Attacks on Asians in 16 of America's largest cities soared by an unprecedented 164% during the first quarter of 2021, continuing a spike that had been sparked by the coronavirus pandemic last year, police data show.
The dramatic increase follows a similar spike in major U.S. cities last year and comes as the administration of President Joe Biden has taken steps to curb the violence that activists say was partly fueled by former President Donald Trump's inflammatory rhetoric about the virus's China origins. The U.S. House of Representatives is taking up legislation passed by the Senate last week that would create a new Justice Department position dedicated to tackling the problem.
The police data, compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, and provided to VOA, show that police departments investigated a total of 95 attacks on Asian Americans in 16 of the most populous cities in the country during the first quarter of this year, up from 36 during the first quarter of 2020.
The 16 cities studied by the center, which include New York and Los Angeles, the country's two most populous, account for about 8% of the U.S. population. In the FBI's latest hate crime data for the United States as a whole, the same 16 cities accounted for more than 21% of all hate crimes in 2019.
"These preliminary data show that in those large cities with the longest history of collecting anti-Asian reports, there are elevated or increasing levels of hate crime extending well into 2021," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. "We already have more hate crimes in the first quarter of 2021 in these cities than in all of pre-pandemic 2019. And in some, more than all of 2020."
New York, which has the highest number of Asian Americans in the country, accounted for nearly half the 2021 incidents, reporting 42 hate crimes through the first quarter — a 223% increase from 13 incidents during the first quarter of last year. The attacks on Asians living in New York have continued into April, with another 24 incidents reported in the first three weeks of the month.
In the latest incident, an unemployed 61-year-old Chinese immigrant collecting bottles in the Harlem neighborhood ended up in a coma last Friday after being severely beaten by an ex-felon on parole. The suspect was arrested this week.
New York appears to have had more attacks on Asians during the first quarter of 2021 than during any full year in recent memory, according to Levin.
Last week, New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced a new initiative to combat the anti-Asian violence, with plans to deploy teams of undercover officers of Asian descent "to prevent New Yorkers from becoming victims in the first place."
Anti-Asian hate crimes have been steadily rising in recent years, according to the FBI. But attacks spiked during the pandemic, with Asian American activists saying Trump's frequent references to the coronavirus as the "China virus" and "kung-flu" contributed to the hate crime spree.
While Trump has been out of office for more than three months and can no longer tweet about the "China virus," "the damage has already been done," said Stephanie Nguyen, executive director of Asian Resources Inc., a nonprofit.
"I can't erase what he said. None of us cannot hear what he said and block it out of us," Nguyen said.
Other cities with large Asian populations also saw double- and triple-digit percentage increases in anti-Asian hate crimes during the first quarter.
In San Francisco, police investigated 12 assaults on Asians, up 140% from five incidents during the first quarter of 2020. Los Angeles had nine anti-Asian hate crimes during the quarter, up 80%, while in Boston, the number of incidents targeting Asians jumped to eight, up 60%.
Lu-In Wang, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and author of the book "Discrimination by Default: How Racism Becomes Routine," said the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in New York and other cities with large Asian populations is surprising because these are cities where "they (Asians) would feel more comfortable, would feel more that they belong."
"But it could be that there is greater resentment of Asians in those cities because they are more visible and more numerous," Wang said in an interview.
Of the 16 cities surveyed, four — Cleveland, Philadelphia, Miami and Tampa, Florida — reported no anti-Asian hate crimes during the quarter.
Washington and San Antonio reported six and five anti-Asian hate crimes, respectively, compared with zero during the first quarter of 2020.
Racially motivated attacks on Asian Americans are not new, said Ngueyn, whose Vietnamese family immigrated to the United States during the 1975 fall of Saigon.
"The difference now is that we're finally speaking out," she said.
Because of a miscalculation of 2021 data by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there were 90 anti-Asian hate crimes during the first quarter of the year and that the year-on-year percentage change was 150%.