Surging anti-Asian hate crimes being tracked during coronavirus pandemic: "Things are getting very physical"

By Erin Donaghue

/ CBS News

Coronavirus-related racism seeps into U.S.

As Asian-Americans face an increase in assaults and verbal abuse amid the coronavirus pandemic, advocates are tracking hundreds of the incidents online to understand the scope of the problem, which they say appears to be growing and becoming more serious.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has described a "huge increase" in assaults targeting the Asian-American community in his state, and in New York Attorney General Letitia James launched a hotline for victims of coronavirus-related bias crimes. It can be difficult to understand the extent of the problem, advocates say, but knowing the scope can help legitimize the issue and help advocates develop ways to begin to address it.

Asian Americans see racism, discrimination amid coronavirus panic

"I think it's important to have as accurate a picture as you can of what the situation looks like here in the states," said Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, an umbrella group of advocacy organizations. "It makes people understand that this is the reality and the lived experiences of many Asian-Americans."

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Media reports have offered disturbing glimpses into that reality. In New York this month, a student from Korea was punched in the face by a woman who asked her, "Where is your [expletive] mask, you coronavirus [expletive.]" And the New York Times interviewed nearly two dozen Asian Americans who described being afraid to go to the grocery store or let their children outside. One San Francisco resident, Yuanyuan Zhu, told the paper she was walking to her gym when a man started yelling at her, used an expletive about China and shouted "run them over" when a bus passed.

Zhu, 26, said the man then spit on her.

"Asian Americans, like everyone else in the country, are fearful of the virus and trying their best to stay safe and healthy," said John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. "To layer on this notion of being targeted because they're Asian Americans and have that added threat to their physical and psychological safety is really bad and has to be stopped."

Several groups including Yang's are using online reporting tools as a way to gather more data. Asian Americans Advancing Justice has tracked anti-Asian hate crimes for years, but is now tracking incidents directly related to the coronavirus.

The group's online reporting tool, StandAgainstHatred.org, allows victims to self report incidents of discrimination, verbal harassment or assault against Asian-Americans. The group also monitors media reports and people who report incidents on their social media accounts.

Yang said the group is seeing a "very sharp increase" of the incidents in recent weeks, mirroring the spread of the virus globally. The group has tracked about 3-4 incidents a day ranging from assaults to verbal abuse and name-calling by people who make specific references to the coronavirus or refer to all Asian-Americans as Chinese.

"The idea seems to be that all Asian-Americans are carriers of the virus, or somehow Asian Americans in many cases that have been here for generations were the cause of this virus spread in the U.S.," Yang said.

In one incident reported on StandAgainstHatred,org, a victim reported being approached by someone outside a Brooklyn grocery store who said, "Chinese people f—- everything up."

"I am a fifth-generation Asian-American and wore my protective mask for the first time that day," the victim wrote.

Rhetoric from President Donald Trump and other top officials, who have referred to COVID-19 as "The Chinese virus," fuels the racism, Yang said.

"Reporting on these cases also demonstrates that words matter," Yang said. "Often, words used by perpetrators of hate crimes mirror the words used by certain elected officials or influencers."

In California, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and the Chinese for Affirmative Action launched their website Stop AAPI Hate last week in response to growing news reports about hate crimes and discrimination targeting Asian-Americans.

Cynthia Choi, the co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said the website has been flooded with reports of incidents since it launched on March 19. As of Tuesday, they had collected 550 reports. Most of the incidents happened in March and a handful in February, Choi said.

The incidents ranged from verbal abuse and harassment to physical assaults such as kicking and punching. Many happened in grocery stores or parks, some walking on streets, and others by their own neighbors. Disturbingly, Choi said she's noted multiple reports of people saying they've been spat on or coughed on.

"What's shocking, given that we're in a public health crisis, is people trying to spit and cough into people's faces — that's something that's happening to a great degree," Choi said. "Things are getting very physical, people throwing bottles, people who are pushing people into harm's way. And yes, it seems like the violence is certainly on the rise."

The groups initially intended to track California incidents, but soon decided to expand the data tool to include incidents nationwide because of the scope of the issue. Launched in conjunction with the San Francisco State University Asian American Studies Department, the tool is available in multiple languages and allows users to report the information with the promise that personal information will be kept confidential. The group does not share information with law enforcement, but encourages people to also call 911 if they fear for their safety, Choi said.

Choi says she hopes the data will help victims understand they aren't alone. Eventually, she hopes the data can be used to help develop education campaigns, promote de-escalation tips and connect victims to resources.

"We really need to combat this with public education and awareness, and the ability to engage with people in a safe way that really promotes that this is not acceptable behavior," Choi said.

Groups including Choi's and Yang's are communicating and may join forces to better track the cases. Both say many more incidents are likely going unreported and that the current data is only "scratching the surface." Victims of hate incidents may be reluctant to come forward over fear of continued targeting or a desire to move on from the incident, said Orton, which is why tracking tools can help.

"It's understandable why it may not be at the top of the list to come forward and share their story, and that's part of the reason why websites and reporting tools from trusted community groups are really important," Orton said.

First published on March 26, 2020 / 11:27 AM

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Erin Donaghue reports and writes for CBSNews.com on topics including criminal justice, social justice and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @ErinDonaghue.

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