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Understanding the Asian American and Pacific Islander Experience: Prejudice and Violence (Part One)

Part One: The Origins of Anti-Asian Behavior and Addressing the Violence

The second “Understanding the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Experience” panel discussion moderated by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian focused on a nationwide surge in anti-Asian incidents, and the meaningful actions communities and individuals could take to address the violence.

“Over the last year, and in recent months, our communities—our friends, family, colleagues and neighbors—have experienced a resurgence in harassment and violence. It’s appalling and unacceptable,” said Simitian in advance of the May 20, 2021 virtual event. “That makes these conversations all the more important.”

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted the month before Simitian’s “Understanding” series, the vast majority (81%) of Asian adults said violence against them was increasing, citing anti-Asian rhetoric, racism and scapegoating which blamed Asians for the pandemic and resulting impact. In the first year of the pandemic, more than 6,000 hate incidents were reported to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, with California having more than double the number of incidents reported than any other state.

“Like other elected officials, I’ve been able to participate in public rallies, and to see our community come together to speak out, and to support one another,” Simitian continued. “But a rally is not enough to break down long-standing prejudice, violence and exclusionary practices. Real change requires understanding—a willingness to listen, engage, and do the necessary work.”

Building on the first “Understanding” discussion about the diverse nature of the AAPI community, Simitian opened the second event by asking panelist and Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Johnny Gogo to parse the difference between hate “crime” and “incident.”

While both are motivated by bias against race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, disability, gender, or sexual orientation, a crime includes harm of a person or property, said Gogo, while an incident might include racial slurs, but no physical battery or harm. “Both examples are horrendous,” he added. “Law enforcement will tell you they want both of those incidents reported. The vast majority of hate crimes and hate incidents against AAPI are under reported.”

Panelist Helen Hsu, Psy.D., Lead Outreach Specialist, Staff Psychologist, Asian American specialist, and lecturer at Stanford University, remarked that the majority of incidents—like verbal harassment or bullying—don’t meet hate crime criteria, but still have a devastating effect.

“This really gets at the bridge between what’s the law and what we can prosecute, and how does this affect people’s daily lives,” she said. “What we know from the mind-body health care side, and in education, is that constantly feeling attacked, shunned, hypervigilant, anxious, angry, it really has an impact on people’s mental and physical health.”

Hsu referenced the results of related longitudinal studies on marginalized populations, saying, “It’s unhealthy to feel anxious every single time you have to step out to the grocery store, or to worry about your elders or your kids.”

“When we’re like that, our body is high in cortisol and adrenal [hormones]. We’re ready to run, or if we need to, fight. Over time, this is all linked with mental impact, energy, and cardiovascular health. Even when income and education, and all the socioeconomic factors are the same, there’s more of these health issues that are linked to chronic stress.”

Simitian turned to panelist and California State Attorney General Rob Bonta, the first person of Filipino descent and second Asian American to serve in the position. When “hypervigilance” came up, Simitian observed, “you nodded with a recognition that this is all too familiar to you. What prompted that?”

Bonta cited his professional experience with respect to “repetitive and aggregated impact of multiple traumas on individuals, toxic stress, and how that impacts life expectancy and increases the likelihood of chronic disease,” before turning to the personal.

“On the real-life side, as has been mentioned, we’ve seen over 6,600 incidents of API hate,” Bonta said. “We’ve seen our lolas and lolos, our aunts and uncles, our nenes and yayas feel they can’t go out on a walk, or go shopping, or ride public transit. We’ve seen them yelled at and spit on, shoved down and punched in the face, slashed across the face and murdered.

“The fear is real, the anxiety is real,” Bonta continued. “The anxiety is strong, there’s also anger. The impact, the mental health component, in addition to the obvious physical and life impacts, is real. I appreciate Dr. Hsu highlighting this state of emergency.”

Bonta added that an attack on a Filipina grandmother in New York in April 2021 made him worry about his own mother’s safety—"that could be many mothers in the Filipino community”—and unearthed a traumatic memory.  

“It was a long time ago, when my mom was attacked and shoved to the ground, left in a heap like a piece of trash. We got a phone call from law enforcement that she had been the victim of a crime,” he said. “What’s happening now has certainly created new wounds, but also reopened old ones. It has really had a very significant mental impact on so many AAPI people.”

The Origins of Anti-Asian Behavior 

What causes anti-Asian behavior, Simitian asked Hsu, noting that it’s not a new phenomenon—even in Silicon Valley. “Where does it come from, what is the history? I talk to a lot of folks who say, ‘Well, this is a progressive and diverse set of communities, this can’t be a real problem here,’” Simitian said. “Yet, rather obviously from our conversation and from what we all read, whether it’s online or in the newspaper, the problem is present virtually everywhere.”

The recent surge in hate incidents might “feel like it’s coming out of nowhere” for people who don’t know “the long ugly part of” Asian American history, Hsu said. “This whole yellow peril linking immigrants to disease, that was happening in the 1800s. To see almost the exact same kind of scapegoating and xenophobic slurs from the 1800s now, it’s quite painful, but it isn’t new.”

Hsu cited a mass lynching in Chinatown in Los Angeles [an estimated 18 Chinese Americans—10% of the city’s Chinese population at the time—were murdered in the 1871 massacre], and the city of Antioch’s formal apology for an angry mob torching its Chinatown in 1876. “These are things that did happen in California, and a lot of the crimes now unfortunately are happening in places that are super diverse and people felt safe: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles,” Hsu said. “There is a lot of trying to understand what is going on right now, as well as what have we learned to actually cope in a constructive way.”

Gogo reached further back, to the first slaves conscripted to colonial America and slavery not being abolished until the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Focusing on the Asian American experience, Gogo cited the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, followed by the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

“These were citizens of the United States who were interned in military prison camps without due process, without any evidence that they had violated any espionage laws or were disloyal to the United States, yet caught up in the war hysteria, the racial hysteria,” he said. “Unfortunately, prejudice has been with us for many centuries here in the United States.”

As to the recent spike in violence, Bonta offered his perspective that it’s the lingering effects from the former occupant of the White House who had the largest megaphone on the planet and used it to push out statements of hate and cruelty, xenophobia and racism, and invited people and gave them license to act on hate.”

When people face challenging situations—like a pandemic—or economic hardship, “there’s often this instinctive resort to a zero-sum view where you believe your success is dependent on someone else’s failure, and there’s finger pointing and blaming,” Bonta said. “Asians have been blamed a lot – for taking jobs, for bringing disease.”

Simitian pivoted to Hsu for a psychologist’s perspective on commentary from public figures. “How do people internalize that?”

“When you have somebody of high office spreading certain images, it can be incredibly helpful or incredibly hurtful,” Hsu said. Sociologists have tracked the immediate—and often vicious—impact of Trump’s use of inflammatory language, she added: “Suddenly kids are using these same slurs in schools against classmates. Where does this come from? Culture matters, representation matters.”

When a corporation or public official expresses support, it may seem empty or perfunctory—but, it makes a difference, Hsu added. “It sets an example and a model of how we should be behaving and feeling and treating one another.”

Reporting and Addressing Anti-Asian Violence

Simitian asked Attorney General Bonta to discuss new guidance and resources from his office to help the public and law enforcement better understand and address hate crimes.

In May 2021, Bonta announced the launch of a Racial Justice Bureau within the Department of Justice, with staff attorneys assigned to work with law enforcement, communities, and civic leadership to strengthen best practices and case management.

“One thing that we know about hate crimes is that about 50% of them are not investigated or identified as such. We’re not even using the tools that we already have to identify and investigate, and potentially prosecute hate crimes,” Bonta said. “We need to build greater trust between law enforcement and communities. If we do, witnesses will come forward and victims will come forward and report.”

Bonta conceded that “it’s a lot to go through as a victim to report a crime, to relive it, to go through all the details and the facts and the pain of that if you think that nothing’s going to happen or no one’s going to care.”

His office, he said, is striving to improve practices for identification and investigation of alleged hate crimes—and to support victims with appropriate trauma-informed care and language services, as well as investigators trained to ask “the right questions, who listen closely,” and who are committed to giving a case “a full vetting” to determine if an incident rises to the level of a hate crime.

Hsu, who has long been involved in local politics in behavioral health capacities, offered an additional perspective on why so many anti-Asian hate incidents may go unreported.

“Our families for various cultural reasons haven’t necessarily talked much about experiences of racism and harassment. I think culturally we’ve often tried to be, ‘just work hard, don’t complain,’” she said. “We do have to report because we need data, and we also have to show up in civic spaces.

“If you don’t report things,” she added, “if you don’t complain, if you don’t express your concerns, let your leaders know what you want, be a part of the solution—then we’re going to keep getting left out.”

Hsu emphasized that combating anti-Asian hate goes beyond victims reporting incidents. “As bystanders, or allies or accomplices, we can all play a role in trying to stand with somebody, get support for somebody, document, set standards for ourselves in our own families,” she said.

“People are complicated. During Black Lives Matters [protests], many Asian Americans had to have really serious conversations with our own family members about anti-Blackness, about stereotypes,” she added. “It’s really about all the little things we can do to fight the ways that forces are acting to split our communities, and what can we do to be part of the solution to create the kind of climate, school, community that we want to be living in.”


This post is adapted from the virtual panel discussion, “Understanding the Asian American and Pacific Islander Experience: Prejudice and Violence,” held on May 20, 2021. The full video is available here at, where you can also find more information about the three-part series.