This article was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.
A year ago this month, Eddie Song was accosted by a stranger at a Costco in New York City. The man accused him of spreading the coronavirus and threatened to punch him in the face. It was a clarifying moment for Song, a Korean American entrepreneur who grew up in the city. He later witnessed people harass other Asians too.
The episodes marked the start of a wave of anti-Asian incidents that have spread across the United States. Asians have reported being harassed, threatened and even injured by people falsely blaming them for the spread of COVID-19, which was first detected in China. Then-President Donald Trump inflamed the racist backlash by referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus.”
Racial tensions peaked Tuesday with the fatal shooting of eight people at three Atlanta spas, six of whom were Asian women. Though the shooter says his rampage wasn’t racially motivated, Asian American leaders and advocates say it’s impossible to ignore that he targeted Asian-owned businesses.
Public Integrity interviewed Song in April for an investigation into the federal government’s response to the growing anti-Asian backlash. Public Integrity found that federal agencies were doing practically nothing to address the rising dangers Asian Americans face, even though they were quick to act in similar situations during the George W. Bush administration.
At the time, Song described his frustration with the apparent indifference from politicians and law enforcement officers, who have avoided arresting attackers on hate crime charges. Public Integrity caught up with Song this week to talk about what has changed since then, and what hasn’t.
*Below is an excerpt of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
The last time we spoke, you warned that violence against Asians was going to get worse if no one did anything. What do you think now?
There has been a lot of lip service, but not a lot of action.
[President Joe] Biden put out a memo that doesn’t really do anything. [New York City Mayor] Bill De Blasio created an anti-Asian hate task force, but it’s not funded, it’s all volunteer. They don’t have the power to do anything. And [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo’s bail reform program allows a lot of these perpetrators to be released after attacking Asians on the street.
I warned people not to be dismissive of the situation and I’ve been really disappointed with the response. Some people brushed off the harassment as coming from Trump supporters. But that’s not necessarily true. Being dismissive of the problem has allowed it to escalate to a level that now includes murder.
The Atlanta gunman told police that the shooting was not racially motivated. There’s been some controversy over that. Do you believe him?
The case is not being properly investigated and now you have the media saying it’s not a hate crime. Well then, why did he specifically target Asian salons versus other ones?
We’re in a situation where Asians make up [a huge percentage] of the world’s population and so many people see us as expendable insects. Asians are being hunted purely for sport and no one is going to prosecute.
It’s obvious that politicians don’t care about us except in an election year.
Why do you think politicians and the federal government have been so slow to respond to the anti-Asian violence?
I think that’s the million-dollar question.
If this happened to a Hasidic Jew, a Latino, or a Black person, it would be a hate crime. We don’t have an NAACP or an Anti-Defamation League. We don’t have big organizations like that to speak up for us.
What do you think of the media coverage of the shooting so far?
It’s all focused on the shooter’s mental health. He’s the victim here. They will victimize him. I guarantee this won’t be charged as a hate crime. Prosecutors will say this is a regular crime. It’s absolutely ridiculous. If it were three Jewish businesses, he would easily be charged with a hate crime.
“Being dismissive of the problem has allowed it to escalate to a level that now includes murder.”
Years of letting minor things go has come to this. Asians are often seen as quasi white, because we’re seen as the model minority. Politicians will use the model minority myth when it works for them. We’re not seen as a minority in affirmative action. Any disenfranchisement of Asians culturally has not been considered a problem. There has been this normalization.
Last time we talked, you were dressing in an intimidating manner so people would leave you alone. Are you still doing that?
Yes, I call it the porcupine strategy. I make myself look like a tougher target. The motorcycle jacket, the mask … no one bothers me anymore. At the same time, I have intervened numerous times when other Asians were being harassed verbally. I say ‘you’ve got a problem with Asians?’ and they will usually back off. We have to call out this bad behavior or it will get normalized.
What kind of government response would you like to see?
I want to see New York City fund its anti-Asian hate crimes task force. I want to see politicians do more than just recognize that this is going on and that it’s a problem. Involve the [Department of Justice] and make sure that they investigate these larger cases. Treat them as if they were hate crimes toward Muslims. The DOJ charged and prosecuted so many people back then. I just wish they would treat us the same way. Asians are being massacred and someone needs to actually do something.
Alexia Fernández Campbell is a senior reporter at Public Integrity. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AlexiaCampbell.