Growing climate of fear

Amid the increase of anti-Asian hate crimes in the US, Life spoke to former ambassador Kobsak Chutikul about racism and how to change the narrative

Like other immigrants, Chutikan Hoover remembered the thrill of stepping foot in the US -- the land of opportunity -- for the first time nearly two decades ago. She now lives with her husband in Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, and runs a licensed spa business.

"I think America still has potential but the opportunities have changed. It is not the same as before but if you are creative, you can still make a fortune," she said.

However, a climate of fear is taking hold among the Asian-American community. In late January, Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, was thrown to the ground in front of his home in San Francisco. A few days later, he died of a brain haemorrhage in the hospital. The police charged the main culprit with murder and his friend for accessory to murder. Since then, Chutikan refuses to take public transport and walk alone in big cities since people around her carry guns and have taken up martial arts.

The situation really hit close to home when eight people, six of whom were Asian-American women, were killed at three spas in Atlanta in March. Chutikan said these mass shootings were particularly shocking because her spa is the only one in town. Half of her employees of Asian descent fear they will be targeted whether it is racially or sexually motivated. Recently, another random attack on a Thai chef and her cat, which died of injuries, made the headlines with #JusticeforPonzu trending on social media.

Chutikan is one of over 300,000 Thais in the US. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the country stands around 22.6 million. As a result, May is celebrated as AAPI Heritage Month because it coincides with the arrival of Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843, and the contribution of Chinese labourers in building the transcontinental railroad which was officially completed on May 10, 1869. In light of this, Life spoke to experts about the rise of racism in the US amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Smaller American Dream

Kobsak Chutikul, a former ambassador and lawmaker, attributed the phenomenon to the political climate. The anti-China rhetoric of former president Donald Trump, who used terms such as "Chinese virus" and "kung flu", in part has given a rise to anti-Asian sentiment. He made China a scapegoat for his mishandling of the outbreak. Also, the deteriorating economic situation in the US has added fuel to the fire.

"Rural Americans have lost jobs because factories closed down and sent jobs to Asia for cheap labour, creating the rust belt," he said.

The term refers to an area that has been experiencing an industrial decline since the 1970s and covers Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia and Wisconsin. These states were known for coal mining, steel production, heavy industry and manufacturing in the early 20th century. Trump won the presidency due in part to his promise to revive the rust belt.

Kobsak said more Asians, especially hard-working Chinese, are climbing the social ladder at the expense of some Americans. Hence, anti-Asian sentiment reflects the uncertainty of the American Dream -- a belief that through hard work, courage and determination, prosperity can be achieved.

"In the past, cowboys rode horses on vast plains. 'Go West, young man!' [a slogan used to justify territorial expansion in the 19th century]. However, this is not the case anymore. If they win, we will lose because resources are limited," he said.

Kobsak said racism is inherent to the US because it was made up of a highly diverse population group since its inception. The arrival of early settlers led to the decline of Native Americans, followed by slavery during which Africans were brought over to work on cotton and tobacco plantations. He also drew attention to Chinese rail workers in the 1860s and Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during WWII.

"The Black Lives Matter movement is living proof that the US hasn't lived up to its ideals of being a melting pot. Maybe, it is an impossible dream," he said.

When asked about the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, Kobsak said it shows that the majority of the US Congress condemns anti-Asian hate crimes but it doesn't mean that racism will go away. In his opinion, Asian-Americans should make contributions to their society rather than only reap economic benefits. Thai-American Senator Tammy Duckworth is the epitome of those who work for the public interest. She is an Iraq war combat veteran who lost her legs and the partial use of her right arm when her helicopter crashed.

"Once they are part of [American] society, they will gain acceptance," he added.

On May 20, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill passed by Congress. Sponsored by Senator Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, and Representative Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, the bill will create a point person at the Justice Department to review hate crimes, expand public channels to report such incidents, and launch education campaigns to raise awareness.

Changing the narrative

Prof Russell Jeung, a lecturer of Asian-American Studies at San Francisco State University, said yellow peril -- a fear that Asians, especially the Chinese, will invade and disrupt their values -- has been invoked throughout history. He described their visibility as "paradoxical". On the one hand, they are invisible to the public because nobody knows their stories, but they are also hyper-visible, which explains why they are being attacked.

"We are invisible because we are neither black nor white and hyper-visible because we are seen as dangerous disease carriers. The primary risk of racism is that Asian-Americans are considered as outsiders," he told the online forum held by the Stop AAPI Hate advocacy group on May 11.

Prof Jeung said fear can put them in flight or fight mode but the third response is to heal pain and have empathy with racially profiled groups.

"Take this crisis as an opportunity to understand, grieve and deal with our pain. Then we can begin to heal and people who start to feel better can help others. In the process of getting healed, we can help the rest of America," he said.

He said the group is making an effort to expand civil rights protections, promote ethnic studies, discuss history and connect with other racial groups. The group launched a youth campaign last year as young Asian-Americans are suffering from racial trauma. Hundreds of students volunteered to interview others to create a 50-page policy report, which is the basis for Grace Meng's new legislation to expand ethnic studies curriculum development.

"For me, while we are doing the groundwork, we are changing the narrative of who belongs and whether America can accept Asian-Americans or not," he said.

Summary of the latest report

The Stop AAPI Hate reporting centre was launched by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, the Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Asian-American Studies Department at San Francisco State University to monitor hate incidents at the outset of Covid-19.

The database has received a total of 6,603 hate incidents between March 19 last year to March 31 this year and the two most reported forms of abuse were verbal harassment (65.2%) and shunning (18.1%) followed by physical assault (12.6%), civil rights violation (10.3%) and online harassment (7.3%).

A large percentage of incidents occurred in public streets and parks (37.8%) followed by places of business (32.2%).

Hate incidents reported by women made up 64.8% of all cases. In terms of age, the young (17 years and under) made up 11% of all cases and seniors (60 years and older) 6.6%.

Moreover, people of Chinese origin reported more hate incidents (43.7%) than other races or ethnic groups, followed by Koreans (16.6%), Filipinos (8.8%) and Vietnamese (8.3%). The number of cases reported by Thais accounted for 1.8% of all cases.

Report hate incidents in the US at stopaapihate.org.

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