State Sen. Tina Maharath addresses violence against the Asian American community

A new bipartisan bill in the Ohio Senate would create a state commission and office dedicated to Asian American and Pacific Islander affairs

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
State Sen. Tina Maharath, D-Canal Winchester, left, wears a mask that says "hate is a virus" during a committee hearing in late June.

Discrimination and violence against Asian American and Pacific Island (AAPI) people existed before a recent shooting spree in Georgia left eight dead, most of whom were of Asian descent. And it existed well before the early 2020 arrival of COVID-19, which has incited an uptick in attacks against the AAPI community, driven in part by the racist terms (“China virus,” “kung flu”) embraced by former president Donald Trump and his many acolytes on the right.

“I hate to say this, but we’re so used to it,” said State Sen. Tina Maharath, who is the daughter of Laotian refugees. “The Asian American and Pacific Islander community, let alone us refugees in general, we already felt discriminated against before the pandemic, before Georgia. I’ve been told to go back where I came from my whole life. My eyes have been [mocked]. This is not new. So when I got all of the COVID-19 hate, I just internalized it because it’s something I’m used to, even if it’s not the way I know it’s supposed to be.”

Maharath’s lifelong experiences are part of what initially drove her to propose a commission to help combat violence against Asian Americans, which she said would serve as an acknowledgment of the community’s existence in Ohio and an important first step that could lead to other public policy advancements for the group.

The senator first proposed the commission during the previous General Assembly, though the bill was never taken up. In recent weeks, however, Republican State Sen. Niraj Antani signed on as co-sponsor of the bill, SB87, which would create a state commission and office dedicated to Asian American and Pacific Islander affairs.

“The commission’s primary responsibility would be to collect and disseminate information about the AAPI community,” said Maharath, who noted the state is working with a dearth of data related to the AAPI populace. “It’s very hard to get the data currently because that community doesn’t have the sense of comfort … to reach out to their elected officials because often they’re people who don’t look like them, don’t act like them and don’t have the slightest clue what the needs of their communities are.”

In addition to providing a safe space to traffic information, Maharath said the commission would advocate for the AAPI community through education, coordinate and assist other public and private organizations serving Asian Americans and provide resources for culturally appropriate organizations and language services. “This commission will be an important step forward to ensure that the state government is equal to us all here in Ohio,” she said.

And there appears to be momentum behind the bill this time around, too, Maharath said, not only because of the tragic events in Georgia but also due to the uptick in violence the AAPI community has experienced during coronavirus shutdowns of the last year.

“I would hear really bad things from my own constituents and other Ohioans who weren’t comfortable enough to go to law enforcement or to their own state senator,” Maharath said. “I heard stories about people being called a virus, or being told to go back to China, or that this was their fault. … It’s not a comfortable position for anyone to be put in, and no one should feel that way. They should feel safe here, but they’re living in fear because of the color of their skin.”

Recent discussions among some in the local AAPI community have centered on taking steps to mitigate violence before it has a chance to take root in Ohio the same way it has in communities where Asian Americans are more exposed by circumstance. 

“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,” Sharon Kim said in February. “But I know as things open up, other people are anticipating an increase [in violence], 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.”

According to Maharath, this is part of the drive behind engaging in these conversations early. “For us Asian Americans, we’ve always been labeled the ‘model minority,’ and it’s a myth. We’re always faced with the stereotype that we are the ones who stay quiet, don’t cause any problems, don’t say anything and just take what America gives us,” she said. “It’s time to break that model minority myth and say something and speak up. That’s why these discussions need to happen now, or this is something that’s going to snowball over time.”

Like Kim and Jona Hilario, one of the co-directors of Ohio Progressive Asian Women’s Leadership (OPAWL), Maharath sees this current push in support of AAPI people as part of the larger racial justice movement. (In February, Hilario said she hoped minority groups could come together and address the spike in violence against the AAPI community without falling back on an increased police presence that could “endanger our Black neighbors, or endanger Asian folks who maybe don’t speak the language and maybe get confused [when approached by the police],” increasing the potential for a negative interaction.)

“We have the same issues and the same fight,” said Maharath, who was approached to join the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus following her 2018 election, a membership she renewed for the most recent General Assembly. “We’re better when we work together.”