Curbing Anti-Asian and Pacific Islander Hate (with Cynthia Choi)

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Since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in the US, over 3,000 attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have been reported – with many targeting the Bay Area’s elderly population. Misinformation, fear, and politicians’ racist rhetoric tied to COVID’s origins in China have only fueled the sometimes fatal violence against AAPI communities across the country. Cynthia Choi of Stop AAPI Hate and Chinese For Affirmative Action joins us to talk about scapegoating, the data collected on these verbal and physical attacks, and the pressing need for community-led, intersectional public safety initiatives.


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Resources from the episode:






  • Volunteer with the Oakland Chinatown Coalition to assist elderly community members with daily activities.



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Julian Castro, Cynthia Choi

Julian Castro  00:02

Since the first Coronavirus case was discovered in the US, over 3000 attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been reported, and many of these have targeted the Bay Area’s elderly. There’s been so much misinformation and fear that have fueled this uptick in violence and hate crimes against the AAPI community, partially because of COVID origins in China. But let’s not forget that former President Trump also encouraged these attacks with his racist rhetoric against Asian Americans.

Form. Pres. Donald Trump 

COVID-19. That name gets further and further away from China, as opposed to calling it the Chinese virus. It’s not racist at all. No, not at all. It comes from China, comes from China. I want to be accurate.

Julian Castro

Robberies, denial of customer service, and even fatal beatings are all things that have happened to AAPI communities as a direct result of dangerous scapegoating and bigotry. The Bay Area civil rights group Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate was created in March to collect self-reported data on these verbal and physical attacks. And this week, we speak to its founder. Cynthia Choi, who also leads Chinese for affirmative action joins us to talk about stop AAPI’s data collection, the roots of anti-Asian American sentiment in our country, and why an intersectional community approach is necessary when tackling structural racism.

Julian Castro 

This is OUR AMERICA. I’m your host, Julian Castro.

Julian Castro

Cynthia, thank you so much for joining me, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a huge uptick in the number of anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander hate crimes. Could you tell me, you know what this has meant to you, personally, for your family, for the community that you live in?

Cynthia Choi  02:19

You know, I rarely get asked that question. I’m often asked from a policy, from a data perspective. And I will have to answer that by saying that personally, it’s been really hard. And also, this isn’t something that’s new. Certainly the pandemic has led to unprecedented levels of hate incidents. And you know, something that I haven’t seen in my lifetime. But I think it’s really important to recognize that anti-Asian racism and violence even through our legal system, is not new to our community and in many communities of color.

Cynthia Choi 

Early on, when we started STOP AAPI HATE, I was reading every single incident, people who had first-hand accounts, people who witnessed or heard from their elderly parents what had happened to them. And it’s shocking. I never want to be numb to these types of stories. And it has been really hard. It’s been hard on my children who I learned could hear me doing interviews and assisting individuals and talking about this issue. And certainly through our local work. We have been doing everything we can to address attacks against our elderly, which has made national international news.

Reporter on TV 

Shocking new video released by Oakland’s Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, shows yet another man knocked to the ground in broad daylight, just one of more than 20 assaults and robberies they’ve documented in the neighborhood.

Reporter on TV  04:07

An 84-year-old man has died after a horrific daytime attack in San Francisco’s Anza Vista neighborhood.

Reporter on TV 

Tonight about the growing incidence of racism and often violent attacks against Asian Americans in this country. More than 2800 reports since the pandemic began the community in Oakland

Julian Castro 

Take me back to those first days, for you to start the organization and see a need for it. Less than a week after everything shut down. What was happening? Just walk me through that that you saw an immediate urgent need to start this organization.

Cynthia Choi 

I remember very vividly when we started to see news accounts of Asian Americans being attacked. The discrimination, the vitriol and even the you know, the media was referring to COVID-19 as the Wuhan virus. And so we knew very quickly that things were going to get bad, fast. We came together and said, we’ve got to start documenting this. And we were shocked. We were shocked. And to this date, we have over 3000 incidents. And we know that people are under reporting too. And we know that one of the reasons why we started this centre was because there has been a deep distrust of government, and reporting to law enforcement for a variety of reasons.

Cynthia Choi 

And so we believe that as trusted organizations, people came onto our site in, they came on to say, I want to be a part of this collective voice to say, this happened to me, this happened to my family, they wanted to say, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we are also part of this racial reckoning that we’re having in this country. And I think that’s what’s really important. And some of the outrage that you’re seeing from the AAPI community right now, is because of the sense that we have been invisible and unheard. And I’m very inspired by the fact that we are coming together and finding ways to challenge the system that has oppressed and invisible eyes their communities for so long.

Julian Castro  06:28

And in addition to being such a great organizer, you’re also a mom, when you reflect on the opportunities for the next generation and your own children. What do you see in terms of the progress and the challenges?

Cynthia Choi 

I am a mom of three daughters, ages 22 to 11. And it’s been incredible. I mean, one of the things, one of the silver linings of being in a pandemic is a lot of togetherness. And so we have multiple conversations about this time that we’re in this pandemic, the fears this racial reckoning. I’m one of those parents that made my children watch the PBS series on Asian Americans. Because I wanted them to know that history, and I wanted them to know that, yes, horrible things happen to us. But we also fought back. And that made America stronger, and what it is today, and we need to continue to do that, you know, I have lots of conversations with my youngest in particular, who is now at the age where she’s learning about Japanese internment, about really dark periods in our history.

Cynthia Choi 

You know, one of the questions that she always asked me is like, well, how does this happen? How do you round up 120,000 people and put them in concentration camps. And so it’s a, it’s a great opportunity to talk about. Well, it’s political rhetoric is racist rhetoric. It makes people scared of other people, people that they might not know. It taught, you know, becomes the way to rationalize policies that are even more harmful. But that’s why we need to stand together. And there are more of us who believe in the good, who believe that we can be a part of this multiracial democracy. And we will.

Julian Castro  08:48

Could you tell me a little bit about your story, your family’s story?

Cynthia Choi 

Well, I really get asked that question too. Well, my story is, is not unlike many stories, which is I’m a daughter of Korean immigrants, who came here to seek a better life. My father came as a student. My mother came here when she was very young, and quickly started a family of three and struggled to make ends meet and to learn English, and to really create, you know, a better life for us. And I think that experience those stories, those memories really guide me today, in terms of how challenging it is for recent immigrants to navigate, you know, different systems, including the education system. One story that I wanted to share was that my brother had a learning disability and was not getting the attention that he deserved.

Cynthia Choi

And they actually sequestered him in a room with children who they didn’t know what to do with, who had learning disabilities, or couldn’t speak English. And my parents who didn’t speak any English or not very well fought for my brother and said, he can be in a classroom, and he needs to be taught in a classroom. And when I think about that story, that courage, I think I have that fight in me, because of my parents, because you had to stand up for yourself. And so you know, that story is very vivid. And also the story of when my family moved into a predominantly white neighborhood in the way that we were welcomed was our home was vandalized.

Cynthia Choi  10:53

No other home on that street was vandalized. And I remember my father and mother saying that it’s because we’re Asian. And as a young child that really stood out to me, I might have not completely understood it. But it made me scared. It made me fearful. And it certainly made my parents very worried. And so those experiences shaped me and why I’ve been a part of, you know, the movement for change. And I think it’s certainly been a source of inspiration to be reminded of that.

Julian Castro

This surge of hate incidents that we’ve seen against the AAPI community, particularly since the pandemic started, but as you said, I mean, racism, bigotry toward the AAPI community goes back as long as our nation has been around. If we think about the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, but since this pandemic started, and we had at the time, a president that was fueling this attitude, talking about the China virus, instead of the Coronavirus. Could you just give me a paint a picture of some of the things that you’ve heard and seen out there from people. What’s happening in the AAPI community?

Cynthia Choi  12:29

Julian, the thing that I am struck by most is that when we started STOP AAPI HATE with our partners. In March of last year, hundreds of individuals came on to our site and told us horrific stories of what they encountered largely verbal harassment and attacks while they’re at the grocery stores, while they’re in public places, and the discrimination that folks encountered in the workplace, refusal of service, a number of hate crimes. You’ve also seen some cases that have made headlines like the Burmese family in Midland, Texas, who was stabbed by a person who said that they had the Coronavirus. So this is very, very serious.

Cynthia Choi

And one of the things that I think it’s important to recognize is that the former president was an accelerator of hate. We saw from these incidents, reports of people saying that Trump’s name was evoked. And so we do see a direct correlation of that type of rhetoric and including this overall anti-immigrant climate under this past administration, and it wasn’t just dehumanizing, it endangered the lives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Julian Castro  14:14

You talked about some of the misperceptions of the AAPI community. How have those impacted the community or parts of the community over this last year? During the pandemic?

Cynthia Choi 

Well, I think it’s really important that I name that this education has had to happen even within our own community. You know, my parents and so many of our elders, you know, told us from a very young age, work hard, study hard, don’t make any noise. Keep your eyes on educational attainment and taking care of your families. Don’t become politically involved. And we are seeing a generation of Asian Americans who are really challenging that, and saying that we have to be civically engaged. And we have been. And so that work is really important within our community, as well as educating others that this model minority myth was a fabrication.

Cynthia Choi 

It was a lie, concocted to create a wedge between Asian Americans and other communities of color, to deny that structural racism exists, to deny that we have a history of racism, to, you know, promulgate falsehoods around some communities, some groups being culturally inferior, intellectually inferior, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we are wholeheartedly rejecting that. And we have to lift up the fact that our communities are so diverse. Look, we’re facing a crisis where our Southeast Asian brothers and sisters are being deported at astronomical levels.

Cynthia Choi  16:12

We are seeing food insecurity, housing, the unemployment crisis in Asian American owned businesses being disproportionately impacted by COVID. So we have to look at systemic levels of change. And this is what’s going to get us through this pandemic. And long after because this recovery is going to take a long time, and it’s going to require all of us to look at systemic levels of change that need to occur.

Julian Castro 

Right now, we’re in February of 2021, it’s been almost a year, since you founded the organization, what’s been your major takeaway from it, so far?

Cynthia Choi 

It’s a reminder of our conditional status, in America, it’s a reminder that we have to continue to fight against bias and stereotypes, such as the model minority myth, it’s a reminder that what’s going to keep us safe is our community, our movement, our recognition that we need to work together across communities. And we also have to reject any attempts to pit our communities against each other. And we also have to reject this notion that we need to rely on institutions that have harmed our communities, and an over reliance on law enforcement approaches.

Cynthia Choi 

What we do need is resources, investments in community-based organizations that are closest to the ground. We need resources to the education to support survivors and their families, and to really pursue efforts that really address the root causes and drivers of violence and crime and discrimination in our country. Ultimately, we believe that’s what’s going to keep our community safe.

Julian Castro  18:23

With the organizations that you’ve been leading, STOP AAPI HATE and Chinese for Affirmative Action. What are your goals? What would you like to see?

Cynthia Choi 

Well, CAA and STOP AAPI HATE we have shared goals, in the sense that, you know, we not only set out to document the anti-Asian racism, but we really wanted to analyze and better understand what was happening, who it was happening to where you know, the location, you know, what types of incidents, so we can develop responses. It makes us really evaluate the fact that strategies that focus on law enforcement may not be the way to go.

Cynthia Choi 

In fact, what we’re seeing and what we’re really questioning is, you know, should we instead really focus on education, the resources to do better in terms of what survivors need and their families, the mental health crisis that our community is facing as a result of the pandemic, but also the anti-Asian racism has skyrocketed.

Cynthia Choi 

But where we think that most of the investments should be made, is around prevention efforts, because of course, it’s not just the victim or survivor and their immediate family that’s hurt. Violence affects all of us. People’s sense of personal safety has been compromised. That’s such a fundamental right, as a human being. But we also are working at a policy level. You know, we are looking at the question of whether hate crimes legislation has been effective, how do you get at the underlying causes of racial bias.

Cynthia Choi  20:19

And so that’s why we’re pointing towards and really investing in community-based efforts that really focus on restoration, public education. And of course, we have to address the immediate harm. Because unless we can protect our elders and our most vulnerable community members, we can’t even get to those other conversations.

Julian Castro 

You’ve been organizing the AAPI community for years, successfully. You mentioned the diversity of the community when it comes to the Latino-Latina community. People often lump it all together. And whether it was in November’s election after the results, or many times before that one of the push backs from a lot of Latinas and Latinos has been hey, you know, there’s a diversity here, it’s not monolithic. People have probably heard that phrase a million times since November.

Julian Castro

But when we think about the AAPI community, that’s even more true. People coming from an even more broader array of original national origin, or if they grew up here in the United States, as many have same thing, different backgrounds, different languages. How do you see that when it comes to organizing the community against anti-AAPI hate, and going forward, to ensure there’s greater prosperity and equality for the community?

Cynthia Choi

Such a great question. And I think it’s so important, the AAPI community is very diverse socio-economically, our histories, our migration stories, the language diversity, cultural diversity, and geopolitics, right? I mean, if you look at relations globally, there is a tremendous amount of history, and conflict. And that all plays out here in the United States, even within the Chinese community, the difference between those who are from Hong Kong or the mainland.

Cynthia Choi  22:30

And I think that’s really important to lift up in the sense that we do need community-based organizations who understand these communities, who work in these communities are from these communities, to be a part of addressing these solutions that are specific to their communities.

Cynthia Choi 

But the one thing that the surgeon anti-Asian racism, has reminded all of us is it doesn’t matter. We are all subjected to that discrimination. You know, when Vincent Chin was beaten to death, they thought he was Japanese, the Burmese family that was attacked, they thought they were Chinese. And also, you know, we have to do a better job of being inclusive of the Pacific Islander community.

Cynthia Choi 

Their needs are entirely different, as well. And so I’m reminded over and over again, never about us, you know, without us, right. So they need to be part of the conversation, and not an afterthought. So there’s a lot of work in terms of bringing our communities together, overcoming some of those historical challenges and barriers. But this has been a moment to mobilize us and to come together to fight anti-Asian racism.

Julian Castro  24:02

We just changed administration’s and with that change early in the Biden Administration. They put out a memorandum condemning anti-AAPI hate. But we still have almost four years left of this term of the Biden administration. What do you hope to see out of this administration when it comes to the well-being of the AAPI community and forging a better country for everybody?

Cynthia Choi 

Well, what a world of difference to have the president, our national leader actually recognize 400 years of structural racism and to disavow anti-Asian racism. And while I think it was a very, very good step, to actually direct and mandate federal agencies, To remove racist rhetoric, but we know that there needs to be more work done much of this work in terms of addressing anti-Asian racism, discrimination does need to happen at the local level.

Cynthia Choi 

But the federal government can do a lot in terms of providing guidance, by dedicating resources by supporting community organizations that are on the frontlines leading this work. You know, there’s that saying that when America sneezes right, the rest of the world catches a cold. I think that it’s really important that the United States leads in terms of addressing all forms of racism, that we can be looked at as a model for how you advance a multiracial democracy.

Julian Castro

You live in California, and if there’s a place in our nation, where multiracial coalition’s have been built, and have had success in producing better policy, progressive outcomes at the ballot box, you know, California’s it. What perspective and advice would you give to other places, other communities, where perhaps, the AAPI community is just emerging there is growing, what other communities need to know to build those kinds of Coalition’s?

Cynthia Choi  26:27

Julian, we do have tremendous diversity in California. And it’s been an asset because we’re able to mobilize our diverse communities within our communities and across communities. But we have challenges too. We’re fighting against disinformation, the role of social media that also plays out in the Chinese language media, where there is a tremendous amount of bigotry and disinformation happening there. So it’s not without challenges, but we do have a history of coming together. Because we have to, we don’t have a choice. Our organization that formed over 50 years ago, was inspired by the black civil rights movement.

Cynthia Choi 

And the work that we’re doing today around advancing immigrant rights, it’s in our DNA to do that work again, because we need to, and also because it strengthens us. Julian, you could probably appreciate this notion of it was called the civil rights struggle for a reason, we had to struggle and push each other, to make sure that no one was left behind. That whatever we advance doesn’t cause further harm to other communities inadvertently. And that work takes us listening to each other, talking to each other, and at times struggling around the principles that we share.

Julian Castro  28:05

For everybody in this country, and many people around the world, this last year has been unprecedented. It’s been stressful, it’s been difficult for a lot of people health wise, economically, in our country on top of that, for too many people in the AAPI community, it’s been layered over with all of this hate, and scapegoating. But it looks like we’re gonna come out of this pandemic. And there’s been a lot of talk about that we can’t go back to the status quo that we have to be better than we were before. What are you hopeful for? In terms of the years ahead?

Cynthia Choi

We are going to get out of this, we’re going to come out of this with a better understanding that these issues that we’re facing are structural, the disproportionate death rates, the housing crisis that we’re facing, those who are in the midst of a food insecurity crisis, the economic disparities. And the silver lining for me in all of this is we are having a racial reckoning that’s looking at every single institution. And it’s going to be really important that we be insistent and vigilant that when we come out of this, that there’s a rededication to reviewing what we need to do, working with across communities, and making sure that we don’t lose sight of that fact.

Cynthia Choi 

In times of crisis, there’s a quick rush to deploy quick fixes. But then when the headlines go away, and our memories fade, it’s the same repeat of having to fight for those resources. Is that needs to be a long-term investment, and it’s not going to be fixed overnight. That’s what I’m hopeful for the out of this crisis will come together around the real hard work that’s going to be necessary moving forward.

Julian Castro  30:15

Well, I want to thank you for your work for being a part of that push to break down structural racism, and for the hope that your work gives us. Thanks a lot, Cynthia.

Cynthia Choi 

Julian, it was really my pleasure to talk with you. And thank you for your thoughtful questions. And I really do see you as part of our movement. So thank you so much for your leadership.

Julian Castro 

After almost a year of living in a pandemic, the veil has been lifted on just how deep our country’s racial injustice is still go. As a country, we’ve had to grapple with this idea that words matter, and that they can too often and too easily encouraged stigma and violence against innocent people. With a new administration in power or renewed hope for progress has emerged. In his first week in office, President Biden condemned racist rhetoric, activists are pushing for increased training and reporting on hate crimes. Volunteers in the Bay Area are stepping up to keep their streets safe and escort the elderly to buy groceries.

Julian Castro

And Oakland will soon create a special unit for responding to crimes directed toward Asian Americans. Like Cynthia mentioned, we need more efforts like STOP AAPI HATE at the forefront of our country’s racial reckoning, to collectively ensure that ignorance and fear don’t continue to breed hatred, and xenophobia. Next time, we’ll answer a question on the minds of a lot of Americans, how could we reimagine public safety? We’ll talk to Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod about the newly launched Star Program, the reworks law enforcement’s response to mental health crises.

Rep. Leslie Herod  32:02

This is really about making sure that community is engaged and we have a community response to mental health and substance misuse. But it does have to be integrated. You know, we do need to make sure that it’s tied into 911 that it is a truly community response and that people have somewhere to go for treatment to you know, that is so important.


OUR AMERICA is a Lemonada Original. This episode was produced by Matthew Simonson. Jackie Danziger is our supervising producer. Our associate producer is Giulia  Hjort. Kegan Zema is our technical director. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Julian Castro. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me on Twitter at @JulianCastro or in Instagram at @JulianCastroTX.


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