Mar 19, 2021 | John W. Coleman

Eastern PA Conference members are joining the outcry of voices speaking out against a reported, nationwide increase in racist verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans. Those voices are growing in the wake of eight murders of massage parlor workers—including  six Asian American women—March 16, in the Atlanta, Ga. Area.

In addition, the U.S. Congress held a hearing on discrimination against Asians for the first time in over 30 years. Impassioned Asian American lawmakers shared their pain—both personal and intercessory—from a history of racist mistreatment.

Conference Commission on Religion and Race members are lamenting the spate of reported offenses that have risen especially over the past year. Many believe they are ignited by false, public and private blaming of Asian Americans for the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, during a period when the prevalence of white supremacy beliefs in the U.S. is being challenged as never before—many say these attacks only exacerbate anti-Asian racism that has long existed.

Asian Americans were reportedly targeted at least 500 times in the first two months of this year, according to the advocacy organization Stop AAPI Hate, with nearly 3,800 complaints received in the past year. More than two-thirds of these complaints were of verbal harassment, while 11% involved physical assaults; and the majority of victims have been women and elderly persons.

Atlanta area police are investigating the murders there and what truly provoked the arrested suspect, a White male, to execute the victims in three massage parlors. While he denies a racial motivation but blames it on frustration with his own sex addiction, some see a possible intersection of racism and “hyper-sexualized misogyny” against Asian women.

Since the shootings, the hashtag #StopAsianHate has trended on Twitter, as individuals expressed solidarity with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

‘We stand in solidarity’

“We stand in solidarity with our Asian brothers and sisters who are being persecuted due to the pandemic,” said the Rev. David Piltz, a member of the Eastern PA Conference Commission on Religion and Race. He coordinates the conference’s Youth and Young Adults Ministries and includes diversity and inclusiveness discussions in each youth council meeting.  “Any persecution, any hate is wrong, and we must stand against all forms of it and call on others who call themselves Christians to do likewise.”

“This is hurtful and disturbing,” said the Rev. Robert Johnson, who attributed much of the increased violence to political and racial hate-speech at the highest levels of government over the past several years. “I am saddened by these news reports, and we need to condemn these acts with the strongest language possible.”

“We mourn with the people of Atlanta who experienced this senseless and evil mass shooting of six Korean people,” said Bishop Peggy Johnson. “As United Methodists, “we deplore acts of hate or violence against groups or person based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity or religious affiliation.” (Social Principles, Paragraph 162) See Bishop Johnson’s full statement.

An analysis released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found overall rates of U.S. hate crimes decreased by 7% in 2020, probably due to less social congregating during the pandemic; but anti-Asian hate crimes surged by 149%. Nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported between last March 19, when the coronavirus became a pandemic, and the end of February.

And the increase in attacks is most likely much higher because many first-generation Asian immigrants tend to not report acts of racial discrimination and hate crimes against them.

Blaming Asians for COVID-19 ignites attacks

A rise in racist political rhetoric blaming China for COVID-19 and misnaming it the “China flu” correlates to increasing racist attacks against Americans of all Asian heritages. Inflammatory insults by political leaders and other influential persons, experts say, can embolden their followers to express their own deeply held prejudices.

The Rev. Alicia Julia-Stanley, a Latina pastor who co-chairs the Religion and Race commission, recalls a relative who is Canadian-Chinese and married to her Puerto Rican niece, getting “the look” when speaking in a Chinese language on his cell phone in a public place. He had to quickly switch to English. “It’s heartbreaking that so many feel threatened by a conversation between family members,” she said.

Mei-Ling Blackstone speaks at a 2015 Connectional Table Meeting, as (from left) the Rev. Christopher Kurien and Bishop Peggy Johnson listen. John Coleman photo

“I have become much more aware of my surroundings,” said Mei-Ling Blackstone, a college student in Pittsburgh, Pa., and former president of the Eastern PA Conference Council on Youth Ministries. “I cannot hide the fact that I am Asian, but it is very rare when I go out without someone with me. In some ways, being an adopted Asian American can be beneficial because I am safer when I am seen with my (White) family instead of when I am alone.”

When she sees Facebook reports of Asian Americans, especially elderly persons, being “brutally attacked while walking on the street or running their store,” she shares them on her page. “I do this to help my friends and family be more aware of what is going on in the Asian community and to remind them that I am still a part of that community.”

Mei-Ling and her mother Carlen Blackstone

Blackstone cites the Asian stereotypes and racism that have long been a part of U.S. life and history. “But it was never seen as a huge issue, not the same as if someone was being racist towards African Americans,” she said. “When I was younger it was seen as bullying; but the core of it was racism.”

“Research suggests that when people see Asian Americans as being more ‘foreign,’ they are more likely to express hostility toward them and engage in acts of violence and discrimination,” says Rucker Johnson, a public policy professor and co-author of the California State University study.

Danger in minimizing anti-Asian hate, violence

“There’s a danger in minimizing the story of hate and violence against AAPIs (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders),” said the Rev. Doris Dalton, Director of Leadership Development and Intercultural Competence for the New York Annual Conference. “The last thing anyone wants to see is a grandmother on the street who’s been spat on, pushed and punched, just because she looks Asian.”

Rev. Doris Dalton, Director of Leadership Development and Intercultural Competence for the New York Annual Conference

Dalton taught an online Dismantling Racism workshop on the Asian American Experience with Race—past and present—in September 2020 for members of the Eastern PA Conference, where she was once a staff member (2011-2014). As racist attacks against Black, Muslim and Latino Americans are reported, if abuse of Asian Americans is minimized, “then what we’re telling them is ‘Your story, your pain doesn’t matter,’” she said in an interview.

Asian-American-directed hate crimes increased in the past year in eight of the largest U.S. cities, including Philadelphia. Pennsylvania, which saw 97 attacks, and New Jersey are among the states with the highest numbers, according to data from incident-tracking groups. Yet, such crimes also increased before 2020, indicating a longer trend of growing attacks.

Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said that walking through the city’s Chinatown, she has noticed palpable fear among people, even before the Atlanta shootings. The department said it was temporarily bolstering police patrols around Asian communities and businesses in light of the Atlanta attack.

But what the police need is for people to report racist verbal and violent attacks against Asian Americans when they see it or learn of it. Mere bystanders need to become “upstanders,” playing a more engaged role in prevention, for which some organizations offer training.

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym attributed much of the current hate to now-former President Donald Trump, who frequently used racist rhetoric like “the China virus” or “kung-flu” to describe the coronavirus pandemic. But, she said, it also comes down to the general public’s flippant use of Asian stereotypes and the trivialization of Asian pain, especially that of women. 

 “It’s disheartening if we as people of faith do not rise up and say this is wrong,” said Dalton. “We need to meet this moment and speak about it, just as we rise up to speak about racism against Black people.”

“As a nation, we need to teach tolerance and cultural respect so that more people see our diversity as a source of giftedness and not division or threat,” said Bishop Johnson. “In our churches, we need to preach and model respect and inclusion at every level of congregational life.”