How Michigan legislators and leaders are combating AAPI hate through education and activism

By: - July 18, 2022 4:05 am

Detroit Stop the Hate Against the Hate rally in downtown Detroit. | Ken Coleman photo

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have increasingly faced discrimination as a scapegoat for the coronavirus as leaders like former president Donald Trump spread racist and xenophobic sentiments, referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus.”

Meanwhile, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have disproportionately faced the effects of the coronavirus.

The same community that was likely holding a loved one’s hand in a hospital intensive care unit are also being spit on on the subway, said Anu Kosaraju, a community organizer who serves as a commissioner on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

“Would you spit on the very nurse who took care of you? The person you are attacking in the subway could be her daughter, could be her son,” Kosaraju said.

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

“You wouldn’t do that knowingly,” Kosaraju said. “They’re just being misled by this rhetoric.”

More than one in five physicians and surgeons and one in 11 nurses are Asian American or Pacific Islanders, according to research from the New American Economy Research Fund, based in New York City.

While Filipino nurses make up 4% of the registered nurses in the United States, they accounted for nearly a third of the nurses who died from COVID-19 before September of 2020, according to a report from National Nurses United. 

An analysis of 50 million patients found that Asians were more likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID-19 than white patients, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis published in September 2020.

Violence and harassment

In addition to these disparities in health care, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have also been subjected to an onslaught of violence and harassment. 

Asian restaurants across the country have been vandalized with racist graffiti, often referencing COVID-19.

The most well-known violent incident in recent years was in 2021. A 21-year-old white man was arrested after killing eight people after a series of shootings in spas in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Six of the victims were of Asian descent.

From March 19, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2021, 10,905 incidents of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, natioal a coalition which tracks and responds to incidents of discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

The FBI recorded 184 incidents of bias against Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders in 2019. In 2020 the FBI reported 294 incidents of bias from the same group, an increase of 82.6%. 

Michigan residents who believe they’ve been affected by a hate crime can report the incident to the Michigan Attorney General’s Hate Crime and Domestic Terrorism Unit at 313-456-0180. 

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights also has a discrimination hotline available at 1-800-482-3604 for residents with questions about civil rights or who believe they have been discriminated against.

Stop AAPI Hate found verbal harassment was the most common, making up 63% of the incidents reported to the coalition. Physical assault was the second most reported incident at 16.2%, followed by deliberate avoidance of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at 16.1%. The coalition also found that hate incidents reported by women made up 61.8% of the reports collected.

In the first three months of 2022, more than one in 12 Asian Americans experienced a hate crime or incident of hate, according to a survey from AAPI Data, a nationally recognized organization publishing demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

AAPI Data noted an increasing trend of hate against Asian Americans from 2020 to 2021. Whereas one in eight Asian Americans surveyed in 2020 said they’d experienced a hate crime or incident of hate in 2020, that number climbed to one in six in 2021. 

In its biannual report for 2020 and 2021, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights noted an increase of complaints alleging anti-Asian discrimination, though the overall number of complaints remained low. 

The Department of Civil Rights also noted a rise in complaints since 2016, with 14 complaints filed in 2020 compared to six complaints filed in 2016.

However, most hate crimes go unreported.

That's the other thing with hate crimes. Whatever number you hear out there is only a tip of the iceberg.

– Michigan Civil Rights Commissioner Anu Kosaraju

“That’s the other thing with hate crimes. Whatever number you hear out there is only a tip of the iceberg,” Kosaraju said. 

“You have to report it, right? If there’s no consequence, usually none of this behavior will change. There’s no consequence, there’s no motivation for folks to do otherwise,” Kosaraju said. 

An incident doesn’t have to be a violent physical attack to be reported. Microaggressions in the workplace alongside other forms of discrimination are worthwhile to report, Kosaraju said. 

“Immigrants and Asians especially are told to keep your head low and go with the flow… that’s why I think some of these things are never noticed, never reported,” Kosaraju said.

History of racism, violence

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have been used as a scapegoat for the virus’ spread. In this racism and xenophobia are echoes of Asian Americans being blamed for problems throughout American history. 

In the 1850s, a significant increase in Chinese immigration spawned the stereotype that Asian immigrants were out to steal white jobs. During World War II, Japanese Americans were held in internment camps out of concerns they might aid the Japanese army.

Michigan is home to a nationally known case of anti-Asian American violence.

On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin, who was Chinese American, was beaten to death by two white men in Highland Park. Chin was celebrating his bachelor party when witnesses heard one of the attackers say, “It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work,” a reference to Japanese automotive companies blamed for outcompeting American automakers. Chin objected and a fight broke out in the bar. 

Outside of the bar the two men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, took a baseball bat from their car and paid a passerby $20 to “get the Chinese.” 

After pleading “no contest” to a reduced charge of manslaughter, Nitz and Ebens were sentenced to three years of probation and $3,000 in fines. The sentencing judge, Charles Kaufman explained his sentence saying “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, South and Southwest Asian, Muslim and Sikh Americans were victimized as their identities were conflated with those of the attackers. 

In one survey, 21% of Americans agreed that Asian Americans were at least partly responsible for COVID-19, according to the 2022 Social Tracking of Asian Americans in the U.S. Index report.

Helen Zia at 1983 Vincent Chin Rally in Detroit | Victor Yang photo, courtesy of Vincent and Lily Chin Estate

Legislators stress education, cultural celebration

In the wake of rising acts of violence against Asian and Pacific Americans, and conscious of the history of racism, lawmakers and activists across Michigan and the country are working to ensure Asian American history is represented in school curriculums. 

State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) introduced a bill, SB 797, to ensure public school students are taught Asian American and Pacific Islander history. The bill was part of a package that would introduce Latin American, Hispanic American, Caribbean American, African American, Native American, Arab American and Chaldean American history as part of the public school curriculum. 

The bill was introduced in January 2022 and has since stalled in the GOP-led Education and Career Readiness Committee, but no legislative hearing has been scheduled for it.

“With the 40th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s killing, as well as all this current hate, the need to include this history in all of our curriculum is, I think, really, really important because we’re not learning from things that have happened in the past,” Chang said.

Michigan House Democrats also introduced a series of bills, House Bills 4935, 4936 and 4937, establishing Diwali, Lunar New Year and Vaisakhi as state holidays. Those bills have also stalled in committee.

Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) who introduced the first bill in the package, said recognizing Asian American and Pacific Islander history and holidays are important ways to show what these communities bring to American culture. 

“We have tulips in Holland because the Dutch people are there,” Kuppa said. “Every immigrant group brings different flavors and customs and practices to the United States. And so this is just another example of the things that we celebrate, to showcase the diversity and engage it.”

Kuppa and Chang also introduced bills to the House and Senate, respectively, that would honor Fred Korematsu Day in Michigan. Korematsu was a Japanese American recognized for his work in civil rights after refusing to report to an assembly center for placement in an internment camp during World War II. 

State Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) at a press conference announcing Democrats’ voting rights bill package, Nov. 3, 2021, at the Ingham County Courthouse | Laina G. Stebbins

The Supreme Court held that Korematsu should be convicted for disobeying a military exclusion order.

Frank Murphy, who served as Michigan governor prior to serving on the Supreme Court wrote in a dissenting opinion, “Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States.”

A federal judge overturned Korematsu’s conviction almost 40 years later when the case was reopened on the basis of government misconduct.

Jungsoo Ahn, interim executive director of Rising Voices, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building power for Asian Americans in Michigan, stressed the importance of systemic changes that go beyond the curriculum. 

“If you just give somebody a book, does that, you know, change racism in the country? No, it’s the teaching that happens in front of students on any given day that actually needs to change,” said Ahn.

“The classroom is a site of world building … teachers touch more lives with more frequency than any other profession on any given day, you know, so we really have to take the classroom extremely seriously,” Ahn added.

Efforts to expand education on diversity, equity and inclusion have received pushback from Republican lawmakers seeking to ban the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in schools. Although the college-level theory isn’t taught in the vast majority of Michigan schools, there’s been a national push by Republicans to ban certain teachings on race, slavery and discrimination.

In June, the GOP-led Michigan Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness advanced legislation that would prevent schools from including “any form of race or gender stereotyping,” in their curriculum. The bill, House Bill 5097, was introduced by Rep. Andrew Beeler (R-Ft. Gratiot) in 2021 and is currently on the Senate floor. 

The bill’s definition of race or gender includes statements that ban teaching “that individuals are born racist or sexist by accident of their race or gender,” “that individuals bear collective guilt for historical wrongs committed by their race or gender,” and “that cultural norms or practices of a racial or ethnic group or gender are flawed and must be eliminated or changed to conform with those of another racial or ethnic group or gender,” alongside other stipulations.

We have helped build this nation, you know. We have every right to be citizens.

– Jungsoo Ahn, interim executive director of Rising Voices

Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) also introduced a measure, Senate Bill 460, that would withhold 5% of a district’s funds if their curriculum includes critical race theory, the 1619 Project or other listed theories which the legislation calls “anti-American and racist.”

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education passed a resolution opposing these bills saying they would have a “chilling effect” on teachers and saying students should learn the full breadth of our country’s history, including slavery, forced relocation of Indigenous people, the detainment of Japanese Americans in internment camps and state and local statutes that legalized racial discrimination, like Jim Crow laws. The bill was referred to the Senate floor in October 2021 and has not seen any further action.

“People think that just because other histories would be represented in a curriculum that we’re teaching white kids to hate themselves,” Ahn said.

Anyone who has been a teacher will recognize this is a political game, said Ahn, who also co-founded the Michigan Teacher Education Network.

“We have helped build this nation, you know. We have every right to be citizens,” Ahn said. “Our history should also be heard, why do you have to operate in such scarcity?”

Advocating for immigrants

Alongside efforts to include Asian American history as part of school curriculums, Kuppa noted the importance of protecting immigrants and interfaith communities. 

On June 21, the Republican-led Michigan House adopted a resolution introduced by Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall) urging President Joe Biden to “reject radical open border policies and to enforce our nation’s immigration laws.”

Hall’s Resolution, HR 290, said the Biden administration has proposed and supported policies to “reward illegal behavior.” The resolution also says “providing incentives and rewards to those who break our laws, including by entering our country illegally, will only incite more lawlessness.”

Kuppa said the resolution is an exhibit of heightened antagonism towards immigrants.

“If you talk to the million people who are in the green card backlog and their family, many of whom are in Michigan, they will tell you that we are enforcing [immigration law] to our own detriment. It is harming people, it’s harming families, and it is harming our economy,” Kuppa said. 

Asians are expected to become the nation’s largest immigrant group by the middle of the century, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2055, Asians are expected to represent 36% of all U.S. immigrants while Hispanics, the current largest immigrant group, will make up 34% of the U.S. immigrant population.

The majority of Michigan’s immigrant population was born in Asia, making up 51.5% of Michigan’s immigrant population, according to the nonpartisan Michigan League For Public Policy (MLPP). 

According to the MLPP, 11% of business owners in Michigan are immigrants, with immigrants representing 18% of main street business owners in Michigan. Asian immigrants make up more than a third of immigrant business owners in Michigan.

In March, Kuppa introduced the bipartisan House Resolution 248 urging the federal government to address a national backlog in employment-based green cards. The resolution noted the importance of immigration as an American economic and cultural pillar, as well as how immigration has helped address worker shortages in the past. The resolution was referred to the House Committee on Workforce, Trades and Talent. 

Pro-immigration protest outside the second Democratic debate | Ken Coleman

When leaders in the state legislature refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese flu” or cast aspersions on the virus’s origins, it impacts how people view immigrants from those regions, Kuppa said, referencing racist comments made by Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and a bill introduced by Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) holding the Chinese government responsible for the pandemic.

“We really need to think about when someone can talk about their own immigrant heritage, but then wants to turn around and be against immigrants today. It doesn’t make sense,” Kuppa said.

Kosaraju reiterated the importance of appreciating Asian-American accomplishments in response to anti-immigrant and anti-Asian narratives.

“The greatest strength of America is its diversity. I mean, that is quite literally, our secret sauce,” Kosaraju said. “The best and the brightest in the world want to come to this country, nowhere else.”

“The narrative has been that we don’t belong or that we have come here to create problems or misery. And so that narrative has got to change. It’s unhealthy,” Kosaraju said. 

These kinds of narratives will deter people from coming to America, Kosaraju said. By educating and advocating on the importance of America’s diversity there could be progress in deterring hate crimes. Instead of being seen as scapegoats, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders could be seen as enablers of the next generation of technology, Kosaraju said.

Whether it’s educating people about Chinese immigrants who helped build America’s railroads or the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in many fields, including science, technology and medicine, reflection can help build admiration between communities, Kosaraju said.

Empowering communities

As lawmakers advocate for schools to include lessons on Asian American and Pacific Islander accomplishments in schools, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights has also hosted a variety of events to address AAPI hate. 

Partnering with the Michigan Attorney General’s office and multiple community organizations, the department has expanded its outreach and education efforts by hosting community conversations. 

In January, the department also launched the “MI Response to Hate” campaign and now hosts monthly online forums focused on hate crimes and bias awareness. The department will host a September conference focused on the othering of Americans, with a breakout session focused on Asian hate. 

Kosaraju talked about the benefits of some of these workshops, including those led by Department of Civil Rights Community Engagement Director Anthony Lewis.

These workshops feature a cross section of speakers including attorneys and members of the FBI and methods for responding to incidents of hate in addition to statistics about hate crimes, Kosaraju said.

We've got a lot to learn from our past, we've got a lot to do in our present, so that our future generations can have a life that is so much better than the one that we have been living.

– Jungsoo Ahn, interim executive director of Rising Voices

“It’s about how do we prevent more from happening? How do we equip the Asian Americans that are being targeted? How do we equip them to protect themselves,” Kosaraju said.

Not all instances of AAPI discrimination are as visible as verbal attacks or physical violence. Stop AAPI Hate found that 11.5% of the incidents reported were civil rights violations, including workplace discrimination, refusal of service, being barred from transportation and housing related discrimination.

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights also hosted virtual fair housing training for AAPI Americans in a partnership with the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan.  

One of the topics discussed was how to detect and report instances of housing discrimination. 

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Asian Americans were told about 9.8% fewer rental units than whites, and were shown 18.8% fewer houses for sale than white buyers. However, housing discrimination also includes subtle methods like making someone feel unwelcome at a property.

If people are aware of these forms of subtle and overt forms of discrimination, they can report these issues and make them known. 

Talking about experiences of discrimination is painful, but as the issue escalates members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community are becoming more willing to discuss their experiences, Kosaraju said.

Detroit Stop the Hate Against the Hate rally in downtown Detroit. | Ken Coleman photo

“More advocacy organizations have been formed to raise and elevate the voices. And the organizations that have existed for decades have ramped up their efforts,” Kosaraju said. “This is not going away without fierce advocacy on our part.”

Ahn also spoke on the importance of intergenerational efforts. 

“We’ve known that anti-Asian hate has existed forever, you know, and we’ve known that because we’ve seen our parents go through it; we’ve seen our grandparents go through it,” she said.

Ahn said power is built from the bottom up, with elections serving as one pathway to empower local communities by showing how their votes and elected officials what happens in their communities. Even then issues like the lack of language access can create roadblocks for Asian Americans seeking to vote or obtain healthcare.

“We’ve got a lot to learn from our past, we’ve got a lot to do in our present, so that our future generations can have a life that is so much better than the one that we have been living,” Ahn said. 

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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson is a reporting intern for the Michigan Advance. A recent MSU graduate, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He has reported on community events, breaking news, state policy, and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.

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