Breaking the Silence: A Surge in Anti-Asian Hate Crimes
A recent shooting in Atlanta, Georgia follows a trend of growing anti-Asian American sentiment since the beginning of the pandemic. As the United States continues to navigate a year of public health crises and political turbulence, it still has to address a long history of violence against the Asian American community. Meanwhile, Asian communities at Tufts grapple with the implications of recent events and feel a need for stronger structural support from the university.
In the March 16 shooting, a 21-year-old white man killed eight people—six of whom were Asian women—at three spas in Atlanta. The victims were Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels. Federal authorities did not classify the shooting as a hate crime, which sparked nationwide outrage and protests.
Katherine Wang, a junior at Tufts, reflected on the aftermath of the Atlanta shooting. “I feel somewhat closer to people after talking about [recent acts of racism] because I think a lot of the times Asian racism is invisible. I think the more these events are in the news, it makes me feel more personally affected,” she said.
The rise in hate crimes like the Atlanta shooting can be attributed to growing xenophobia and anti-Asian rhetoric since the start of the pandemic, which has been strengthened by Former President Donald J. Trump’s comments and social media’s ability to spread misinformation.
Courtney Sato, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University specializing in Asian American studies, who will be joining Tufts’ Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora Department in the fall, said, “Social media helped to widely disseminate racist tropes and catchphrases. But [these] racist tropes are not anything new. The difference is you have such a public figure verbally saying these things [and] tweeting these things.”
The alienation of the Asian community through rules and rhetoric is not a phenomenon created by the pandemic. “We can situate what happened in Atlanta in a broader historical genealogy, as early as 1871. All the way back in the 19th century, there was the Chinese massacre in Los Angeles, and then we have anti-Asian sentiment that was then codified legally into the law and immigration policies,” said Sato.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans rose 150 percent in 2020, with incidents concentrated in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. Baljaa Borgil, a peer intern at the Asian American Center at Tufts, said, “It’s not that I could predict this happening, but the fact that it happened did not surprise me.”
Student groups are finding various ways to respond to the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Wang is also a member of the Tufts Asian Student Coalition, which is currently working on its Voices magazine, a literary and art publication produced in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. This semester, the theme was anger. “There were a lot of submissions around anger [about recent events] and getting to read them was very comforting in a way and very powerful,” she said. Also a member of TASC, Borgil said, “I feel like [anger] is an emotion that I’ve never been able to feel for my people. It’s interesting to see this theme being played out and how it challenges us as a group to vocalize ourselves.”
Despite finding community in peer-led groups, students have still had difficulty processing the Atlanta shooting due to a lack of support from Tufts. Elizabeth Hom is the Asian American Community Senator on the Tufts Community Union. When asked about whether Tufts provides enough resources for Asian students, she said, “I think no, point-blank. Tufts really struggles to give adequate support for communities of color.”
When a February op-ed in the Tufts Daily addressed the lack of action taken by the administration in addressing anti-Asian violence, Tufts University Student Life responded with a schoolwide email, signed by the director of the AAC, Aaron Parayno, and other administrative leaders, condemning violence against Asian Americans shortly after. On March 18, 2021, Tufts President Tony Monaco released a statement voicing his support for the Asian American community in response to the Atlanta shooting; however, many students expressed a desire for concrete action from the administration. In both cases, the university pointed to the AAC as a key resource for Asian students, but students report that simply steering students to a center does not address the larger problem at hand.
Wang believes the university needs to do more in terms of structural support, not only for Asian students but for students of color in general who have to cope with racism. “I think in general [Tufts needs] more funding for student centers; just the existence of them is not enough, they need to be maintained and supported with resources,” said Wang. She explained that absolving responsibility to identity centers without adequate resources puts the burden of labor onto the identity group rather than the university. At the same time, Wang believes that labor should not be shifted onto non-Asian staff members, reinforcing the need to expand identity centers’ resources.
Hom also mentioned the difficulties of dealing with the news while being a full-time student. “Professors don’t acknowledge any of these things going on and expect us to be fully functioning on top of the lack of support. Not even acknowledging these things that directly impact your students while assigning the normal amount of work, and even more than that, is, to me, crazy,” she furthered.
Deborah Schildkraut, a political science professor at Tufts, also said that messaging from individuals in positions of power plays a crucial role in creating a sense of belonging. “If you want people to feel welcome, included, invested in the community in which they live, messages from elites matter a lot. The people who create the rules, create the institutions can set the tone for whether or not that group is included and is seen as a full member of that community,” said Schildkraut.
These students’ anxieties point to insecurities in the larger systems at play. The shooting in Atlanta is discussed heavily in relation to anti-Asian violence and rhetoric, but more specifically, it reflects the intersection of race and gender in these cases. “This was the most speechless I have ever felt in response to the hate crimes in the media because this was targeted against Asian American women. Having that realization of like, wow, this shooter targeted people who looked similar to us, that made me speechless,” said Hom.
Wang had similar thoughts about safety after the Atlanta shooting. “Increasing [hate crimes] has made me a little bit more fearful on an everyday level. It definitely has made me turn more inwards to think about who I present as and how other people perceive me,” she said.
Sato believes that Atlanta should be contextualized within the history of fetishization and sexualization of Asian women. Police cited the killer’s “sexual addiction” as the reason behind his shooting and that he referred to the Asian women whose lives he took as “temptations” to eliminate. “In the Atlanta killings, the perpetrator was humanized, and law enforcement justified it as that he was just having a bad day. But at the same time, we also see how the mainstream media is not able to grapple with the complexity of these Asian women, and the lives that they lead. It speaks to the ways in which Asian women have continually been dehumanized and overly sexualized throughout history,” said Sato.
While students felt frustrated and alienated in the moments after the shooting, it presents an opportunity to come together and make progress. “If people feel hopeless or terrible right now, one solution is working with other people who share your interests to try to make change. [It] may not yield immediate results [but] organizing and advocating for your interests matter and can work,” said Schildkraut.