News of the recent shooting deaths of six women of Asian descent in the Atlanta area brought renewed focus to a troubling trend in American life over the past year: a stark increase in violence against Asian Americans.
According to the group Stop AAPI Hate, there have been some 3,800 acts of harassment and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since last March. Because the group relies of self-reported information from victims, Stop AAPI Hate says the actual number of incidents is likely far higher.
“These were crimes that may not rise to the level of something that would be defined as a hate crime in a particular statute,” says state Rep. Nima Kulkarni, Kentucky's only Asian-American legislator. “It might be online harassment, it might be somebody spitting on you, shoving you, calling you names on the street, discriminating against you in terms of service at a restaurant or employment.”
Kulkarni describes Asian Americans as “a more stoic group” that tends to avoid going to the police. She says that results in a lack of valuable data that can help law enforcement and criminal justice officials discern trends and patterns in such incidents, or track repeat offenders.
“There needs to be a much more concerted and deliberate effort to make it easier for communities to share information on how do you report this,” she says, “even if it’s not something that results in severe physical harm or injury.”
Kulkarni, who represents West Louisville and is an immigration attorney of Indian descent, says the Atlanta shootings are a culmination of year of vitriol against Asian Americans that stems from former Pres. Donald Trump labeling of COVID-19 as the “China virus” and “kung flu.” She says that’s an extension of the negative stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes that new arrivals here have endured for centuries.
“Immigrants generally are criminals, they’re here to steal your jobs, and they carry diseases,” says Kulkarni, referring to ingrained stereotypes. “It just has been something that has been lying under the surface, that isn’t really discussed, isn’t really seen every day, but is easily stoked.”
Teaching Children of Color Not to Live in Fear
When it came time to talk with her son about the Atlanta shootings, Mae Suramek wasn’t sure what to say. The Berea restaurateur and social activist of Thai descent realized she had avoided talking with her 13-year old about anti-Asian sentiment in the United States.
“I’ve had plenty of conversations about racism in America with him, but it hasn’t ever been a direct threat to him, so it was a different conversation,” says Suramek. “Like most parents of children of color, I think the one thing you want to make sure they know is that they have to rise above living in fear... We also have a responsibility to step up, to speak up, to speak out.”
It wasn’t just her son. Suramek says she also talked with her elderly mother, who makes daily visits to her late husband’s gravesite. She even bought her mother pepper spray to carry with her on those trips.
“Because especially now, I’m worried about her... her being a 72-year old Asian woman living in rural Kentucky,” says Suramek.
People of Asian or Pacific Island descent comprise about 1.7 percent of the state’s population, according to U.S. Census data. Although Kentucky has a hate crimes law, Kulkarni says it is “toothless.” It only applies to certain offenses, she says, and doesn’t protect women.
The Risks for Women of Color
Among the incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate, women comprise 68 percent of the victims. The Asian American females killed in Atlanta worked at massage businesses, and news reports indicate the alleged gunman claims he was motivated by a sexual addiction, not race. (An additional woman and man of non-Asian descent also died in the shootings.)
“We can clearly see that Asian women and our elderly are just viewed upon as objects to be dehumanized,” says Suramek.
Kulkarni says it’s not the fault of the women who become the target of violence. Yet many females, especially those of color, she says, carry the burden of having to be cautious in ways that white men do not.
“We move in this space of tension and constant vigilance,” says Kulkarni. “I’m constantly aware of my surroundings. I try not to put myself in situations where I might be more exposed.”
That creates what Kulkarni describe as a kind of privilege among those Americans who never have to consider their racial, gender, religious, or sexual identities as they go about their daily activities.
“It doesn’t matter what community you come from, if it’s been marginalized, if it’s been discriminated against, if it sets you apart in any way from the white community, then you are moving in a space where you are always vigilant, and you’re always aware of this tension and of this potential for danger.”
A ‘Model Minority’
Both women bristle at the stereotype of the “model minority,” which has been used to describe immigrants who arrive in America with little but through hard work and perseverance become financially successful. Suramek says that stereotype is too often used to pit one minority group against another.
“It minimizes the role that racism plays on other struggling, marginalized communities,” says Suramek.
Kulkarni is quick to note that many Americans, especially Black Americans, face discrimination and harassment. She says the story of the United States is woven with subjugation of groups from Native Indian tribes, to enslaved people brought from Africa, to the latest immigrants.
“This history of discrimination and hatred, bigotry, and vitriol is different maybe for Asian American Communities, it might be different for the Latinx community, and it’s different for the Black community,” says Kulkarni. “We have to make sure that we stand together against bigotry and hatred no matter who it’s directed against because it could be you tomorrow.”