Asian Americans face growing violence, anxieties a year into COVID-19

A national spike in physical and verbal attacks against Asian Americans has members of the Columbus community speaking out

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Sharon Kim

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Asian Americans have faced racist violence at significantly higher rates than in previous years, with hundreds of incidents catalogued by Stop AAPI Hate.

In more recent weeks, these attacks, a number of which have been perpetrated against elderly citizens, have started to make national news. On Jan. 28, an assailant shoved 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee to the ground as he took his morning walk in San Francisco; Ratanapakdee died two days later. (Antoine Watson, 19, has since been charged with murder and elder abuse; he pleaded not guilty.) 

Elsewhere, a 64-year-old Vietnamese woman was assaulted and robbed in San Jose, Calif., and an attacker slashed the face of a 61-year old Filipino man with a box cutter on the New York City subway. Then, in early February, security footage captured the violent assault of a 91-year-old man who was thrown to the ground in the Chinatown area of Oakland, Calif., where more than 20 attacks and robberies have been documented since January.

Collectively, these attacks have raised anxieties within the local Asian American community, which had already been on higher alert amid pandemic scapegoating fueled for more than a year by former President Donald Trump, who had a habit of labeling COVID-19 with racist slurs such as “the China virus” or “kung flu.”

“I keep coming back to what we talked about previously, which is that this isn’t new, this feeling of not being safe, this feeling of being othered and this act of being scapegoated for the pandemic,” said Sharon Kim, who contributed to an April 2020 Alive roundtable on the experience of Asian Americans navigating the early weeks of the coronavirus. “This isn’t new, not just from my personal experience but also historically, so obviously people’s lives are very affected. I have two elderly parents who live not close to me, and I’m concerned about their safety everyday.” 

Kim said she has not had similar experiences locally, owing to a combination of her pandemic routine, which is largely centered on a work-from-home life (her husband takes care of most of the family's public errands), ongoing COVID restrictions placed on businesses and the winter weather, which has a natural sheltering effect across the city. Still, recent conversations with fellow members of her community have increasingly focused on the days to come, when warmer weather and relaxed regulations will present more opportunities for public interaction.

“We’re talking about there being an increase, an influx in terms of violence and attacks, whether it’s physical or verbal,” Kim said. “In Columbus, you’re kind of siloed in your home right now; it’s not like New York City or San Francisco or Oakland, which are very much walkable communities, and where you’re more visible. But I know as things open up, other people are anticipating an increase, which is why it’s important that we bring attention to the issue now and really try to mitigate things before they can get worse.”

Jona Hilario, one of the co-directors of Ohio Progressive Asian Women’s Leadership (OPAWL), expressed similar concerns, noting that while she has not experienced any public racism, owing in part to her role as a stay-at-home mom, members of the local Asian American community have spoken about incidents of verbal harassment at OPAWL meetings in the months since COVID hit. 

“A lot of these involve grocery stores and people being yelled at to go back home,” said Hilario, who added she is increasingly on-guard those rare times she’s out in public, such as when she takes her kids to the park, which can enact a heavy emotional toll. “We have to worry about the virus, but also this virus of racism, as well. It’s a lot on our community mentally.” 

Despite the rise in violence, many in the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community have resisted calls for an increased police presence, wary of the harm it could cause fellow marginalized populaces, particularly those in the Black community. "We don't support that kind of action because it really perpetuates this idea of policing and surveillance, which, first of all, hasn't kept us safe," Kim said. "And also we know that the people who suffer the most in terms of that system are Black community members, and that's not something we want to encourage or enforce."

Hilario, like Kim, traced these current attacks to the long arc of scapegoating and racism against Asian Americans, referencing the racist phenomenon of “yellow peril,” where members of the community have historically been viewed as carriers of disease. “As sad as it is, it’s not unexpected that these kinds of things are still happening now,” said Hilario, who expressed a belief that these incidents have generally been underreported, owing in part to a culture of privacy and stoicism historically embedded within the community, particularly among its older citizens.

“One thing I’ve been thinking about, especially when talking about it with my peers or non-Asian friends, is to not just look at these specific attacks in this small moment in time, but also taking them in a broader way, understanding what it has come from and what it has evolved from,” said Kim, who referenced the lynching of Asian railroad workers in the 1800s, World War II Japanese internment camps and the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Detroit by two white auto workers who blamed Chin for the success of the Japanese auto industry at a time its U.S. counterpart was in decline.

Both Kim and Hilario noted that having an understanding of this history is key to mitigating future violence, along with increased civic and community engagement.

“I think even informing oneself about these issues is helpful, and if you have Asian American friends or peers, just being aware that this is a reality for them,” Kim said. “That’s not saying you need to check in, or ask that we’re OK, but keep an eye out and be aware these things are happening. Look out for the Asian American elders you see out at the grocery store, or at the bank, and if you see someone harassing them or yelling something racist at them, don’t stay quiet. … If someone is being attacked, and you’re saying or doing something for them in that moment, that's very powerful.”