Robbins: The rise and rise of anti-Asian American discrimination

When newly elected Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced last December that those entering certain indoor spaces would have to show that they had been vaccinated against COVID, there were some who believed it was simply outrageous for the mayor of Boston to try to protect Bostonians from a demonstrably deadly, highly transmissible virus. And no wonder they were outraged.

After all, only 1.6 million Massachusetts residents had contracted the virus, 175,000 of them in Boston. How Boston’s mayor could have concluded that it would be sensible to impede the spread of the disease by taking steps to protect the public health was anyone’s guess.

Many of the apoplectic expressed their disapproval of the policy measure in notably highbrow fashion on social media. “Communist Wu needs to go back to China,” one demanded of Wu, whose parents emigrated to America from Taiwan, not the Communist-run People’s Republic of China. But, hey! Is being an ill-informed racist truly that much worse than being a plain old racist? “Another oriental in a governmental position,” commented another. “Is it me or are there more oriental people within all facets and levels of influence?”

Some clever souls showered epithets on Mayor Wu of a sort that raises questions about whether their affliction is racism or simply remaining stuck in the fourth grade. Popular examples are “Michelle Wuhan” and “Mayor Wuhan.” Get it?

Wu has impressed her city with sober, nuts-and-bolts governing, swift action to implement promises to relieve the pressures on communities particularly badly battered by the pandemic and her upbeat persona. This hardly immunizes her from the haters. If anything, being an Asian American woman who is succeeding in a high profile public position guarantees that she will find herself plagued by Lilliputians.

The vitriol that a small but ardent band of haters directs at her meshes with the data indicating that anti-Asian American bias, which surged in 2020, continues to climb, only at steeper and steeper rates. A report recently issued by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found that anti-Asian American hate crimes in America increased by 339% in 2021 over 2020. This is just the latest increase in a sharp upward trend; anti-Asian hate crimes had already spiked 124% in 2020 over 2019.

These statistics were consistent with last year’s survey by the Anti-Defamation League, finding that harassment of Asian Americans was on the rise. According to the ADL report, 17% of Asian Americans experienced threats, insults or other forms of harassment. That figure is almost certainly conservative. “After a year where national figures, including the president himself, routinely scapegoated Chinese people for spreading the coronavirus,” said ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt at the time, “Asian Americans experienced heightened levels of harassment online, just as they did off-line.”

Greenblatt was alluding to former President Trump’s references to COVID as “the Chinese virus” or “Kung Flu.” But the data suggests that the poison released in 2020 is spreading, not receding. Gregg Orton, director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, put it thus: “It’s easy to dismiss racism when it doesn’t impact you,” Orton told ABC News. “This is people’s safety and it’s affecting their lives.”

This week, Northeastern University School of Law is convening the first in a two-part series of programs on discrimination against Asian Americans. Professor Margaret Woo, who is moderating one of the programs, says “Every single Asian American I have talked to has had some experience with discrimination — every single one.” It is, she says, “non-stop.”

But the program’s organizers, says Woo, “don’t want this to be a victim’s story.” She points to the growth in Asian American activism that has accompanied the sheer numerical growth in the percentage of Americans of Asian origin. “We won’t be invisible anymore,” says professor Woo. Keeping the spotlight on what Asian Americans are subjected to can only help.

Jeff Robbins is a Boston lawyer and former U.S. delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.