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How California can combat anti-AAPI attacks

How California can combat anti-AAPI attacks

Picture of Jeff Le
Asian Americans in New York attend an April self-defense class organized in response to ongoing violent attacks across the count
Asian Americans in New York attend an April self-defense class organized in response to ongoing violent attacks across the country.
(Photo by Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

“It was a pretty big knife, it had knuckles on the handle … like a military knife.”

As a former frontline civilian in Afghanistan, when I heard this description I thought it referred to an enemy combatant’s weapon of choice in a war zone overseas. Instead, this was the weapon used to attack two vulnerable elderly women from the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community on the same bus route I take when I visit San Francisco.

This is sadly no outlier. The tsunami of hate, which has grown in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to be getting worse. This week President Biden signed legislation to strengthen the investigation of hate crimes, especially those targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Now more action is needed from state government.

Stop AAPI Hate has documented over 6,600 incidents of hate, self-reported from March 2020 to March 2021. More than 2,400 cases occurred in the first three months of this year alone. Incidents have become more violent, with a 64% increase in physical assaults in 2021. Women are the main targets.

It’s jarring to see that 40% of the self-reported acts of hate happened in California, though it has only 15% of the national AAPI population.

Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, fears that as the state and country become safer from the virus, the threat of violence may increase as anti-Asian rhetoric continues and people emerge from pandemic isolation and return to public spaces. 

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the least likely community to report hate incidents due to culture and linguistic barriers, so, shocking as they are, the numbers reported by Stop AAPI Hate do not represent the full scale of the community’s terror and fear. I have been spit on and harassed. And I am a part of a WhatsApp messaging chain on which 50 young professionals discuss the tools of self-protection. What’s the best pepper spray — which has the firmest handle, the ideal spray radius, the right decibels on the alarm and brightness for the lights? What’s the length of the chain? Can it be attached and used with ease?

Whether reporting or hate incidents are on the rise — and my conversations with community members suggest it’s both — the numbers highlight a situation that torments people every day. 

In California and other states, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have found the courage to speak out despite the threats. Informal programs — for example, bystander training from Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Hollaback, and accompanied walking programs for seniors — give community members opportunities to support and protect one another. These are important.

But as a former California state government official responsible for disaster response, recovery and economic revitalization, I believe anti-hate investments deserve more funding beyond the $1.4 million that state lawmakers have allocated to track anti-Asian bias and hate crimes.

Swift, meaningful legislative and budget action is needed to combat the lethal combination of economic disruption and rampant discrimination, spurred by structural inequities and racism, that affect the community’s health and safety.

With a historic $76 billion budget surplus, California legislators and policymakers can act through four investments in community support and services for the next fiscal year and beyond.

First, the AAPI community needs more mental health services and support. Researchers have found a direct correlation between Asian Americans’ encounters with racial hostility and discrimination, and their long-term physical and mental health. During the pandemic, the problem has become more pronounced. In a spring 2020 survey of 410 Asians and Asian Americans living in the United States, 29% reported an increase in discrimination during the pandemic. Those who experienced discrimination were more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and loss of sleep. The impact was greatest on people who had less social and community support.

That’s why there must be more direction for the California Department of Social Services for investments in free services from trusted community-based organizations. These include legal, health and mental health services and counseling and compensation for victims of hate crimes.

Second, the state should meet AAPI communities where they are to deliver government services. As a complement to federal steps, Sacramento should make multi-year investments to deepen data collection on AAPI hate crimes in multiple languages and add a centralized hub, such as an online portal or hotline, for reporting hate incidents and getting connected to services. Such data collection and analysis must be done with the necessary language capacities, a diverse pool of interpreters, trusted ethnic media, and should work with a coalition of philanthropies, nonprofits and higher education to conduct quarterly scientific surveys to specific AAPI communities to obtain sound, current and accurate data.

We can’t understand inequities within the AAPI community without good data.

Third, the state must help AAPI communities rebuild economically to alleviate growing hopelessness. To relieve the deepening economic distress facing hard-hit AAPI small businesses, lawmakers should also enact timely economic grants, direct business support and public works programs that revitalize the state’s AAPI community centers.

AAPI-owned businesses saw the biggest decline last year — casualties of both the pandemic and hate. The jobless rate for AAPI communities rose from 2.8% in 2019 to as high as 15% in May 2020 — well above the rate for whites and Latinos. In 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 48% of the unemployed AAPI community were without work for six months or more through the first quarter of this year. This figure was higher than for Black (43%), white (39%) and Latino communities (39%).

Growing anti-AAPI sentiment only worsened income inequality, which is now greater in the AAPI community than among any other group in America.

AAPI women especially felt the brunt of this economic loss. By January 2021, there were 514,000 fewer AAPI women in the workforce than in 2019. Economic investment could reverse this trend. To support women disproportionately affected by hate and violence, money and programs should be set aside specifically to support women entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Given the state’s leading role as a place that welcomes and embraces diversity, it’s a shame that California has been ground zero for horrific acts of hate, discrimination, and violence — with no end in sight. The California Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus has called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to invest $200 million over the next three years to fight AAPI hate crimes and increase AAPI community access to government services. That’s a small request to a governor who has proposed a $267 billion budget.

Rather than continue to see WhatsApp discussions about pepper spray and knives, I would like our community to be able to celebrate meaningful action from our elected officials. It’s time for Sacramento to stand up for AAPI communities and provide the necessary support to stem the insidious tide of anti-AAPI hate.

Jeff Le is a political partner at the Truman National Security Project. He served as Deputy Cabinet Secretary and Deputy Director of External and International Affairs for California Gov. Jerry Brown from 2014 to 2019.

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