Syed Jamal: Recent spike in violence against Asian Americans deserves national action (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

The recent tragedy in Atlanta, in which six innocent Asian American women were shot to death along with two others, represents a significant escalation in violence directed against Asian Americans. It follows a recent wave of anti-Asian incidents in the Bay Area and on the East Coast, including racial slurs, verbal harassment and physical assaults against the elderly.

As an Asian immigrant living in Lawrence, with family members scattered from coast to coast, I am confident that the people of Lawrence will not countenance hate against any ethnic group. At the same time, I feel compelled to raise my voice in solidarity with the majority of Americans who are concerned with improving the seemingly worsening racial relations at this difficult time in our history, amid a historic pandemic.

Throughout American history, and especially since the late 1800s, hate and discrimination have been directed against Asian Americans in various parts of the country, particularly during times of economic distress. The Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 19th century and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II are unfortunate national embarrassments that largely have faded from our national conscience.

As the Asian American population has grown steadily, it unfortunately has become convenient for manipulative politicians to present this ethnic group as outsiders. Because these anti-Asian crimes are the manifestations of deep-seated animosities against a successful immigrant group among certain segments of the population, they shine the spotlight on a social problem that has political and economic roots.

At the same time that the increase in immigration through the southern border has made some people uncomfortable, the pandemic has worsened the tendency among some people to scapegoat. When the coronavirus first arrived in the U.S., some politicians labeled it the “Wuhan virus” or the “China virus.” Others called it “Kung flu.” 

As people started to associate the virus with China or East Asia, both unconscious and conscious dehumanization of the Asian American community increased. The elevation of China to public enemy No. 1 may also have contributed to the rise in negative sentiments against East Asians among certain Americans.

According to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit group that tracks instances of hate and discrimination against Asians in the U.S., there have been more than 3,000 complaints about incidents targeting members of the Asian American community so far in 2021 alone. Among those complaints, 70% involved verbal harassment, 20% involved shunning or avoidance, and the rest were physical assaults. 

In the recent shootings in Atlanta, six of the eight people killed were Asian American women employed in businesses that are particularly vulnerable because of the somewhat disproportionately devastating effects of COVID on Asian businesses. Most Asian American workers are concentrated in the hospitality and services industries, which have been severely impacted by the pandemic. Furthermore, many Asian American women work in massage parlors, which makes them far more vulnerable to objectification. 

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the response to the increase in crimes against Asian Americans has been slow and uncoordinated. News and media reports have been passive. For example, it has been reported that a “75-year-old Asian woman beat back her attacker” or that the suspect “was having a bad day.” This shifts the focus from the perpetrator to the victim. Moreover, most people deny that hatred and prejudice against ethnic minorities exist until we are all shell-shocked. 

A more coordinated response is required. Listening sessions orchestrated by the White House and increased police patrols are definitely steps in the right direction. But more is needed. There is a pressing need to support Asian American businesses. Communities of faith, educational institutions, businesses, national social organizations, political leadership and the media should all spring into action with a mission to educate people and prevent dehumanization of any ethnic, racial or religious group, and to teach the younger generation the values of tolerance and coexistence.

— Syed Jamal lives with his wife, three children and their cat, Opal, in Lawrence. He experimented with journalism as a teenager before coming to Lawrence from Dhaka, Bangladesh. He studied philosophy and biology at Rockhurst University before earning graduate degrees in pharmacology and molecular/applied biosciences from the University of Missouri. He teaches at the University of Saint Mary and is researching phytoremediation for Ascend Biotechnology of Santa Clara, California, and pathobiology with teaching hospitals in Kansas and Arkansas. 

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