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Transcript: Stopping AAPI Hate with John C. Yang


Ali Noorani [00:00:02] On Tuesday, March 16th, a 21 year old white gunman entered three Atlanta area Asain Spas cars and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. They were Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xaiojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue. Eight human beings with families of their own, people with complex stories and hopes and dreams of their own. The jobs they did, the lives they lived, are no more. Their families, their communities will never be the same in the face of a rising tide of hate crimes and harassment against the Asian-American community. What can we as individuals and leaders in our own communities do? How has history and current rhetoric led us to this moment?


John Yang [00:01:02] For those Asian-American immigrants who have come to this country trying to escape oppression, trying to escape different types of racism, different types of government suppression, and then come to this country and have to face some of the same types of fears that has just been very difficult. And I dare say use the word traumatic. Certainly when I talk to our community members these days, this issue of racism is not just in the back of their minds.It  is in the front of their minds.


Ali Noorani [00:01:33] From the National Immigration Forum, I’m Ali Noorani. And this is Only in America. The shooting in Atlanta this past week is part of a tragic rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders across the country, according to a recent report by Stop AAPI Hate. Nearly 3800 cases of anti-Asian hate incidents were reported in the last year, a significant rise from the 2600 incidents reported the year before the pandemic began. And women made up a far higher share of the report’s 68 percent. So let me take a step back this week, because, look, being Asian-American is a strange thing. For starters, each one of us is so much more than, quote, “Asian-American.” Our families came from specific countries with their own identities. For myself, my parents came from Pakistan, yet I am South Asian, but also Asian-American. My Pakistan-ness is diluted, if not made invisible, by being Asian-American. Second, people assume that Asians are successful doctors, engineers, scientists. But you look more closely and see that Asian-Americans are playing critical roles across the economy, from nursing to food service to teachers. But our assumptions about the Asian-American professional make the Asian-American, for example, delivery driver completely invisible. And this sense of not being seen plays into something even larger. The discrimination and hate faced by Asian-Americans is overlooked by press, policymakers and systems. Data collection efforts lag, outreach is stunted. Instead, we focus on interracial conflicts when we really should be paying attention to the real challenges that our nation faces. And yes, as we well know, some presidents and policymakers are more than happy to use language as scapegoats and demonizes Asians. These factors and many others combine to create the environment that we live in now, an environment where if we are Asian-American, we worry if our parents are going to be safe. An environment where Asian-American women are much more likely to be targets of hate and environment or so many of us live in fear of the other. So what do we do about it? Well, this week I spoke to John Yang, president and executive director at Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, a group that fights for civil rights and to empower Asian-Americans in order to create a more just America for all of us through public policy, advocacy, education and litigation. John shared with me what he’s hearing from organizers and partners on the ground and how we can use this as a moment of change.


Underwriting [00:04:21] Support for the National Immigration Forum comes from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement and strengthening international peace and security and from Humanity United. When humanity is united, we can bring a powerful force for human dignity.


Ali Noorani [00:04:48] John, I want to thank you for joining us today. I know this is an incredibly busy time for the organization, but also for the community across the country. So, before we jump into the conversation, I wanted to ask you maybe just telling me a little about yourself.


John Yang [00:05:03] Well, it’s an interesting history, actually, because on one level, I’m an attorney. I was an attorney in private practice. I also spent time overseas in China do as an in-house counsel representing an American company. Then I spent time in the Obama administration, but working on trade and commerce. And now I do civil rights. But if you just hear that, you would wonder why do civil rights. But the untold part about all of that was I was an undocumented immigrant and that has so much informed who I am and in this moment, why I want to do what I do, which is to get back to our community as an immigrant, as someone that has had the blessings and privileges of this country and recognized that this country still has laws that need to be fixed.


Ali Noorani [00:05:51] Over the last year, we’ve had a tough, tough go at it as a country with covid-19 and politics, et cetera, but specifically for the Asian-American community, the attacks of just recent the recent weeks. But just the tension over the last year put this in some historical context for us of the Asian-American experience in the United States over the last 20, 50 years.


[00:06:13] Sure. And that’s the thing is on one level, what we have seen in this last year is horrific. And certainly in the last few weeks of, you know, the beginning of 2021 has been just tragic. But for Asian-Americans, it does follow this history of racism that we’ve seen, and each of our communities history with racism is distinct, but for the Asian-American community. The one stereotype that transcends all of that is as the perpetual form that no matter how long we’ve lived in this country, even if we were born in this country, we are not seen as belonging of this country, and that has consequences. So if we trace this back to when Chinese came to the United States to build America’s railroads for the transcontinental railroad, we were not seen as Americans. And that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, that led to lynchings of Chinese in the Bay Area and in California, you fast-Forward about 60 years to the 1940s when the United States was at war with the empire of Japan. And among the people that got scapegoated were Japanese Americans. And I emphasize Americans. These are American citizens of Japanese descent. But because of that, Japanese said they were seen as foreigners or potential spies or potential threats to America, and they were put in incarceration camps or internment camps throughout the United States. You, fast-Forward, another 60 years to 9/11. And after those terrorist attacks, the groups that were scapegoated were the Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, South Asian Americans in the United States that were somehow blamed for a foreign actors actions. And so, unfortunately, we’ve seen this history before and that’s what we see with covid-19. That’s part of the history of covid-19 is people are seeking to blame the Chinese government or some foreign entity because of this virus in the United States, even though we recognize viruses that are not foreign governments or foreign entities. And because of that fear, Asian-Americans are getting blamed. So that’s the history of the Asian-American experience with racism.


Ali Noorani [00:08:27] And as you are talking to organizational partners and community members across the country, how would you capture the feeling of the community these days?


John Yang [00:08:35] Right now, given that it is only a few days after eight people were murdered, six of whom were Asian-American and six of whom were female? The feeling is one of great pain, one of great suffering and one of great anger. And frankly, it’s also one of exhaustion because this is coming on top of a year of facing the same type of trauma, certainly not the degree to which we are facing now with these murders. But as I’ve sometimes said, Asian-Americans have been facing two viruses, two pandemics during this past year. One is covid-19, which everyone has faced and the health and economic consequences from that, but the second is with respect to this virus of racism, that in particular, Asian-Americans have faced, again, unique to our community. We saw it with respect to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020. But it’s just it’s something that we’ve had to face. And so that is why we are also feeling exhausted.


Ali Noorani [00:09:38] And how much does the immigrant experience fit into this? Right. And what I’m getting at is, from myself, to be personal about it, you know, my parents immigrated here. I was born here, so I never had to experience that journey. So it’s very different. So how does that play into this? Because this has also been a long, you know, four or five years, just from the immigration perspective.


John Yang [00:09:59] You’re absolutely right about that is, we have to remember that Asian-Americans, about two thirds of our population are immigrants. Over 90 percent of our population are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. So you’re dealing with a population that is relatively new to the United States. It’s a population that has barriers with respect to language access. About a third of our population is what’s considered limited English proficient. So navigating in this environment is already difficult. You layer on top of that covid-19 and for your small businesses, if you think about them trying to get PPP loans or other types of relief and navigating that system has been an extreme barrier because of not much resources being given to multilingual access. And then you think about vaccination and testing and the barriers presented again, often because of language. It has been difficult for for Asian-Americans and in particular Asian-American immigrants. Then when you talk about this anti-Asian hate. It presents in addition to those language barriers, there is almost of bewilderment at times, and I have not talked about this as much. But for those Asian American immigrants, who have come to this country trying to escape oppression, trying to escape different types of racism, different types of government suppression, and then come to this country and have to face some of the same types of fears has just been very difficult. And I dare say use the word traumatic. Certainly when I talk to our community members these days, this issue of racism is not just in the back of their minds, it’s in the front of their minds. And I’ve heard some very difficult stories about people that basically have regretted coming to the United States. And that’s just awful, because although I was born in a different country, I’m certainly American and I believe in the greatness of this country. And to have people question that means that we still have a lot of work to do.


Ali Noorani [00:12:04] So do you think that for the Asian community of immigrants when they came where they weren’t expecting to feel this sort of racism?


John Yang [00:12:12] For most of them, that’s correct. If you think about it, for many Asian-Americans, let’s say from Vietnam, they were escaping government oppression. They were escaping, you know, if you came from the southern part of Vietnam, they were escaping not necessarily racism, but a certain classism that was happening. Certainly if you come from Myanmar or if you are monk, they were escaping different types of oppression and they saw America in many ways, rightly so, as this beacon of hope. You know, I certainly believe in what is etched in the Statue of Liberty that we want to take the poor, the wretched, the people that need to find a home, and then they come here and then they have to face this. So certainly for many immigrants, they’re there, like I said, bewildered at what’s going on. But, you know, I say all of that. But I also want to make sure that we don’t feel completely lost in this moment, because I do think that some of them are finding their voice. And, in some ways, some of them are recognizing that there is still building that needs to be done. And I think there is a collective voice that people are developing in this moment. So there is that that we could point to as hope to give us energy.


Ali Noorani [00:13:41] Your organization has been building towards in terms of building the capacity of the community, supporting civil rights among Asian-Americans. So talk to me a little bit about the organization’s work and how it fits into the moment.


John Yang [00:13:51] And this is interesting in itself, right? Because our organization is a civil rights organization. A lot of the issues that we tackle are actually, if you will, bread and butter, civil rights issues, things like voting, immigration reform. We just finished with the 2020 census. And part of that is building our communities understanding about how American democracy works in trying to enable them to vote enabled and then participate in the census, make sure that they do become citizens. And in that process, we also try to educate them about how America got those rights and those rights, many of them were not natural to the United States. Yes, our Constitution was written back in the 1700s and have been amended along the way. But our laws are constantly evolving and that is through the work of people and through civic engagement. And so in that sense, right, for our organization, sometimes we say that we’re built for this moment, this moment where we need to harness all the energy of the community, but also just work with the energy of the other communities. One of the things that I found most empowering and also saddening recently was I had a call with other national civil rights leaders from the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, from Human Rights Campaign, from MALDEF, and the LAYAL and I, when I looked at their faces, not only did I see friends, but I actually saw Charleston, I saw Pulse nightclub, I saw El Paso. And it’s that shared pain that we have where we also can develop shared power. So it is again and both a devastating minus to the moment that we’re in, but there’s an opportunity here to build together with that shared experience that we have.


Ali Noorani [00:15:55] The fact now to Charleston to pulse to El Paso. We know at Atlanta it’s terrible, just as a tragic list.


John Yang [00:16:03] Yes.


Ali Noorani [00:16:04] And speaking to the power that comes with working across race or ethnicity, across culture. But there’s also a challenge that comes with it, because we’ve also seen a number of these attacks between incidents taking place between the black community and the Asian community, which presents kind of an opportunity for those who are fomenting this kind of violence to kind of distract the public from the challenges. How do you Asian-Americans Advancing Justice have that conversation and heal those sorts of divisions at a community level?


John Yang [00:16:33] I’m glad you named that openly, because that’s absolutely something that we have to confront and it comes from both sides. Look, the reality is the Asian-American community has not always shown up for the black community. You know, if you think about some of the past incidents, whether it’s in Ferguson, whether it’s in New York City, frankly, Asian-Americans weren’t really there. And so in that sense, it is natural that the communities may have distrust of each other. And then you think about the L.A. riots, but why some of those happen wasn’t because of our communities really being against each other is about the system that pitted us against each other. Because why the L.A. riots developed, in part, was because you had an impoverished neighborhood where people felt like they were competing for resources. And that speaks to the inequity in the system. And so if we start having conversations and the great thing is out of some of these tragedies, we’ve been able to have these cross-cultural, cross racial conversation. You talk about where the inequities develop. You realize that it’s not – we don’t have issues with each other. We have issues with the system. We have issues with something that’s that’s beyond just the two groups and that the two groups need to unite to push for better reforms, to give them both resources that they’re not fighting against each other. They’re fighting against something else that will give them that better life.


Ali Noorani [00:18:03] So speaking of systemic issues, I think one of the things that I think has become more clear, not even just over the last few weeks, but over the last four years, even going back to the Obama administration is just the documentation of hate crimes. Where do you think the federal government is in that process? But also a lot of this relies on local governments to to to really address this challenge.


John Yang [00:18:24] You’re absolutely right. The reality is the documentation of hate crimes and the sort of hate incidents, hate biases is just woefully inadequate. Organizations like mine do have an online reporting vehicle where people could report acts of hate against the Asian-American community. But the reporting vehicle is only as good as people that know about it. It’s only as good as our outreach, as we know, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. So what is needed is just a massive difference, both at the federal and the state and local side that you talk about. On the federal side, it’s making sure that we have uniform standards as to what constitutes a hate crime and what constitutes a hate incident, but then making sure that the resources get out to the state and locals to be able to collect that information. And when I say the state and local system, I’m not only talking about the governments, because at the end of the day, there’s always going to be people that are fearful of reporting issues like this to the government, whether it’s the law enforcement, whether it’s the police or prosecutors. And the foster messengers in the communities oftentimes are the community centers, the health care centers that are located in your neighborhood. And so part of that is making sure you get the resources to them as well, and that they can all have the resources to roll up that data, to whether you call it a federal database or into one uniform system. That’s how you’re going to get much better data. Right now, even the state and local governments, the ones that want to do this, they don’t have the resources to do it. Because if you think about it, just if you break it down, you need someone that is sitting at a desk. When a crime gets reported, an incident gets reported, understands enough about what what biases are desperate to say. Yeah, that’s what it was. Be able to do that thinking about it, you know, check that box, so to speak, have the resources to report those statistics up through the system and not be something that they are doing at the very, very end of their day when they’re tired, you know, and there has to be incentives given for people to do this. Right. What I have often heard is that state and local governments oftentimes don’t want to report these statistics because then they get a bad reputation as a bad tourist city. That is a disincentive to reporting, so we have to break through some of those barriers.


Ali Noorani [00:20:49] So kind of on the the lines, let’s say over the next five years, there is a massive improvement in the collection of hate crime, hate incident data. What would you argue then that we do with that data, whether it’s at a city level or at the federal level?


John Yang [00:21:05] Once we understand that data, I think we could better figure out how to prevent it or how to respond to it. So the data that we see with respect to anti-Asian violence or anti-Asian hate, frankly, most of it doesn’t rise to the level of a crime. Most of it involves a racial ethnic slurs. In this context, right now, we’re seeing a lot of spitting or coughing in our direction, people to overtly avoiding Asian-Americans. And so that requires a different level of response, so to speak, than law enforcement. So but make sure we had that data right to show where that needs to go. The other thing that’s been important from a group called Stop AAPI Hate out in California that’s also been collecting data, shows that women are likely to be the victims more than two times that of men. And so what that data shows, if it is more proven out even more, is that we need to devote more resources that is focused in that direction. So that’s why it’s important to have this data and then to be able to disaggregate it by different communities. You know, this is just as similar to what we do with the census is once you know what that data is, you could get the resources to the right place. You know, whether it is by place as a jurisdiction or place as an category elders versus by gender versus anything else.


Ali Noorani [00:22:28] And I would also imagine that there has to be an element of educating the media to then report on these issues in a much more nuanced and sophisticated way than they are now. How you been kind of seeing the narrative that’s being painted by the media?


John Yang [00:22:42] Early on, back in late January of 2020 actually, the media initially, when covid-19 hit the shores of the United States, were going to the default things of calling this a Chinese virus or the Wuhan flu. They were realistically – they were guilty of that as well. But then as soon as the WHO, the CDC and others pointed out that that is not correct terminology, and I will say that groups like mine got on that very quickly as well to point out the media that they should not be using these terms because of the harmful effects on our community, the media corrected itself. You know, but now sort of what we asked the media to do is sort of continue to raise this awareness, because unless people see that this is a real thing, then the policymakers aren’t going to do anything about it. And this goes to something that certainly Asian-Americans have struggled with for a long time, and this notion of invisibility is that sort of when you talk about data, we go back to the data. Oftentimes that data doesn’t capture Asian-Americans, let alone our different ethnicities and our different cultures. I talk about presidential polling sometimes when we had a 2020 election. I think only one major poll during the entire course of the election actually had some data for the Asian-American population. They had breakdowns for male versus female voters. They had breakdowns for African-American voters breakdowns by age, breakdown for Latino voters. But they did not have breakdowns for how Asian-American voters were thinking. And the message sent to our community is that we don’t matter. We’re invisible, and that has consequences across the board. So in terms of what is needed and the media has a responsibility, there, too, is to lift up the stories of Asian-Americans, recognize that we’re the fastest growing population. Recognize that: yeah, although smaller, we’re still about six and a half percent of the population. And that’s not statistically insignificant. And if they start to do that responsibly, then we also will start to see a different narrative about who Asian-Americans are.


Ali Noorani [00:24:45] So I’m sure you get this question a lot these days. OK, what can I do? Let’s put a little twist on it. And let me ask the question this way of what can local organizations do, whether they are community based organizations, churches, et cetera? What should organizations locally be doing?


John Yang [00:25:01] Yeah, that’s a great question. I appreciate the way you ask it. And local community organizations have the ability to effect change much more quickly than national organizations, in some cases. What I mean by that is local organizations could easily go to their school PTA. And I saw this happen even with my own children’s school board to make sure that they know that anti-Asian violence and anti-Asian hate is a thing, so that the school board, the PTA puts out announcements, provides some curricula or some education about this, and provides resources so that if a child is the victim of bullying, they know where to go. The parent knows where to go. That’s easy to accomplish, relatively speaking, at the local level. So those are things that you can, you know, for communities right now what I would ask them to do is check in with your Asian-American neighbors and friends. Because, like I said, this is front of mind for our community. So you are certainly not going to offend anyone by just going up to say, hey, are you doing OK? I’ve been reading the news and I’m worried about you. And I can tell you right now, and I even tell myself breaking up when I talk about this is that would be meaningful to my family.


Ali Noorani [00:26:15] Thank you, John. I really, really appreciate the time that you spent with us today. And I have one last question for you. And this is a strange question to ask, kind of given what the community is going through these days. But the name of the podcast is Only in America, and what I ask all of our guests is just to finish the sentence Only in America…


John Yang [00:26:36] Only in America can you get tacos with a bulgogi and some sort of kimchi sauce.


Ali Noorani [00:26:43] Hey, thank you so, so much. I really, really appreciate it. And, you know, we so admire the work that AAJC does. And please, we look forward to any opportunity we have to partner with you. So thank you.


John Yang [00:26:55] Thank you very much. Appreciate it.


Ali Noorani [00:27:02] You can learn more about John Yang and the work of Asian Americans Advancing Justice at Stay tuned for next week’s episode: a sneak peek at our next series. Only in America is produced and edited by Joanna Taylor, Katie Lutz and Becka Wall. Our artwork and graphics are designed by Karla Leyja. I’m Ali Noorani, and I will talk to you next week.

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