Incidents, angry talk prompted official moves by the county, Irvine and Garden Grove.
“I’m getting sick because of people like you.”
“Stay away from us.”
“Go back to China!”
Those are just some of the remarks that in recent weeks have been tossed at Asian Americans in Orange County.
The ugly talk has grown loud enough, and common enough, that on the same night this week, April 28, three different local government bodies — the county board of supervisors and the city councils in Irvine and Garden Grove — felt the need to pass three independent resolutions denouncing hate crimes against Asian Americans.
“The Asian community was really becoming the target (for) something they effectively have no control over,” said Irvine Councilwoman Farrah Khan, explaining why she introduced the resolution in her city.
The virus originated in China. But medical experts point out that expressing anger at Chinese and other Asian Americans for this biological fact not only does nothing to address the pandemic, it actually adds to the health risk for those who are targeted.
“Racism can make people sick,” said Gilbert Gee, a public health professor at UCLA. “As in, literally, sick.”
By every measure — culturally, politically, numerically — Asian Americans are central to the fabric of Orange County
Census data from 2018 shows about 21% of the county’s 3.1 million residents identify as Asian, giving Orange County one of the biggest Asian American populations in the nation.
Asian American politicians hold many city and state offices in the county, and a majority on the county board of supervisors. The county’s Little Saigon district is home to one of the biggest Vietnamese populations outside Vietnam. And recent arrivals from China, South Korea and India, among other countries, make up fast-growing sectors of many Orange County cities.
But as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, people are looking for scapegoats, said Alison Edwards, CEO of OC Human Relations, which tracks hate crimes in the county. And in the wake of President Donald Trump initially calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” — and the administration’s more recent focus on the role that China’s government had in spreading the disease — Asian Americans have become that target, said Patty Yoo, co-chair of Asian Americans in Action.
Yoo’s group drafted the letter that helped prompt county supervisors to officially denounce discrimination against the local Asian community.
Though the District Attorney’s office has yet to prosecute an anti-Asian hate crime related to COVID-19, OC Human Relations says such episodes are on the rise.
In recent weeks, the organization has reported 10 COVID-related hate incidents, including the distribution of racist fliers and yelling racial epithets, and one hate crime, targeting Asian Americans.
Others are seeing a similar trend.
Stop AAPI Hate, a website that tracks coronavirus-related discrimination, reported 34 incidents of prejudice against Orange County’s Asian Americans between March 19 and April 15. Most of those reports came from women, said Manjusha P. Kulkarni, the executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council which co-founded the website.
Some incidents of discrimination have been more visible than others.
In March, a video of two girls at Garden Grove’s Bolsa Grande High screaming “coronavirus” at Asian American students, drew local and national news attention. Later, a flier was left on a Huntington Beach family’s front door and car that read “You guys are Chinese Viruses” and “Get out of our country.”
But discrimination doesn’t have to be overt to be hurtful.
Supervisor Andrew Do, a Vietnamese American, recalled attending a concert in south county before the state issued a stay-at-home order.
“The stares that I got, and the icy reception I got, was palpable,” Do said during the April 28 board meeting. “It’s been many decades since I felt that level of unfriendliness.”
“Why should that just because of the color of my skin, I’m perceived as a threat?”
What’s the effect?
Speaking on Monday, April 27 town hall held by Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda), Asian American residents who experienced discrimination said their experience made them more afraid to venture out for groceries and essential businesses.
“I’m making sure I carry my pepper spray wherever I go,” a Brea resident said at the town hall.
Edwards said even a single incident of discrimination can create a ripple effect felt by the broader community.
“If one member of the community feels attacked, every member will feel it,” she said. “They will be in a position of wondering, ‘Am I next?’”
And, UCLA’s Gee noted, discrimination can take a physical toll. Research has linked discrimination to health problems such as respiratory issues among Filipinos and cardiovascular conditions for Vietnamese and Chinese. And the stress brought on by being targeted, Gee added, can weaken an individual’s immune system and potentially make them more susceptible to COVID-19.
What can people do?
With so many incidents going unreported, officials don’t know the full extent of xenophobia against Asian Americans in Orange County, Edwards said. For now, Edwards and community leaders are urging people to report any incidents of discrimination, whether to nonprofits like OC Human Relations, or local law enforcement or government agencies.
“If we don’t make the public aware that this is happening, it’s so much harder to combat hate and get leaders to engage in this fight,” Edwards said.
“If constituents aren’t bringing it up, there’s no good way to fight back.”
OC Human Relations, she added, will provide resources and support for those reporting the incidents, regardless of whether they can be prosecuted.
In a Facebook post on April 1, District Attorney Todd Spitzer said his office is “more prepared than ever” to seek justice for victims of illegal discrimination.
“Hate crimes will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Spitzer said. “There is no justification for attacking, mocking, teasing or discriminating against someone because of who they are.”
Kulkarni, of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, said it’s time for people targeted by hate — and those who witness it — to speak out.
“We don’t need bystanders,” she said. “That has come and gone.”
If you see or experience hate in Orange County, please report online or at 714-480-6580