Asian American youth report anger, sadness and fear over surge in racist behavior

Survey finds about 80 percent experienced bullying or verbal harassment

Caleb Lee wishes he was surprised to hear that someone spit on an Asian American friend biking in Golden Gate Park recently. A white woman told his friend, then 16 years old, to go back to China and called her a slur, according to Lee.

Another friend was also told to go back to China by a classmate, before schools shut down, and called the same slur.

“I was more angry and pissed off at the fact that the world just doesn’t care and disregards this hate toward us,” said Lee, a 16-year-old junior at San Francisco’s Urban School. “It’s sort of just become a harsh reality that so many [Asian American Pacific Islander] individuals have been dealing with racism and hate in the form of physical and verbal harassment.”

Caleb’s words echoed some of the despair felt by Asian American youth surveyed this year by Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting center launched by Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action, and San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department. The group has tracked more than 2,600 incidents of racial animus since mid-March, when much of the country went into a shelter-in-place to curb coronavirus.

California accounts for 1,135 of those incidents, while 258 occurred in San Francisco as of Thursday. That’s shockingly high compared to 108 in Los Angeles, 54 in San Jose, 50 in Oakland, 28 in San Diego, and 20 in Sacramento.

Lee and a few other Urban School students worked on a nationwide effort by Stop AAPI Hate to track impact on youth, culminating in the report “They Blamed Me Because I Am Asian” released on Thursday.

Caleb Lee, a junior at Urban School, helped work on a nationwide effort to track the impact of hate crimes and racism on youth. (Courtesy photo)

Caleb Lee, a junior at Urban School, helped work on a nationwide effort to track the impact of hate crimes and racism on youth. (Courtesy photo)

Seventy-seven percent of nearly 1,000 youth surveyed expressed anger over the spate of racism, 60 percent said they were disappointed, and 46 percent expressed sadness or depression. Twenty-three percent said they were scared.

They received 341 reports from youth nationally over an 18-week period, with 81 percent reporting bullying or verbal harassment. Twenty-four percent said they faced shunning and social isolation while 8 percent reported physical assaults.

Nearly 17 percent said they were harassed at school and online, respectively, and 14 percent were harassed in public parks. Adults were present in 48 percent of the cases but bystanders intervened only 10 percent of the time. Forty-one percent of incidents were perpetrated by youth, the rest by adults.

Nearly 60 percent of verbal harassment involved blaming Chinese people for the COVID-19 pandemic either as being infected or as the source, while nearly 26 percent related to dietary habits, like shaming Asian Americans for supposedly eating bats or dogs. One 17-year-old reported that a white man online told him his insides were full of bats and to die by suicide for being a “dirty f——— dog-eater.”

“Historically, we’ve seen [upticks in racism] in pandemics, war and economic downturn,” said Russell Jeung, a San Francisco State professor who helped start Stop AAPI hate. “We have all three. You think San Francisco is this progressive, liberal town but again, I think, COVID fears and political rhetoric has really screwed up a lot of anger.”

San Francisco has double the number of physical assaults compared to nationwide, according to Jeung. Density may explain the concentration, even in places like The City and New York, where overtly welcoming attitudes of immigrants are expressed.

But ultimately, Jeung said political rhetoric is to blame. President Donald Trump has repeatedly targeted China for the virus and used epithets like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” picked up by right-wing media. He has also heightened tensions between the two countries, leading to a Cold War-like state of relations that ripples to individual behavior.

“I just find it very debasing and dehumanizing that others can treat people that way,” said Jeung, whose wife was deliberately coughed on by a man in Oakland. “People are wanting to share their stories and wanting it to stop from happening. By having that collective voice, we’re pushing for more bystander intervention.”

Jeung said that on an individual level, witnesses should attend to the targeted person to make sure they are safe and to show social support, though he doesn’t recommend engagement. Should that not immediately transpire, people being targeted should call out and ask for assistance or approach someone nearby and express their concern.

On a larger level, anti-racism training for teachers and administrators while implementing ethnic studies is part of the answer. Grassroots community workshops and signage in stores help foster an anti-racist culture, too.

Lee said the long-term goal is to change the narrative of Asian Americans as silent, complacent model minorities who blend into white America. Because the social fallout from the pandemic has proven the “very false and very harmful stereotype” internalized in AAPI minds, too.

In the meantime, they hope workshops and preparing teachers will prevent aggression when the campus is open again.

“There’s a slight amount of fear and worry in the back of our mind that when we return we might receive hate or racist comments,” Lee said. “But more than that, we have hope for this. By spreading awareness, it will eventually reduce the hate because people might understand what they hadn’t before. COVID-19 is not going to be the last time.”