Michigan educators, civil rights leaders work to stop anti-Asian violence during pandemic 

By: - March 17, 2021 1:39 pm

Protestors hold signs that read “hate is a virus” and “stop Asian hate” at the End The Violence Towards Asians rally in Washington Square Park on February 20, 2021 in New York City. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, violence towards Asian Americans has increased at a much higher rate than previous years. | Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Updated, 4:33 p.m., 3/17/21

University of Michigan professor Melissa Borja says that as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year in Michigan, she’s concerned that acts of anti-Asian hate in America are on the rise. 

“The pandemic is still here. We still have leaders who are choosing to use stigmatizing rhetoric,” said Borja, a Saginaw native and Filipino American. “This comes almost a year after Asian Americans were saying that the term ‘China virus’ or any kind of stigmatizing term was harmful to Asian Americans.”

Melissa Borja photo

Borja’s field of study includes migration, religion, Asian American studies, politics and oral history. The Virulent Hate Project, a research team that she leads at U of M, has recorded 14 cases of anti-Asian incidents since last March. The Asian community in Michigan represents 3.4% of the state’s overall population, according to U.S. Census data.

In one case, a jogger was running in Ann Arbor in late May when an older man driving stopped his car and said, “You shouldn’t be out jogging. You probably have the COVID.” In another, last March in Detroit an elderly Chinese American had his grocery cart spat on.

The national organization Stop AAPI Hate tracks and responds to incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning and child bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. The San Francisco-based group reported 3,795 incidents from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021, including verbal harassment, shunning and physical assault. About 45% of the cases were reported in California. Nearly 14% of the cases were reported in New York state. A disproportionate number of the attacks have been directed toward women. 

On Tuesday, eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in shootings at three different massage parlors in Atlanta and Acworth, Ga., according to local police. A male suspect, Robert Aaron Long, was arrested and authorities are “very confident” he is responsible for all three shootings, according to Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department. Authorities said it was not immediately clear if it was racially motivated. On Wednesday morning, law enforcement said the killings may have been motivated by issues stemming from Long’s “sexual addiction.”

Hate crimes can be reported via email at [email protected] or by phone at 313-456-0200.

“Few details have been released, including whether or not the shootings were related or motivated by hate,” Stop AAPI Hate tweeted on Wednesday. “But right now there is a great deal of fear and pain in the Asian American community that must be addressed.”

Detroit Action and Rising Voices of Asian American Families issued a joint statement Wednesday afternoon about the killings.

“We want to push back on those hesitating to attribute racist intent to the killer. We may never know truly what the killer was thinking at the time of these attacks, but we certainly know the impact,” the groups said. “We have a collective responsibility to fight white supremacy, a system that leaves too many BIPOC people dead at its hands. We know that we fight white supremacy with solidarity, and in order to build a better future where we all can thrive our Black, Brown and AAPI communities must organize together.”

The shootings come nearly one week after President Joe Biden condemned the violence Asian Americans have endured throughout the pandemic in his first national prime-time address Thursday night.

“At this very moment, so many of them, our fellow Americans, are on the front lines of this pandemic trying to save lives and still — still are forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets in America,” Biden said. “It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on discrimination and violence against Asian Americans on Thursday.

Concerns about underreporting

Ryan Jarvi, spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, said that the department has not seen an increase in reported hate acts directed toward Asian Americans during the pandemic. But the department has heard anecdotally of incidents.

“We encourage anyone who thinks they may have been the victim of a hate crime to report it to our office so we can review the situation,” Jarvi said.

Nessel participated in a press conference last March that included Nessel, state Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy), state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and members of the Michigan Asian community where they denounced anti-Asian sentiment that surfaced during the early days of the pandemic, led by then-President Donald Trump, who frequently used terms like “Chinese flu.”


Borja believes there is significant underreporting both to government and non-government institutions. 

“There are lots of practical reasons,” she said. 

She cited language barriers and lack of awareness about the institutions to which people can report incidents. Borja also said there are cultural barriers, as the concepts of “hate incidents” and “hate crimes” may be a new idea to some groups who are recent immigrants. And there is often discomfort with getting involved with law enforcement, as many Asian Americans are immigrants, and some are undocumented.

Chang, who is of Tawainese descent, agreed with Borja. She said that some people may not feel comfortable reporting incidents because of fear of retaliation, or an unwillingness to ask for help.

“We are concerned,” Chang said. “We know anecdotes of things that have happened, but we don’t know which things have gotten reported officially, and which have not.” 

Several Michigan civil rights organizations also expressed concern about a rise of violence and hate crimes targeting Asian Americans and individuals of Asian descent across the country. 

“Over the last year, bias incidents and hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have escalated, both in number and in intensity,” said Michigan Civil Rights Commission member Anupama Kosaraju. “It is important that as a state and a nation we do more to put an end to these incidents. … When people begin to face consequences for these acts of hate, it will put others on notice that they too may have a price to pay for such actions.”

Ayesha Ghazi Edwin, Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission (MAPAAC) chair, echoed the sentiment.

“MAPAAC has been horrified to hear about the rising incidences of anti-Asian American sentiment and violence targeting our community. Xenophobic and racist rhetoric and discrimination is harmful to all of us.”

A group of University of Michigan social workers also have expressed concern about the possibility of acts of hate. In a letter to colleagues, the Anti-Racism Working Group as part of the U of M Asian Pacific Islander Desi/American Staff Association wrote in February: “Although visible efforts have simmered down, we should remind each other to live not in the moment but in the movement considering that anti-Asian feelings and behaviors continue to exist all around us.”  


‘It’s because of you little motherf—ers that we’re out of work’

The year 1982 and it was a tough one for the state of Michigan. The state’s unemployment rate at one point was 17.2%, a record, and the domestic auto industry was reeling. Some autoworkers resented the rise of Japanese automakers and their increase in share of the American market.

Chrysler nearly went bankrupt two years before. Gov. William Milliken, a Republican, and Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, a Democrat, personally lobbied Capitol Hill lawmakers on the automaker’s behalf. Ultimately, Chrysler secured a $1.5 billion loan from the federal government.

In June 1982, Vincent Chin, who was Chinese-American and former Highland Park and Oak Park resident, was murdered by disgruntled white automakers who thought that he was Japanese.

“It’s because of you little motherf—ers that we’re out of work,” witnesses would later testify hearing an attacker state.

Chin was later that evening savagely beaten with a baseball bat. He lay in a coma and died four days later. The 27-year-old was scheduled to be married later that month. 

The case made national news. Michael Nitz and Ronald Ebens were charged with second-degree murder and subsequently pleaded guilty to manslaughter the following year for the beating death. They did not serve time in prison, but were sentenced to three years of probation.

Vincent Chin grave site in Detroit | Ken Coleman

There was national interest in examining hate crimes against Asian Americans during the 1980s, like in a U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing on Nov. 10, 1987. The U.S. Justice Department reported a 62% rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans in 1986 alone, according to testimony at the hearing from the New York City-based Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence. 

Borja was born one month before the Chin incident and said she “obviously [doesn’t] remember it” but “the aftermath of that could not be understated. 

“We would talk about it at the family dinner table,” she said. “There was always a concern that you will be blamed for something, or your safety might be imperil if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Borja’s mother was a nurse. She remembers one of her mother’s patients during the 1980s didn’t want to see her because she was of Asian descent. Borja also recalls seeing “Jap lover” spray painted on a family member’s car.

“You can see the intersection of past racial hostility didn’t matter whether you were Japanese or not,” she said. “You were considered ‘other.’ … Those were things that were very heavy on my childhood. It formed my work.” 

The Legislature 

Anti-Asian sentiment also has surfaced in the Michigan Legislature during the COVID crisis. In July, state Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) introduced a bill holding the Chinese government responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“China knew a novel infectious disease was spreading inside Wuhan Province, lied to the World Health Organization and claimed it did not spread from person to person,” LaFave said at the time. “It then tried to cover its tracks by throwing out journalists attempting to sound the alarm bells to the rest of the world. Despite its own regional travel ban, it allowed infected people to fly overseas into Detroit International Airport and hubs across the world uninhibited.”

Chang, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Michigan Legislature and founder of the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Caucus, took issue with that legislation.


“I understand that obviously there are things their government could have done better, but I think that why not Italy, why not European countries,” Chang said at the time, noting nations with early outbreaks. “They also led to the spread of COVID-19 and its spread to the United States of America. So clearly, there is a racial element to it.” 

In January, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) described his battle with COVID-19 as the “Chinese flu.”

“The Chinese flu army sent in one of their best soldiers. His name was Rona. I’m not as young as he used to be, so he and I wrestled for nine days, but I finally pinned him,” Shirkey said jokingly with JTV host Bart Hawley.

Chang blasted him for the reference.

“Referring to COVID-19 as ‘Chinese flu’ or ‘China virus’ is xenophobic and completely inappropriate,” she said. “… The World Health Organization stopped calling viruses by ethnicities or countries for a reason: It causes harm.”

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.