For San Diego’s Asian community, Georgia shootings compound a year of pandemic hate

Lauren Garces is an events and outreach coordinator for the Asian Business Association
Lauren Garces is an events and outreach coordinator for the Asian Business Association and a member of the San Diego Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, which formed last year to speak out about hate.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Dozens of incidents involving anti-Asian hate have been reported in San Diego County


An elderly man slammed to the pavement in San Francisco. A mother and daughter spit on in New York. The body of a mutilated cat left for a butcher shop owner in Sacramento.

As these and other violent displays of anti-Asian hate drew headlines across the country in recent months, a growing sense of fear, grief and anxiety has gripped Asians and Pacific Islanders in San Diego.

That angst has only compounded since Tuesday, March 16, when a gunman massacred eight people — six of them Asian women — in Atlanta-area massage businesses.

“There are a lot of people in the community reaching out saying ‘Is it safe for my mother or grandparents to go out to the store given the rise in crimes? Is it safe for them to ride the trolley?’” said Lauren Garces, who belongs to a coalition of San Diego organizations that have united to denounce hate against the Asian and Pacific Islander, or API, community.

“Of course, it’s affecting us.”

Anti-Asian bigotry has surged since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit clearinghouse tracking hate incidents. Nearly 3,800 such incidents were reported to the organization nationwide.

Chinese people quickly became scapegoats as Wuhan was identified as the epicenter of the virus and unsubstantiated reports swirled of it being created in a Chinese virology lab. Former President Donald Trump’s repeated insistence on calling it the “China flu” and “kung flu” further entrenched the racist rhetoric, targeting Asians whether Chinese or not.

That same language has been parroted in verbal attacks on Asians in San Diego, said Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh.

“Most have been people in the API community either going to work or going to run errands and someone yells from the streets a slur,” Trinh said. “A lot have been ‘China virus’ and COVID-related comments. It’s pretty clear what the reason is behind the surge in anti-Asian hate incidents and hate crimes — it’s usually tied to COVID.”

California has tallied the most of any state, including at least 42 in San Diego County. Locally, more than half — 24 — consisted of verbal harassment and name-calling. Most occurred at businesses, while fewer happened on the street or in public parks.

That’s likely only a fraction of the problem, said Kent Lee, coalition co-chair and executive director of Pacific Arts Movement, which puts on the San Diego Asian Film Festival.

“We know that means there must be hundreds,” he said. “That’s hard to swallow.”

But also not surprising. Hate incidents and crime are traditionally underreported, especially among Asian victims, according to experts.

“A lot of times we keep things to ourselves, we don’t want to cause trouble — that’s what our grandparents would say, ‘We don’t want to get involved,’” said Garces, who works as outreach, marketing and events manager for the Asian Business Association of San Diego. “That’s where the underreporting comes from.”

Language barriers are also an issue, as well as prior experiences that lead victims to believe that nothing will come of a report.

Rather, reports of hate-fueled confrontations are more likely to circulate unofficially among the community, according to Lee. He’s heard of several.

In one case, a Filipino grandmother, mother and teenage daughter were harassed and physically threatened while walking down the street, he said. In another, a woman in her 70s who was born in a Japanese internment camp said she was accused of spreading the coronavirus while having lunch with a friend.

Last March, a U.S.-born Hong Kongese Uber driver posted a video that went viral of him picking up passengers in San Diego’s Convoy District and being harassed with coronavirus jokes.

Trinh, the county hate crimes prosecutor, has heard of similar reports on the agency’s hate-crime reporting hotline since it was launched last April. Of the 129 tips so far, 10 have been anti-Asian.

Hate incidents against Asians spiked at the beginning of the pandemic but tapered off as the country went into lockdown, Trinh said.

“People stayed at home, they weren’t out and about and exposed,” he said. “As states are reopening and vaccines available, people are out again, and we are seeing that uptick again.”

Few incidents have risen to the level of a hate crime, largely due to the high threshold needed to prove in court that the crime was motivated by racial or ethnic bias, and that it was more than a remote or trivial factor.

Locally, the District Attorney’s Office has filed three hate-crimes cases involving anti-Asian bigotry since the start of the pandemic. Two involved violence and the other property damage, Trinh said. He declined to provide further details.

No such cases were filed in 2018 or 2019.

A fourth incident — a Filipino woman who was punched on a downtown-bound trolley in February — was reviewed for possible hate-crime charges but was ultimately filed as an assault with an allegation of elder abuse.

Whether the Atlanta attack was motived by racism, misogyny, an intersection of both or something else altogether remains unclear.

The mourning for so many Asian lives lost is all the same.

“There’s just no questioning — it’s still extremely upsetting,” Lee said. “The string of them together says a lot about what’s happening.”

Racism against Asians is deeply rooted in U.S. and state history.

The first major wave of Chinese immigrants to California arrived during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Chinese immigrant labor was used — often exploitatively — to build the transcontinental railroad.

Following the Civil War, Chinese immigrants were blamed for an economic downturn, depicted as the racist “Yellow Peril” caricature that represented a faceless threat to Western ideals.

Institutional racism was blatant, as displayed in an 1854 California Supreme Court ruling that prohibited three Chinese men from testifying in the case of a White man accused of killing a Chinese man. The court opined that the Chinese “were a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior” and that allowing them to testify “would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls.”

California passed several anti-Chinese laws, including one in 1858 that made it illegal for anyone of Chinese descent to enter the state and another that limited Chinese employment. Later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese immigration to the U.S. for 10 years. The law was repealed during World War II.

“When you look at history … every time there was some kind of outbreak, some kind of disease, the U.S. scapegoated Chinese immigrants coming overseas,” Lee said.

However, public awareness of anti-Asian racism faded in the latter half of the 20th century as the “model minority” myth took hold. The idea holds up East Asians in particular as being able to successfully assimilate and achieve financial success in the U.S. and leads to the perception that they are more “White” than other minorities.

The myth has often caused Asians and Pacific Islanders to be left out of broader conversation regarding xenophobia and hate, community members said.

When the initial surge of hate became evident at the beginning of the pandemic, about 20 local groups that serve the API community realized they needed to form a united front as the San Diego Asian Pacific Islander Coalition.

“We wanted to stand together to denounce hate and call on elected officials to do the same,” Garces said. “The way administrations use rhetoric highly affects the communities they serve.”

On Tuesday evening, March 16, an AAPI community will come together in person to mourn the victims of the Atlanta killings. The interfaith candlelight vigil is “to honor our rage and anger, to affirm and validate our pain, to grieve with and belong to one another,” according to the flyer. The outdoor, socially-distanced event starts at 5:30 p.m. in front of the Performance Annex of the City Heights/Weingart Library.

— Kristina Davis is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune