April 25, 2020
By Maria Lee, Civil Rights Equity Division
Anti-Asian racism was present in our communities far before the president used the term “Chinese Virus”. In the months leading up to Governor Tim Walz’s Stay at Home Order, newspapers circulated articles linking the coronavirus to foreignness. Stories about non-Asian coronavirus patients ran with pictures of unidentified Asian people in masks or shots of storefronts in major Chinatowns. By early February, Chinatown restaurant owners in California and New York said they’d seen a dramatic drop in foot traffic and patronage. The current rise in anti-Asian racism and xenophobia is a new permutation of an old American habit: scapegoating an “unamerican other” for a perceived threat to American prosperity.
With heightened anxieties about threatened economic security, many fear a spike in violence after Stay at Home orders are lifted. Author Helen Zia points to the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit as one such watershed moment when economic decline lead to violence against Asian Americans. The initial case ruling charged Chin’s killers with a $3,000 fine, three years’ probation, and no jail time. The leniency of this verdict exposed the conditional acceptance into American life Asian Americans have always faced and sparked action in many to take a stand against racism. In the aftermath, Asian American activists found allies in the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League to strengthen hate crime legislation. A key lesson from the Vincent Chin case for the Asian American movement was what Asian Americans are experiencing is part of a larger pattern of race-based violence in the United States. Therefore, strategies to combat anti-Asian racism cannot be developed in isolation but needs to chip away at the larger pattern of race-based violence in coordination with other marginalized groups.
While we don’t have control over the national political discourse, we do have both the power and responsibility to be actively engaged in the response to anti-Asian racism in our own communities here in Minneapolis. The response to increased anti-Asian racism must align with broader racial equity efforts that builds solidarity among marginalized groups. We must have strategies beyond increasing policing to keep communities safe. We’ve seen the disastrous outcomes when police presence unnecessarily escalates incidents; violence in these cases statistically impacts the African American community disproportionately. Beyond harming other communities of color, unwarranted increased policing harms the most vulnerable within the Asian American community, such as document insecure and trans/gender non-conforming Asian Americans. Our response to increased anti-Asian racism must include strong institutions to investigate discrimination and track hate crime incidents, intervention and de-escalation skills in community, and media coverage that avoids stereotypes.
Several groups are tracking incidents targeting Asian Americans around the nation, including the State of Minnesota’s Human Rights Department through their recently launched Discrimination Helpline. The helpline is collecting incidents both observed and experienced directly. The Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights is taking discrimination complaints online and over the phone. We encourage you to reach out to the Complaints Investigation Division of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department if you have experienced any of the following and have reason to believe the action is motivated by your race or ethnicity: denial of service at a store, restaurant, clinic, or social service agency; denial of transportation services via public transportation, taxi, Lyft, or Uber; loss of housing; loss of work or reduction of work hours. The Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights rejects racism and discrimination in all forms and is committed to protecting Asian Americans and all people during this time.
Beyond our institutions, we need communities who have the skills to step up and intervene on behalf of their neighbors. We need community members who are informed and proactively inclusive to participate. This doesn’t mean to jump in and break up a fist fight. This does mean to help broaden the narrowly defined notion of a “proper American” and ensure that we are all getting the same access to goods and services now, and as we slowly return to public life. If you work at a grocery store and observe harassment, ask the harasser to leave. If you are getting takeout meals, support Asian owned restaurants. If you supervise employees, let them know anti-Asian racism is never allowed, especially now. Hate geared towards any one group hurts our broader goal of an equitable and just society. It is up to us to challenge xenophobic speech among our friends, family, and immediate community members.
With uncertain times ahead, the need to develop systems of care across difference is more important than ever. We can look to the past for behavioral patterns we should aspire not to repeat, and for examples of courageous community members who dared to challenge fear.