chinatown and she would speak to me in Chinese. I remember adults turning to us and telling her to ‘Shhhhhh.’ I remember non-Chinese teenagers pretending to speak in Chinese. I would sink and be ashamed. I never told my parents, but I dreaded these bus rides. No one intervened on our behalf.”

In an effort to acknowledge and address the problem, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on April 10 “urging city employees and others not to use the terms ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘Wuhan virus,’ and to condemn President Trump’s use of such terms and the xenophobic attacks on the Asian-American community.”

“It is harmful for the president to use this type of language to divide communities,” District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said. “This disease does not discriminate, and at this time, we should be using language to unite rather than divide. I’ve been horrified to hear stories from Asian individuals in our district and across the city who have been targeted with hateful attacks because of their ethnicity and their perceived connection to the coronavirus. As a fourth-generation Chinese-American San Franciscan, I know we can do better.”

Local ABC7 anchor-reporter Dion Lim has been using her platform, beginning with a March 20 opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, to speak out against the hate and urge witnesses to speak up.

“Prior to coming to San Francisco,” Lim wrote, “I was the first Asian American main anchor in Charlotte, N.C., and Florida’s Tampa Bay area, constantly replying to viewers who called me ‘Connie Chung’ or asked in tweets if I was ‘made in China.’ The only person I had to stand up for was myself. But with the coronavirus, I had a chance to be an ally for the hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area and the millions across the globe facing even more blatant racism — by telling their stories.”

“The volume of incident reports continues to be concerning,” stated Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of A3PCON. “But, beyond the sheer numbers, we hear the impact of hate in the pain, humiliation, trepidation and fear in the voices of AAPIs (Asian American and Pacific Islander) today. This is a widespread problem with significant ramifications for our communities.”

Silver worries about the effects of further dividing society, and creating an atmosphere of fear in which Asians no longer feel comfortable leaving their homes. 

Henry said he is now especially cautious and more alert when he leaves his home for essential outings, not wanting to be in anyone’s way.

Pam and Silver both reported their attacks to the STOP AAPI HATE website and underscored the importance of collecting data to understand the problem and to let other victims know that they are not alone.

“I don’t want to be a victim. I want to tell anyone who experiences this they shouldn’t dwell in the fear and anger,” Pam said.

“Being able to come together is essential to healing these fractures,” Silver said.

The victims had stories of gratitude for strangers who stepped in to help the situation when they were harassed. 

A man witnessed Henry’s encounter and acknowledged Henry in that moment, which Henry thanked him for.

The man who shoved and yelled at Pam was blocked by the manager of the coffee shop, who led Pam away and took care of her order, which he provided free of charge.

If he had not intervened, Pam said, “I would have been a mess. I was scared. But after, I felt whole. I was fine.”

Resources for victims and allies:

Report incidents at STOP AAPI HATE, http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/stop-aapi-hate/.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/reducing-stigma.html.

Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council: http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/.

Chinese for Affirmative Action: https://caasf.org/.

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