On Tuesday, March 16, the news of a series of shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia shocked the nation. As more information became available, no community was more devastated than the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community as six of the eight victims identified as AAPI. This mass shooting highlighted the increasing violence against the AAPI community, against women, and against low wage and undocumented workers who are often protected by fewer privileges and laws. In the last year alone, there have been over 3,800 anti-Asian attacks and xenophobic violence has increased by at least 150%. New York Police Department data reports that in the first quarter of 2020 alone, 23 arrests were made for racially motivated crimes, 39% of which were of an anti-Asian bias in nature, compared to 6.1% in 2019, a six-fold increase year over year.
The use of inflammatory and discriminatory language by leaders in the highest offices of this nation in 2020 regarding the pandemic, in associating the virus specifically with China in derogatory terms, enflamed xenophobia against other nations, reflected back towards our AAPI communities, and emboldened individuals to act out hate crimes verbally, in text, physically, and criminally. These acts must be identified and addressed for what they are ultimately – hate crimes. Communities must not mince words when these events occur, because hate crimes are a specific subset of crimes, motivated by racism and xenophobia and bigotry. Unlike other crimes of opportunity, the underlying motivations that spur hate crimes forward can foment increased division between communities, even between people of color.
AAPI communities have long been a target in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1882 was the first law passed specifically against a group of individuals in this country. The history surrounding the treatment of immigrants building the railroads in this country, of the Japanese internment camps during World War 2, and the more recent spate of increased violence against AAPI, the lens of history shows that the arc of hate crimes against AAPI is long and embedded in our culture. And while these injustices may have been specific to certain communities, the continuing myth of the “model minority” has more insidious roots and effects.
AAPI are not a monolith. There is no such thing as simply “Asian American or Pacific Islander.” AAPI individuals hail and celebrate cultures from dozens of countries. And there are documented wide economic disparities between AAPI communities. Indian and Taiwanese Americans are some of the highest wage earners in the country, while individuals from Burma and Cambodia often live at or below the levels of poverty. The Pew Research Center reports that income inequality is increasing most rapidly among Asian American communities. The “model minority” myth harms many groups of AAPI who are often held to a higher standard and asked to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” like their higher earning counterparts, a view that has also been weaponized against other POC with the myth that the only necessary ingredient to economic stability and wealth is hard work.
For the most part, AAPI history is also often lacking in the formal educational curriculum for k-12 schools, preventing further understanding and advocacy for AAPI communities. Increased education must be part of any appropriate response to prevent further hate crimes against the AAPI community. Oppression and discrimination of any kind should be condemned, immediately and absolutely, and hate crimes must be addressed under the appropriate legal channels and prosecuted accordingly.
The shootings on Tuesday also targeted another group: women, and specifically, AAPI women who work at massage parlors. Violence against women continues to harm communities. With the increased time at home during the pandemic, the typical resources available to break the cycle of harm were less available to thwart domestic violence. The fetishizing of AAPI women in particular, especially in environments where the AAPI employees may work in service and/or be undocumented workers, creates greater disparities in the power dynamics between clients and employees. The targeting of three different Asian massage parlors could not have been coincidental by the shooter. Violence against women in these settings must be viewed specifically as targeting AAPI women, and not only the AAPI broader community.
As public health professionals, we must address these destabilizing and detrimental determinants of harm for what they are, a public health emergency. Both gun violence and racism have been declared a public health crisis by state and national public health agencies and associations. The rash of anti-AAPI crime increases the urgency to that of a public health emergency. We must not stand idly by while our neighbors, friends, and family members of the AAPI community are attacked, and the perpetrators of such crimes are not indicted within the consequences our laws provide. These acts should be viewed as the domestic terrorism they strive to be – to create terror in our AAPI communities, to drive hatred between cultural groups. We must call upon our legislators to support the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act and to provide necessary funding and resources to end the tide of racially-motivated hate crimes in this country. Racism, gun violence, violence against women, violence against low wage and undocumented workers, are all public health emergencies and must be declared and addressed as such.
The Illinois Public Health Association stands with the AAPI community and strongly condemns racially motivated hate crimes in all situations and environments. Racism is a public health crisis and we must act purposefully to eradicate it in all areas.