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There's been an alarming spike in violence against women of Asian descent in the U.S.


New Yorkers are still trying to understand the deaths of Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go. Lee was stabbed. Go was pushed onto subway tracks. And in Albuquerque this past week, a woman police identified only as of Chinese descent was shot and killed during a robbery in a massage spa. Three weeks earlier, spa owner Sihui Fang also died during a shootout at her Albuquerque business.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SUNG YEON CHOIMORROW: Thank you for having me.

GONYEA: The organization Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks incidents of discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., found that a majority of the incidents reported - in fact, 68% of the incidents reported between March of 2020 and March of 2021 targeted women. How are Asian and Asian American women especially vulnerable to these attacks?

CHOIMORROW: We are seen as easier targets, less likely to fight back. And so those type of stereotypes and, you know, realities of how gender bias and racism works has created an environment where Asian American women are not only disproportionately being targeted, but, you know, majority of these incidences are happening in public places or the attacker is somebody unknown to us, which is the really scary part, right?

GONYEA: Mmm hmm. I'm wondering if you agree with the Biden White House when they say that the blame lies with, quote, "the hate-filled rhetoric surrounding the origins of the pandemic." It certainly brings to mind former President Trump using the terms China Virus repeatedly and the phrase Kung Flu.

CHOIMORROW: Yes. So I agree that the spike in the crimes that we see and especially violence that is so public can be attributed to Trump using that kind of rhetoric that, you know, other people sort of embraced. But I have to say that, you know, hate and violence against Asian Americans is nothing new. You know, Vincent Chin was murdered - and, in fact, this is the 25th year since he was murdered - in Detroit by a couple of, you know, former autoworkers who had been laid off and, you know, blaming Japanese companies from coming in, assumed Vincent Chin, who's actually Chinese, was Japanese and beat him to death.

GONYEA: There has been pushback from people who argue that these most recent murders in New York City are not racially motivated. Here is Greg Gutfeld on the Fox News Channel.


GREG GUTFELD: I just can't imagine homeless men sitting around scrolling on their iPhones going like, oh, did you see what Trump said about the lab leak? Let's go beat up an Asian woman.

GONYEA: Your reaction to that?

CHOIMORROW: Well, my reaction to that is that they don't understand how racism works. There are biases built in people grow up with and stereotypes that are enforced in media that lead people to, whether consciously or subconsciously, assume that Asian American women are easy targets - right? - whether it's the way we're portrayed in media as submissive, as easy to get, as people that will do whatever you want or not fight back, we're docile. You know, all the way back to - the first Asian woman that was brought to the United States was a Chinese woman brought by an American businessman to be displayed in New York City, and he would charge a fee for people to come and watch her. You know, look at her eat, use her chopsticks. Look at her tiny feet, you know? And our Congress passed what's called the Page Act, and it essentially barred East Asian women from coming to the United States if we weren't coming with a male family member because we were assumed to be prostitutes, right? So from the get-go, there are these assumptions made about Asian American women and how we should be treated, and that hasn't changed.

GONYEA: So that's the historical context. And in the last year especially, we've heard more and more of Asian American communities organizing walking groups to ensure people get home safely at night or take self-defense classes. But that places the burden on targeted communities to defend themselves. What other strategies need to be implemented, in your view, to help people feel safer right now?

CHOIMORROW: Yeah. You know, I've talked to a number of leaders who want solutions. And when I say, you know, we need better schools for everybody, we need accessible health care for everybody, and we need people to be able to, you know, make a living, they're like, well, that's not really, like, the solution around why Asian American women are getting killed. And - but I do think those are all the root causes that lead to some of the conflicts we see.

And another piece that's really important is that we need to start normalizing inclusion and talking about the history that I mentioned. So many people don't even know about Vincent Chin, about Afong Moy, who's the woman I mentioned - about the Chinese woman who came to the United States to be on display - right? - about the Page Act. Americans don't know how Asian Americans have experienced life in this country for centuries, and I think it's really important that we have to understand our history in order to make the right corrections we need to make moving forward.

GONYEA: That's Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. Thank you so much for talking to us.

CHOIMORROW: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 19, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
In the broadcast version of this interview, we said that this year is the 25th year since Vincent Chin was murdered in Detroit, when in fact he was murdered in June of 1982. It has been almost 40 years since Vincent Chin was murdered.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.