As anti-Asian hate spread with the virus, this group uncovered disturbing trends

On Feb. 4, 2020, during the earliest days of the novel coronavirus, a middle school student in Los Angeles County was told by a classmate that he was a Covid-19 carrier and should “go back to China.” When the boy responded that he wasn’t Chinese, he allegedly received 20 punches to the head and ended up in the emergency room.

The assault, a harbinger of the onslaught of racialized attacks that occurred during the pandemic, helped three Asian American activists who would become co-founders of Stop AAPI Hate, the anti-Asian hate reporting center, realize that racism was spreading faster than the virus itself and something needed to be done to track the growing number of incidents against the community.

Led by Cynthia Choi, the co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, or CAA; Russell Jeung, professor and chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University; and Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, or A3PCON, Stop AAPI Hate is more than a popular hashtag or aggregator of anti-Asian incidents. It’s a rallying cry for a community experiencing the pain and heartbreak of relentless harassment, assaults and even murders.

“What’s really been heartening has been the Asian American community response and having so many people come to support Stop AAPI Hate,” Jeung told NBC Asian America, noting that their volunteers range from high school students to data scientists. “I’m really proud we can be contributing to a global movement, and that’s something that I think will probably be the most significant impact of Stop AAPI Hate — to galvanize the Asian American community and to empower the broader community.”

Stop AAPI Hate formed after Jeung emailed Choi about the hundreds of anti-Asian news accounts he collected in February 2020. She received his email while in the middle of a CAA staff meeting, where they were discussing how to start tracking the growing number of incidents. Jeung and Choi, based in Oakland, California, and San Francisco, respectively, had already worked together in the community and shared many longtime networks, so teaming up made sense.

Around the same time, Jeung saw that Kulkarni’s A3PCON, a coalition of community organizations in Los Angeles led by Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, was already starting to track anti-Asian hate incidents via a Google form.

“We started to notice there was, in fact, a pattern,” said Kulkarni, who is also a lecturer in UCLA’s Asian American studies department. “It was right then that I got the call from Russell that they were thinking of approaching the California attorney general’s office.”

The coalition wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is now the U.S. secretary of health and human services, to ask if his office would track these growing hate incidents against the community. When Becerra’s office said no and explained that it usually gets its data from local law enforcement per California state policy, the veteran activists decided to do it themselves.

Officials at Becerra’s office declined to comment but pointed to the fact that the state was implementing its existing data collection policy, which was packaged into an annual report on hate crimes, and that a policy change would be needed to change the way the attorney general collected data.

“It’s not unusual for communities and organizations to see needs, to sound the alarms, and government is often slow to act and respond,” Choi said.

The trio and their respective staffs quickly developed a website featuring a multilingual reporting form.

Stop AAPI Hate launched on March 19, 2020, without funding. The co-founders were unsure if anyone would visit their website, but within the first week, there were an average of almost 100 self-reported hate incidents. In less than a year, they would go on to track nearly 4,000 instances and discovered disturbing trends, such as Asian American women reporting 2.3 times more than men.

“We knew women would be vulnerable, and I think that’s why Stop AAPI Hate, as a coalition, has been so effective,” said Choi, who previously worked with Kulkarni on gender-based violence at the Center for the Pacific Asian Family. “We have decades of experience understanding how these issues play out and that this has historic precedent. We knew how this would translate in terms of interpersonal attacks and how our own government and U.S.-Asia foreign policies are also a big factor. We also knew that elected officials would, in a heartbeat, exploit the fears of Americans sparked by the pandemic.”

The co-founders believed if they didn’t document these incidents, there would be “a tendency to minimize, to suggest this was not serious to Asian American communities,” Choi said. Stop AAPI Hate’s in-depth data has given media outlets and the general public proof of what so many Asian Americans suspected was happening based on anecdotal evidence.

“I am deeply grateful for the work of Stop AAPI Hate in collecting data about and galvanizing public awareness of anti-Asian racism,” said historian Jane Hong, author of “Opening the Gates to Asia.” “By providing Asian Americans with an accessible way to self-report, Stop AAPI Hate has also given us a community resource, a way to ‘speak back’ and register our outrage.”

Hong noted that research shows Asian Americans are among the least likely to report hate crimes.

“For every incident that gets reported, then, there are many more that we don't hear about,” she said. “So these numbers only capture part of the picture. That is deeply sobering.”

The policy and research nonprofit AAPI Data recently reported that 10 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have experienced hate crimes and hate incidents in 2021.

About a year after Stop AAPI Hate was formed, the state of California allocated $300,000 to support the reporting center’s tracking of hate incidents and advocacy, which was championed by members of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, as well as donations from corporations and individuals. The funding will be used to hire more staff, expand in-language resources and continue producing reports so policymakers have relevant data on the community.

“I feel really responsible to steward the resources we’ve been given well and to stop anti-Asian hate,” Jeung said. “That’s for me a real heavy burden.”

In addition to their regular careers and Stop AAPI Hate’s day-to-day work, Choi, Jeung and Kulkarni have conducted hundreds of talks and media interviews over the last year. Being surrounded by unrelenting stories of anti-Asian hate and violence has taken a toll.

“It’s hard, especially after Atlanta, because that was worse than our worst nightmare,” Kulkarni said. “I know we broke down in front of each other.”

Choi said hearing traumatic experiences about children and older people, in particular, was crushing.

“It was hard to be detached and just purely analytical and intellectual about it,” Choi said. “I felt like they were tiny little cuts that were jabbing at me.”

Jeung, a longtime runner, said he’s logged more miles this past year than ever before and plans to start seeing a therapist.

“I do still have my spiritual practices, where I pray regularly with people and go to church,” said Jeung, a fifth-generation Chinese American who chronicled his own family’s history with racism and his decades of work with refugees in his memoir, “At Home in Exile.” “I’ve always had a strong sense of calling towards working for justice and a sense of how things aren’t right in society.”

Choi, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, saw how challenging it was for her Korean immigrant parents to navigate their new life in the U.S. When her family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in nearby Orange County, someone vandalized their home with eggs and slashed her father’s tires.

“I do remember my parents in hushed tones talking about how they believed it was because we were Asian,” she said.

While growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, Kulkarni, who came to the U.S. with her family from India when she was 2, was one of few South Asian faces. In fifth grade, Kulkarni’s mother applied to be a physician at a hospital, but during the interview, a panel of white male doctors told her that foreigners like her were “coming here and stealing our jobs.” Kulkarni’s parents decided to sue the hospital and individual physicians, which she said progressed to a class-action lawsuit and successful settlement that led to policy change.

“That very much shaped my belief in the American legal system,” said Kulkarni, who testified at hearing in March before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on discrimination against Asian Americans. She noted that Asian Americans hadn’t been a topic for the subcommittee since 1987. “The fact that no issue involving our community came up from ‘87 to now is ridiculous,” Kulkarni said.

While people are finally paying attention to the community, Stop AAPI Hate’s co-founders don’t expect anti-Asian sentiment to disappear anytime soon, so their efforts will continue beyond Covid-19. They believe multiple solutions are needed, from culturally competent resources for local communities to expanding ethnic studies and education and stronger federal civil rights laws.

“It’s really easy for hurt people to hurt others or abused people to become abusers and then for Asian Americans who’ve been treated racistly then to become racist themselves,” Jeung said. “It’s really important to hold perpetrators accountable and call out racism but also be able to forgive and work on the broader issue. Asian Americans now have an opportunity to become the racial healers of America rather than the victims.”