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Hate crimes and history: Asian American leaders discuss racism during the pandemic

“Let us remember that our unity is our strength,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said during a town hall.

In 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, was murdered by two white men who blamed him for the success of the Japanese auto industry and the recession in the American Midwest. His death sparked outrage within Asian American communities across the country, especially as the men behind it faced only a $3,000 fine and three years of probation.

Nearly four decades later, journalist and activist Helen Zia, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen gathered to discuss how this moment echoes today, as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn have fueled anti-Asian sentiment and hostility across the United States.

“The suffering was across the country. There was a recession everywhere,” Zia said, speaking on the many parallels between the time of Chin’s murder and the present moment. “There was an effort to find somebody to blame,” she said.

On Wednesday, Zia, Walker, Nguyen and other prominent Asian American community leaders spoke about the current climate as part of the Center for Asian American Media’s digital town hall, “Asian Americans in the Time of COVID-19.” The town hall, which was moderated by PBS Newshour correspondent Amna Nawaz, highlighted various moments in Asian American history and culture in an effort to contextualize and understand the experiences of Asian Americans during the pandemic.

The discussion was held in connection with an upcoming PBS series called “Asian Americans,” which explores the impact of the communities on the country through personal stories. The five-part series will air beginning May 11.

“I cannot think of a more important conversation to be having right now,” Nawaz said in her introduction to the town hall. She added that “2020 was supposed to be a consequential year for Asian Americans,” pointing to the reported increased importance of the voting bloc, the anticipated impact of Asian Americans on the 2020 census, and the presence of Andrew Yang as the first major Asian American presidential candidate.

“But as we know, the pandemic changed everything,” she continued. “And now 2020 stands to be consequential for very different reasons.”

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Among others who spoke during the town hall was Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, who in her opening remarks denounced the recent rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, and criticized President Donald Trump for using the term “Chinese virus” despite experts at the World Health Organization warning against associating diseases with a geographic location or nationality.

“In this case, associating COVID-19 with an ethnicity has perpetuated false beliefs that people of Chinese or Asian ancestry are more likely to carry and spread the disease, and that they are the ones who should be blamed for it,” she said.

She emphasized the importance of coming together and speaking out against the hate which has spread alongside the virus.

“Let us remember that our unity is our strength,” Chu said. “Together we can and must stand united in denouncing hate and ensuring that we keep all of our families healthy and safe.”