When it comes to combating hateful actions against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, among others, community leaders say speak out and take action.
A series of shootings in Atlanta charged as hate crimes for targeting people of Asian descent.
An Asian-American Kansas legislator facing a barrage of expletives for wearing a face mask in a Russell, Kansas, bar.
Incidents near and far away this spring raised the level of public consciousness in Kansas about the problem of hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
But hate crimes directed against the AAPI community are “nothing new,” Joseph Melookaran says. He cites a local example of the shooting of two Indian immigrants, one fatally, at an Olathe bar and grill in February 2017.
Melookaran is a native of India. He co-founded the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City in 1998 and is a member of the FBI Kansas City Division’s Community Engagement Council, created in March of this year. He is also a certified public accountant and director of CMA Group in Overland Park.
He thinks the recent uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans is rooted in two main factors: the 2020 presidential election and the advent of COVID-19.
These factors “elevated civic engagement to a new level we hadn’t seen since 1908,” he says. “Everybody knows about the divisiveness, the nastiness on both political sides.”
The pandemic worsened the political divide by leaving people “cocooning themselves at home in front of the screen.” This sometimes manifests in subtle discrimination or thrill-seeking hate crimes.
And even when violence isn’t involved, the prospect of it can be frightening. Kansas State Rep. Rui Xu (pronounced “Ree Shoe”), a Democrat from Westwood and the only Asian American serving in the Kansas House of Representatives, found that out at a sports bar in Russell.
In a March 19 Twitter thread, Xu said he had entered the establishment that evening wearing a face mask when another patron hurled expletives at him for wearing the mask and threatened him with violence.
Xu told The Journal later that spring that “in the end, this was one drunk idiot, but everybody else at the bar was amazing and kind.
“I genuinely believe that the increase in AAPI violence over the last year is caused by conspiracy theories peddled primarily by President Trump and his allies,” Xu says. “I think he was trying to pass off responsibility of the coronavirus onto an external factor like China without recognizing the fact that in doing so, he was putting his own people here in the U.S. at risk.”
Trump has defended his use of terms such as “China virus” saying that they were not racist but an accurate description of where the coronavirus originated.
But Xu’s conclusion echoed in a 2021 report from the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit that aims “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up less than 4% of the Kansas population, but it’s among the fastest growing segments, expanding in not just urban and suburban areas, but also densely settled rural ones, according to a 2018 Kansas Health Foundation demographic report. (KHF is a primary funder of the Kansas Leadership Center, which publishes The Journal.)
It would be an understatement to say the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is, by its very nature, diverse. The community includes at least 50 groups who speak 100 different languages. In Kansas City, the community has at least 20 groups who speak more than 25 languages.
Americans of Asian descent are also the country’s fastest expanding demographic group, and fear of becoming targets within their own communities is widespread. A Pew Research Center survey conducted a few weeks after six women of Asian descent were killed in a series of shootings in Atlanta in March reports that 32% of Asian adults say they have feared threats of physical attacks or actual ones. And 81% say they think violence against them is increasing.
By contrast, only 56% of all U.S. adults make the same assessment.
On an encouraging note, roughly one-third of respondents say they have received expressions of support because of their race or ethnicity since the pandemic started.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have become visible in the wake of COVID-19, spurring increased reports and helping mobilize nationwide efforts to condemn the crimes, collect better data on their incidence, support those victimized and prevent future occurrences.
Perpetrators, bystanders and active participants
There isn’t one type of hate crime. Or one type of perpetrator.
Melookaran defines four categories of hate crime perpetrators, borrowing from Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino:
- Thrill-seekers who know their targeted victims are vulnerable
- People with a “defender mentality” who try to defend their turf – whether neighborhood, workplace, religion or country – and who target “people they think don’t belong”
- Perpetrators who retaliate against prior crimes, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001
- Crusaders motivated by racial, political or religious causes who “have a mission, think the system is rigged against them and justify their behavior because they are mission-oriented”
But what exactly should people do if they encounter a hate incident?
Melookaran suggests the importance of people being active participants rather than just passive onlookers. Passivity is a problem not just for non-Asians witnessing incidents, but also within communities who face hostility in public. People are sometimes afraid to get involved because they might become targets, too.
Anjana Singh, president of the Indian Association of Kansas City, says a person in her community was shopping in a Walmart recently when a woman approached and said, “You’re not supposed to be here.” A nearby woman intervened and said, “They have every right to be here, but I am not sure why you are misbehaving with them.”
People who see such incidents, though they might fear retribution, should speak up because “that causes a setback for the bullying person … and they take a step back.”
John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, based in Washington, D.C., says he wants people to speak up if they see hateful incidents but doesn’t want them to put themselves at physical risk. Asian Americans Advancing Justice has given more than 70,000 people bystander-intervention training in the past year.
“It might be as simple as going up to the victim, asking ‘How are you?’ or ‘Can I help you to get somewhere?’ The only thing we ask is: Please do something.”
The organization’s website lists two training courses. A one-hour course teaches bystanders to stop anti-Asian American and xenophobic harassment. It describes various kinds of disrespect Asian people face based on a “spectrum of disrespect” from minor incidents to violence. It also explores five intervention strategies – “distract, delegate, document, delay and direct” – and safety measures to take when intervening.
A conflict de-escalation training course teaches bystanders to maintain “patience, a willingness to listen and an ability to see the humanity in everyone, even those we don’t agree with or who seek to hurt us.” It uses an “observe-breathe-connect” method to help bystanders identify possible conflict before escalation occurs and understand biases that increase conflict.
The Open Table, a nonprofit based in Kansas City, Missouri, offers online and in-person nonreligious bystander intervention and other anti-racism training for companies and other organizations, says Nick Pickrell, an administrator and trainer. The organization is an arm of The Open Table KC, a Christian church.
Its bystander intervention interactive workshop is designed to give people “practical tools to disrupt, distract and diffuse tense situations, especially when race is involved,” according to its website.
“For me personally, I see the way that being silent in the face of racism in all of its forms causes damage to all of the community and causes damage to me,” Pickrell says. “I’m committed to not being silent anymore and to helping others not be silent.”
Shaping the Climate for Tolerance
Fanny Fang started her Asian American activism while attending New York University. She brought it back home to her native Manhattan, Kansas, after graduation to run her family’s business, the Asian Market.
While attending NYU, Fang, 26, lived in a neighborhood that was 30% Asian. Many of the residents struggled with English and asked Fang to speak to local government on their behalf. She expanded her activism into politics when she made what turned out to be an unsuccessful run last year to unseat a Riley County commissioner who had said the community “was less susceptible to COVID-19 because of our small Asian population” and later called COVID-19 “the export of the Chinese government,” comments she considered racist.
She says another county commissioner said he respected Asians “because they pay their bills on time.” Another said he respected Asians “because he enjoys the food that we provide in this community.
“That is the struggle that Asian Americans have in this country is that the insults come across as good,” she says. “We have the good stereo-types. We’re good at science. We’re lawyers and doctors. We have lots of money. We have successful businesses. But then, what about the Asian Americans who don’t fit that stereotype?”
Fang says the stereotypes exist to “prop up” Asians “to put other ethnic minorities down” by saying, “Why can’t you be like them?”
“How do you tell people that these good stereotypes are actually bad?”
Soon after the Atlanta shootings in March, Fang organized a March 28 vigil at Manhattan City Park. About 100 people attended, including elected officials and a few people who spoke of the difficulties they had faced as Asian Americans, “very hard topics that are rarely talked about.
“So how do we unlearn so much that we’ve grown up with and realize that we’re all humans and if one group prospers, we all do?” she says. “I’m in a good position to speak to my Asian heritage and my American upbringing. That can start building the bridges in areas that some may feel is impossible to do.”
She says good leadership starts with taking members of the Asian community at their word.
“Believe us when we tell you we are scared for our lives, that we are facing threats, that we need support more than thoughts and prayers.”
There are ways that communities can be proactive to prevent incidents before they can occur.
Melookaran emphasizes the importance of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community engaging in the civic process. Many Asian Americans, because of experiences in their native countries, don’t trust politicians and “cocoon themselves in their jobs and families.”
“They need more integration with the mainstream,” he says. “Civic leaders should encourage them to participate as a civic duty. … This is a country of immigrants. Everybody contributes to the economic well-being of the community, and we are not bound by the nationality or blood. We are bound by ideals.”
The rhetoric of elites in key positions of power and authority matters, too.
Americans should separate their views of the U.S. government’s geopolitical tensions with China’s government and of Chinese people everywhere “to avoid stereotyping and backlash,” Yang says.
He also says leaders should “model behavior that we want others to follow, make sure we recognize that words matter,” they can stigmatize, and they have inflamed hate and violence against Asian Americans.
Leadership also means contacting friends and neighbors to make sure they know these abuses are wrong.
“We are in a moment when there is great tragedy; there’s great fear,” Yang says. “This is a moment when we should be coming together, not drawing lines and demonizing communities or demonizing others. Rather, we should find ways to find a common humanity.”
Despite worse incidents, Melookaran says most hate crimes are minor.
“It’s very subtle,” he says. “It has been happening, and Kansas is not different from any other parts of the United States.”
But he says he has experienced no “major issue” and thinks incidents happen less frequently in the Kansas City area than nationally.
Crimes Against Asian Americans Apparently Rare in Kansas
Officers with two Kansas City area police departments confirm Melookaran’s perception. Officer John Lacy, spokesman for the Overland Park Police Department, says the department has received no reports of a hateful act toward an Asian American for about two years, when a verbal assault was reported.
Lacy says the department encourages people to report such incidents and it will investigate them. He also calls on community leaders to openly condemn acts of hate against anyone.
“If anyone in the community who’s a leader sees hate against minorities, gays and lesbians (or) transgenders, call it out, speak out, be on the forefront and be very transparent,” he says. “Take on the issue.”
Sometimes, a tragedy like the 2017 Olathe shootings prompts a community to come together in a common cause. Sgt. Joel Yeldell with the Olathe Police Department says that after that incident, which was classified as a hate crime, the community showed “overwhelming support.”
Olathe’s then-Mayor Michael Copeland issued a statement soon after the killing saying, “If the intent of this one act was to spread hate, it failed miserably. It has spread love, and it has brought this community even closer together … and no act of hate will ever change that.” (Copeland died in August 2020.)
New laws take shape. But are they enough?
Legislative remedies to the situation have also taken shape. The U.S. Senate passed an anti-Asian American hate crimes bill in April on a 94-1 vote. It passed the House 364-62 and was signed into law by President Biden in May.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and called the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, requires the attorney general to create a position in the Department of Justice to oversee expedited reviews and expanded reporting of hate crimes to federal, state, local and tribal agencies. It also increases public education about anti-Asian American hate crimes and gives grants to state and local agencies to implement a national online reporting system.
To the extent that the new law has faced opposition, it’s been on free speech grounds. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri cast the lone dissenting vote against Hirono’s bill. He wrote in a Twitter post that the bill “turns the federal government into the speech police.”
U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann of Kansas was among those voting against the bill in the House. His office did not return calls seeking comment about why he voted the way he did.
Zach Thomas says the law is necessary because hate crime data collection is inadequate. Thomas is a criminal defense lawyer in Olathe and a member and former president of the Asian American Bar Association of Kansas City. He is of Indian ancestry and last year became the first Asian American candidate for Johnson County district attorney.
Aside from the lack of centralized data collection, Asian Americans tend not to report hate crimes or microaggressions because they protect their privacy, ignore offenses and consider them embarrassing, Thomas says. They are reporting hate crimes more, though, as the crimes become more violent.
The U.S. Department of Justice started prosecuting hate crimes under the Civil Rights Act of 1968. All states except Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming have hate crimes laws.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia have hate crimes laws and require data collection. Seventeen states, including Kansas, and Puerto Rico have hate crimes laws but don’t require data collection.
The Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990 requires the U.S. attorney general to collect hate crimes data. The law was expanded with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009.
Singh, president of the Indian Association of Kansas City, says that she has not been subjected to hateful behavior and that people generally are kind. But she has heard from others in her community who have been subjected to it.
Having laws against hate crimes is important, she says, because sometimes, “due to the nature of Asians, we usually try to avoid situations.” If that’s not possible, she says, Asian people will typically remove themselves from an uneasy situation.
“We do not complain,” she says. “That’s the kind of culture we were raised in. Do not get involved yourself in these kinds of things, and this will pass. Now we realize that this is not going to pass. … Today it’s COVID. Tomorrow it might be something else.”
Melookaran says the 2009 law empowered law enforcement officials “to do what they’re supposed to do – to protect vulnerable and racial minorities.” But hate crimes increased. This leads him to think that “the solution lies beyond the law enforcement and PR initiative” and that the increase has prompted some politicians to criticize calls for more hate crime laws.
He says relying on the justice system to stop the attacks could worsen the problem. That’s largely because hate crimes are hard to prosecute. Statutes require proof of a perpetrator’s intent as one of the evidentiary components, which leads many victims not to report the crimes.
Another problem is that some hate crime victims don’t know how to deal with an incident or whom to contact, he says. Melookaran thinks civic and law enforcement leaders should give people guidance on what to do.
People sometimes find it easy to post their experiences on social media, an approach he says can be counterproductive. “Law enforcement says it complicates things and can impede (an) investigation … and can give more ammunition for the other side.”
The Role of Leaders
The skillful use of authority can make a big difference. Law enforcement leaders should publicly denounce hate crimes when they happen and then promptly start investigating, he says. This shows they take the crimes seriously, an approach that can counter dismissive responses.
He says the FBI, while investigating behind the scenes, ought to seek greater engagement and collaboration with the community and publicly advocate for victims.
It’s also important, he says, that civic and religious leaders “express that hate crimes will not be tolerated” and “break the moral fabric of the society.”
Singh encourages law enforcement agencies to contact Asian groups to help them respond to people who are having trouble and don’t speak English well, because “language is the biggest barrier.
“Whosoever is living here is a part of the country as much as anyone else is,” Singh says. “Blaming someone because they look like some specific kind of race – we cannot target race. I think this message should come really loud and clear.”
Melookaran served from 2004 through 2007 on the White House Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
While serving on the commission, he visited many cities and talked with their Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and chambers of commerce.
He typically found those communities fragmented, but not in Kansas City, where the Asian American chamber “is a forum for all AAPI communities here.”
Workplace diversity and inclusion practices “go a long way,” Melookaran says. Kansas City’s business leaders are exemplary compared to many other cities. When he co-founded the Asian American chamber, he and his colleagues received support from companies including Sprint and Hallmark that was “unbelievable.”
“When business leaders condemn hate crime, there is more teeth when they get involved,” he says. “They are a catalyst for moving the civic leadership and law enforcement to take quick action.”
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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