There Is No Rung on the Ladder That Protects You From Hate

The Asian-American experience is a tale of contrast.

We are immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, from more than 20 countries in East, South and Southeast Asia. We speak different languages and eat different food. Some lead America’s most successful companies, like Google and Zoom. Others run small businesses, like Chinese restaurants and spas, which have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. We also have the nation’s largest wealth gap: While some Asians earn household incomes that far exceed the national average, others consistently have the highest poverty rates.

The endless list of disparities and nuances has made solidarity elusive for Asian-Americans, even as activist groups demand that our issues be recognized. While Asian-Americans are the nation’s fastest-growing racial group — now 6 percent of the population — not everyone’s priorities are the same, far from it in some cases, so increasing numbers haven’t led to increasing power, politically or culturally.

The events of the past year — from the former president’s racial slurs to the series of attacks on Asians, leading up to the Tuesday shootings of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at massage parlors in Atlanta — could be uniting people for a new reason: fear.

In a country with hate crimes at their highest level in more than a decade, the professional status that many Asian-Americans enjoy, conferred by competing and succeeding in the most elite educational and professional institutions in America, doesn’t help.

Anna Mok, a Chinese-American executive at the consulting firm Deloitte, who lives in San Francisco and acknowledged that she was in a position of privilege, said hate crimes against Asian-Americans over the last year had prompted friends to urge her to not even go outside for a walk.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt that degree of physical vulnerability,” Ms. Mok said.

She added that many other Asian-Americans working for big companies had described similar magnitudes of stress to her: “There’s no buffer, there’s no isolation. No matter how much money one makes, no matter how successful one is, it’s the reality of being an Asian in the U.S.”

Asian-Americans are also becoming the most economically divided demographic in the country. In 2016, their incomes ranged from about $12,000 at the 10th percentile to roughly $133,500 at the 90th percentile, with a median of about $51,000, according to the Pew Research Center. That compares with about $15,100 and $118,000 for whites.

The income disparity is, in part, driven by immigrants, who accounted for 81 percent of the growth in the Asian adult population over the past five decades. Many who arrived under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which gave priority to people with family ties, and after the Vietnam War ended in 1975 were relatively low-skilled workers. Later, the Immigration Act of 1990 brought in a new wave of higher-skilled immigrants under the H-1B visa program, which helped American companies hire foreigners with exceptional skills.

Many Asian immigrants have higher levels of education than native-born Americans, which is largely why they settle in at the top of the income ladder. At the same time, Asians at the bottom of the ladder have lower education levels.

In nearly a dozen conversations this past week with scholars, activists and historians, the sadness and grief around this inflection point was clear — as was the recognition of how starkly divided two professional paths for Asian immigrants in this country have been.

The Asian-American story has been a complicated narrative. There are the restaurant workers and massage therapists nested in metropolitan enclaves, but there are also the high achievers attending elite schools who end up in well-compensated careers. Often one generation of immigrants in service jobs raises the next generation of corporate strivers. In this moment, though, as the population grows, the groups are becoming increasingly isolated from one another.

In the aftermath of a summer of protests for racial justice and increasing awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, corporate employees of color, including Asians, are demanding equity and inclusion, which would put an end to a white-dominated culture. The workers in spas and nail salons don’t have the luxury to even think about that; they are more vulnerable to the whims of their white clientele. In a nation already divided by politics, religion and income, here is a community divided within itself.

But the “kung flu” pandemic — the xenophobic language, fueled by President Donald J. Trump, that added hate crimes to a deadly disease and the rest of the list of things for Asian-Americans to fear this past year — may be gradually bringing people together.

Last year, reported hate crimes against people of Asian descent in New York City jumped 833 percent from 2019. Nearly 3,800 hate incidents, which range from name-calling to assault, against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a group that has collected data for the last year. (The number could be higher because not all incidents were reported.) Sixty-eight percent of those incidents were reported by women.

As the country reeled from the all-too-familiar scenes of mass shootings in Atlanta, especially killings that may have targeted people because of their race and gender, some scholars recalled an earlier death. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, was beaten to death by two white men at a time of rising tensions over Japanese dominance in the auto market. The killers, who insisted the attack was not racially motivated, were sentenced to three years of probation.

The fact that the men did not serve jail time sent tremors through Asian communities. Activists formed civil rights groups to protest.

“We know that the Vincent Chin murder really did help communities across different ethnic groups come together,” said Nancy Yuen, a sociologist at Biola University in California.

Yet for decades, policymakers and government leaders have historically treated Asian-Americans as if they were invisible. That was in part because of the diverse makeup and smaller size of the group, which made it challenging to gain influence and attention. Ellen Wu, a history professor at Indiana University, said Asian-Americans had to compile data just to prove that they were minorities who suffered from issues like discrimination. Being recognized has been an uphill battle ever since.

A Rise in Attacks Against Asian-Americans

    • Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in the Atlanta massage parlor shootings. The suspect’s motives are under investigation, but Asian communities across the United States are on alert because of a surge in attacks against Asian-Americans over the past year.
    • A torrent of hate and violence against Asian-Americans around the U.S. began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Community leaders say the bigotry was spurred by the rhetoric of former President Trump, who referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus.”
    • In New York, a wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
    • In January, an 84-year-old man from Thailand was violently slammed to the ground in San Francisco, resulting in his death at a hospital two days later. The attack, captured on video, has become a rallying cry.

    The shared pain and disrespect could finally be giving Asians grounds for solidarity — and a platform to be visible. On Twitter, the hashtag #stopasianhate went viral, and all over the country, crowds gathered in the streets this past week, lighting candles for the Atlanta victims and holding signs proclaiming “Asian Lives Matter.”

    Asian-American professionals in journalism, medicine and technology reflected on a year of swelling anxiety and pain from microaggressions. On my social media feeds and in conversations, fellow Asian-Americans recounted being chastised by a white person at a grocery store to keep a distance, enduring a road-rage encounter that felt ambiguously racist and being ignored by a worker at a store who was happy to help white shoppers. For Asian-American women, the nature of the Atlanta attack sparked a conversation about racism and sexism — times they had heard men yell lines like “Me so horny” while walking down the street.

    Doctors who were usually booked full with appointments found that their calendars were empty, which tracks with the broader trends of how discrimination has manifested in the past year like patients refusing medical care from doctors and nurses of Asian descent. Some doctors even reported verbal abuse by their patients.

    Stop AAPI Hate, the organization documenting reports of Asian hate incidents, noted sharp upticks in verbal harassment, shunning and physical assaults over the last year.

    For those working remotely during the pandemic, who could mostly stay home and felt less vulnerable, their fear began to manifest when they saw photos posted online of Asian elders — people who looked like their parents — beaten to a pulp. Ms. Mok, the Deloitte executive, moved to San Francisco in January from Palo Alto, Calif., to be closer to her father, who is 88 and lives alone there.

    “My own sense of helplessness when I told him, ‘Please don’t go out, not even to get your newspaper,’ was very difficult for me to handle,” Ms. Mok said.

    Ms. Wu said she had noticed unity in the last year even among Asian activists who usually butted heads. She mentioned groups that have been fighting fiercely over the future of affirmative action in higher education. Both sides published statements condemning Mr. Trump’s racial slurs about Asians spreading the coronavirus.

    “There’s something about the Covid issue and the anti-Asian hate issue that presents this common denominator, a point of convergence,” Ms. Wu said. “There is a certain baseline where, across the board, there does seem to be recognition and fear that bad things are happening to people of Asian ancestry, undeniably.”

    Jo-Ann Yoo, the executive director of the Asian American Federation, a nonprofit network of community groups, has spent the last year producing videos about small Asian-American businesses hit hard by the pandemic and speaking at rallies and news conferences about hate crimes against Asians.

    It has been devastating and infuriating, Ms. Yoo said. But she is hopeful, in a way, that the year of increasing attacks and now the violence in Atlanta will begin to bridge the class divide by creating a dialogue among people of Asian descent. The victims at the spas, like the 16 percent of Asian workers in the service industry, had to leave home to make a living during the pandemic.

    When most people are vaccinated and white-collar workers are fully back out in the world — commuting, stopping for coffee and heading to offices — the way the world has changed in the past year could further force solidarity: Any Asian could be targeted.

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