The New York Police Department's new anti-Asian hate crimes task force could inadvertently put Asian Americans in opposition to other communities of color, some activists fear.
Leaders of Asian American community groups expressed concern about the task force, which was created last month in response to the growing number of attacks targeting Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which has amplified calls for racial justice, some critics said such an initiative could have unintended consequences.
"I think it's hard for us to fundamentally reconcile that that entity is going to protect our community, when, oftentimes, violence against people of color is coming from law enforcement," said Kham Moua, head of the policy portfolio at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization.
An imperfect solution
Activists warn that such a task force could place Asian Americans in the difficult position of relying on an institution that has historically criminalized Black and brown communities. Research shows that Black men have a 1-in-1,000 chance of being killed by police. In comparison, the same odds among the general population are 1 in 2,000 for men and about 1 in 33,000 for women. Analysis found that the probability of being shot by police while being Black and unarmed is about 3.5 times the chance for unarmed white people, revealing "significant bias," researchers wrote.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, said the issue isn't so cut and dried.
Activists agree that anti-Asian sentiment has reached concerning levels. In April, the New York City Commission on Human Rights recorded more than 248 reports of harassment and discrimination related to COVID-19 since February, over 40 percent of which were identified as anti-Asian incidents.
Choimorrow said that for many Asian women, harassment is a longstanding public safety issue. The fear that women, particularly those of Asian descent, deal with on a daily basis while heading to work or shopping at the grocery store shouldn't be ignored, either, Choimorrow said. The reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate received 2,583 reports of anti-Asian discrimination nationwide over roughly five months. It found that women were 2.4 times more likely to report discrimination than men.
"I'm not going to tell an Asian American woman who has to commute on public transit every day to go to work who's facing harassment that she shouldn't call the police because she's being complicit with white supremacists," she said. "I'm not passing judgment on the Asian Americans who support this decision and are standing behind this. It's a tough situation."
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Moua said the task force seemed to have been created as part of a good faith effort to address a real problem. At a news conference announcing the formation of the task force, New York police Deputy Inspector Stewart Loo said COVID-19-related hate crimes "hit home for me."
"I have friends, families, who are legitimately afraid to go outside because they fear for their safety," Loo said.
Many Asian Americans, especially immigrants, don't feel they can trust police
Critics said that not everyone in the Asian American community has the same relationship with law enforcement and that some communities don't feel they can rely on police to protect them. Moua said police presence in Southeast Asian American refugee communities, in particular, has left a scar. Refugees who arrived after the Vietnam War often resettled in urban centers with little funding and infrastructure, many of which were under heavily surveillance, as well.
According to a report examining Asian American and Pacific Islanders, or AAPI people, behind bars, the AAPI prisoner population ballooned by about 250 percent during the prison boom of the 1990s. The research said that during this period, juveniles of Asian descent were more than twice as likely to be tried as adults compared to white juveniles accused of the same crimes. The criminalization of the immigrant community was especially evident in areas with high Asian American populations; Laotians and Vietnamese, for example, were among the four most arrested groups in 1990 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"Law enforcement has been one of the biggest perpetrators of violence against Asian Americans and communities of color and continues to be one of the biggest perpetrators of violence," Moua said.
He said that in November, the Fresno, California, Police Department established a task force to target Asian gangs after a four people were killed and six others were wounded in a backyard shooting.
"We're coming for you," Police Chief Andy Hall declared in front of reporters, addressing gang members.
Moua said much of the gang activity in Southeast Asian communities derives from the need to resort to survival tactics or the yearning to feel a sense of camaraderie or community that those involved feel is missing. Such a task force doesn't address that root cause, and it fails to start dialogue between perpetrators and victims, he said.
Getting to the root problem instead of 'putting a Band-Aid on'
Moua and Choimorrow said the same is true with the Asian hate crimes task force. The task force, they said, won't disentangle the racist association between Asian Americans and COVID-19 or address the root of anti-Asian sentiment, so it won't necessarily reduce the number of hate incidents toward Asian Americans or prevent them from occurring in the first place.
"I think this is one of those things where they're putting a Band-Aid on a situation where I feel like there's a lot more that can be done to address deeper issues," Choimorrow said.
Moua said many problematic beliefs are shaped by environment and the perpetuation of harmful narratives.
"We know that for a lot of young people, learning about hate starts at home. They learned from their parents, their social circles or the internet. And we know that one of the biggest perpetrators of hate rhetoric against Asian Americans right now is the president," he said.
During his main speech at the Republican National Convention last week, President Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus as the "China virus" several times. Many public health officials and others have warned that the language, which he has used in the past, could harm Asian Americans. The World Health Organization revised its naming conventions in 2015 to avoid such scenarios.
"In recent years, several new human infectious diseases have emerged. The use of names such as 'swine flu' and 'Middle East Respiratory Syndrome' has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors," said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, who was the WHO's assistant director-general for health security at the time.
Trump's refusal to refer to the virus by its proper name has coincided with an increase in hate incidents toward Asian Americans. Since March 19, Stop AAPI Hate has collected 2,583 reports of discrimination against AAPI people across the U.S. In some incidents, support for Trump was indicated before further verbal harassment.
Asian Americans as a 'racial wedge'
Moua said he is concerned that the task force could join a long history of using Asian Americans as pawns against other minority groups. The "model minority" label attached to Asian Americans historically has been weaponized to further white supremacist interests.
While Asian Americans confronted racist legislation like exclusionary immigration policies, white liberals dismantled them during and after World War I, fearing that anti-Asian racism could impede imperial expansion abroad, historian Ellen Wu, director of Asian American studies at Indiana University, has said.
Politicians later wielded the stereotype by holding up Japanese American "success stories" after World War II to reframe Japanese American incarceration and weaken the burgeoning civil rights movement. They sought to use Asian Americans as "proof" of meritocracy and equal opportunity for people of color.
"Asian Americans have long been used as a racial wedge in the United States to justify the oppression of other communities of color," Moua said. "I think that ultimately we must be firm in our allyship and commitment to our communities of color."
Choimorrow said that rather than rely on a New York task force, she has been pushing for more action among legislators to, first, put forth resources to curb the virus and, second, speak up and educate the community about how people cannot use the pandemic to attack Asian Americans.
"What we're asking for requires more labor and time from leaders," she said.
Moua is in favor of allocating more resources to restorative justice solutions in which both victim and perpetrator can face each other in productive dialogue.
"When you allow the perpetrator and the victim the opportunity to talk with each other, there is a much higher likelihood that the results coming out from it would both heal the individual, the victim, but also provide the opportunity for the perpetrator to learn and grow," he said.
He added: "We think people should be given an opportunity to try to change. Having a task force focus, even if it's framed as protecting Asian Americans, is focused on punitive measures and doesn't create space and room for change."