Westport program looks at rise of anti-AAPI hate incidents

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Over a hundred residents bow their heads with State Representative Tony Hwang they turned out to peacefully protest on Jesup Green Saturday, March 27, 2021, in Westport, Conn. The protesters gathered in solidarity with the AAPI community in opposition to the rise of hate crimes against that Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Over a hundred residents bow their heads with State Representative Tony Hwang they turned out to peacefully protest on Jesup Green Saturday, March 27, 2021, in Westport, Conn. The protesters gathered in solidarity with the AAPI community in opposition to the rise of hate crimes against that Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — More than 6,000 incidents of hate were reported last year against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but while the issue of racism toward the AAPI community is in the spotlight, a recent program showed the issues actually date back centuries.

Based on the city and the data source, these incidents show a 150 percent or 2,600 percent increase over previous years, Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, said at Westport Library’s recent program on what it means to be an Asian American.

“Either way, this is a surge,” said Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and one of the program’s speakers. She added these reported incidents are believed to be just a fraction of what actually happened.

The talk drew on the past and present and looked to the future. It also featured Jason Oliver Chang, director of the Asian and American Studies, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut and a West Hartford school board member.

“If we look at some of the reports of hate incidents that have been tracked by organizations like Stop AAPI Hate, you can see the ways in which historic trends are reverberating through the literal words and statements of hate,” Lee said.

These include Asian Americans being told to go home, being spat on and being sprayed with Lysol because the perpetrator was directly linking them to the COVID-19 virus. There were also instances of violence, she said.

“This is nothing new, but what what we’ve seen has been a spark to the flames of racism,” Lee said, adding it’s due to the “unnecessary and unfortunate politicization and racialization” of the coronavirus as Asian.

Both Lee and Chang said people often assume racism against Asian Americans began with the Gold Rush, with the Chinese Exclusion Act banning Chinese immigrants’ ability to become U.S. citizens and the Japanese internment camps as some of the most prominent examples.

But, Chang said, racism toward Asians began centuries before that with the expulsion of Chinese immigrants from the Spanish empire, the slave trade and even with Christopher Columbus sailing to find Asia.

“If we think about the patterns, Asian Americans are kind of invisible until they’re scapegoated,” he said.

They also said racism toward Asian Americans can involve depicting Asian Americans as non-American. This was seen with the Japanese internment camps, established during World War II. At that time, it was U.S. government policy that those of Japanese descent — including U.S. citizens — be incarcerated in the camps. The camps hinged on the idea that Japanese-Americans were disloyal and an enemy to the U.S. despite how long they lived in the U.S., whether they spoke their ancestral language or if they had even been to their ancestral homeland.

One of the audience members showed it’s still apparent today when she asked the panelists for advice on how to respond to the question, “Where are you really from?”

Racism can also pit Asian Americans against other groups, such as Blacks, Lee and Chang said. Asian Americans depicted as the “model minority” have been held up by whites to delegitimize claims that there is systemic racism and inequities baked into the system.

This also came about in the Black Lives Matter movement and the over-reporting of Black crime to encourage Asian Americans to side with whiteness and policing, Chang said.

“Again, this use of Asian Americans to temper and subdue Black radical thought,” he said. “This is a moment to really reflect on that.”

The name “Asian American” is fairly recent. It came about in the 1960s as part of a larger movement led by activists, musicians, poets and artists. Chang said the Pacific Islander part was later added as a government convenience.

“It did not arise out of community cries to be included,” Chang said.

He said one of the fallouts is that Pacific Islanders make up a smaller percentage of the larger group and so often aren’t recognized as indigenous people, disregarding their relationship with U.S. colonialism, struggles with sovereignty and immigration status — all of which are key life experiences.

Both Lee and Chang said it’s important to learn about the AAPI community, the people who make it up and their experiences so they can build on that going forward. It’s one of the reasons Chang considers the state’s commitment to developing a curriculum on Asian American history a good thing.

“When you have nothing, no content, no knowledge, what gets filled into those holes is the meanest and (most debased) stereotypes,” Lee said.

Increasing awareness about the AAPI experiences was the reason for the talk. “We are parents who came together because we were worried about how these events affect our children in the schools,” said parent, teacher and lawyer Heather Lee, who served as the moderator during the talk. “We cam together to join the national rallying cry to stop Asian hate.”