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Despite shows of solidarity, attacks on Asian Americans continue a year after Atlanta massacre

Participants hold a "Stop Asian Hate" sign as they march in the Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade in New York City. Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images

It’s been one year since a white Georgia man went on a shooting spree at several Atlanta-area massage parlors, killing eight people. Six of the victims were Asian women, representing a significant moment amid a still-ongoing escalation of anti-Asian hatred sweeping the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Demonstrations and shows of solidarity spread across the U.S. following the massacre that helped propel the Stop Asian Hate movement, which began in response to a rise in xenophobia and bigotry resulting from pandemic-related political rhetoric, into the national spotlight. 

What’s changed in a year? In the aftermath of the shooting, President Joe Biden signed a federal hate-crimes bill into law designed to improve hate-crime reporting at all levels of government. Awareness about the racial trauma experienced by Asian Americans on a daily basis has increased, but instances of violence don’t appear to be decreasing, Northeastern experts say. In light of several recent attacks on Asian Americans that have garnered media attention, violence remains troublingly pervasive.

Portraits of Northeastern Associate Professor of Asian studies Philip Thai, and Director of Asian Studies, and Margaret Woo, law professor and former trustee of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“Just last month, two Asian American women in [New York City] were killed—one pushed from a subway platform and the other, stabbed to death when someone followed her into her apartment,” says Margaret Y.K. Woo, a professor of law at Northeastern. “These incidents are not abating.”

Then on Friday in Yonkers, N.Y., there was the vicious attack on a 67-year-old Asian American woman who was ambushed in the vestibule of an apartment building by a man who punched and stomped on her for a whole minute. The man—who had 14 prior arrests, half of them on felony charges—is being charged with attempted murder and assault, both as hate crimes. The attack, caught on security footage, has been circulating online. 

While these instances of hate have generated headlines because of the vicious, targeted nature of the attacks, Woo questions whether the broader movement has lost momentum amid the deluge of news in recent months. There have been more than 10,000 incidents of hate reported to the Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate between March 2020 and September 2021, she points out. Yet the conversation around anti-Asian hate has largely receded, she says. 

“So often, these issues fall away, not because they have been resolved, but because readers’ attention span is short,” Woo says. 

In some ways, the social gains from Stop Asian Hate and movements like it have been overshadowed by the continued hostility, says Philip Thai, associate history professor and director of the Asian Studies Program at Northeastern.

The fact that these stories are still surfacing attest to the fact that this is an ongoing problem,” Thai says. “I still frequently get reports of people who are confronted with micro- and macro-aggressions.”

One way to push back against the tide of hate is through education, Thai says. But school administrators across the U.S. have faced increased pressure to ban the teaching of critical race theory, which Thai says can offer insight into the structural origins of racial hatred. Critics of critical race theory are instead pushing dated and harmful tropes—like the notion of “colorblindness”—that ignore the history of discrimination and are closely linked to racism, Thai says.

“Society is not colorblind,” Thai says. “When it comes to education, opportunities, and outcomes—across the board—it’s all racialized. The very first step is to recognize that fact.”

Almost a year ago, in response to a spate of anti-Asian racism and violence, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun called upon university officials to create a “comprehensive action plan” to address ways in which Northeastern can better support its students and community. Among many proposed actions, Thai emphasized the importance of expanding the university’s Asian Studies Program, and adding “permanent tenure-track faculty.” He is currently chairing a university-backed search for more scholars. 

“We want to make sure that all students have a basic understanding of these matters, like the history of race and racism, and understanding the dynamics of race relations and intersectionality,” Thai says.

Megha Prasad, a third-year student studying political science, and a commissioner on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Asian American Commission, says anti-Asian sentiment long predated the pandemic in this country. “For me, Atlanta seemed to be the first time the broader population recognized anti-Asian hate as a valid issue,” she says.

“For many Asians and Asian Americans, our first experiences with these sentiments involve being teased about our food, our language, our clothes, or being told that we don’t belong and that we should, ‘Go back to where we came from,’” Prasad says. “These experiences, these phrases, were my childhood.”

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