Article By Brian Lee-Mounger Hendershot

Anti-Asian hate crimes are down, but people are still worried. And for good reason

Brian Lee-Mounger Hendershot is the managing editor for Western City magazine; he can be reached at

Earlier this month, a group of Asian Americans told San Francisco officials that they feel unsafe in their communities. For researchers, advocates, and many Asian American electeds, the news was hardly surprising. During the pandemic, Anti-Asian hate spiked to levels unheard of since the years after two white autoworkers killed Vincent Chin — including in California.

“If we look at California history, we actually have had our own fair share of really, really racist and specifically anti-AAPI incidents,” said Annie Lee, managing director of policy for Stop AAPI Hate. “It’s easy to throw stones at other states — red states, purple states. … [But] Stop AAPI Hate shows that the greatest number of reports comes from California.”

The list of incidents is long. Elders were brutally attacked, including an 89-year-old woman who died after being beaten into a coma. In Diamond Bar and Rancho Cordova, two men drove their vehicles through majority-Asian crowds while yelling racial slurs. Many Asian Americans reported being shunned or targeted for their perceived connection to COVID-19.

Anti-Asian hate did eventually decrease in 2022, potentially reflecting efforts to reduce hate. However, experts are warning that this could be an aberration. But local officials can help mitigate the next wave before it happens.

Who gets to be Asian American?

When people think of Asian Americans, they often think of relatively well-off, light-skinned East Asians. However, critics have long noted that the term obscures an immense diversity and range of challenges. Asian Americans have the largest income gap of any racial group, as well as massive health, education, and economic disparities.

In the 80s and 90s, the term was broadened to include Pacific Islanders. By one count, the term Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) now includes ethnic groups and upward of 100 languages. Each of these groups has its own set of unique challenges. But one issue that unifies them all is legalized xenophobia. Although policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment have since been overturned, their impacts are still felt today.  

“We still are trying to ensure that Asian Americans get our fair share of representation, and our fair share of government resources dedicated to us,” said Anders Fung, a council member for Millbrae, which has a large AAPI population.  

In fact, many policymakers still see AAPIs as inherently foreign and perhaps dangerous. Lawmakers throughout the U.S. have introduced bills barring Chinese citizens from buying land. AAPIs have been banned from jobs and South Asians are stopped at security checkpoints at higher rates than others. Politicians also use AAPIs as rhetorical punching bags — a concern voiced by everyone interviewed for this story.

Council Member Henry Lo was the mayor during the 2023 Monterey Park shooting. Although the attack was not racially motivated, it came after several, race-based violent attacks on AAPIs, making the attack particularly troubling.

“Rhetoric does have an impact,” Lo said. “And we’ve seen that in the rise of hate incidents around the country. … that’s why we need to call out leaders who make their statements, not in fact, but just on xenophobic and racist sentiments.” 

Act immediately and proactively

Anti-Asian policies often led to anti-Asian violence. So, what can you do if something happens in your community? The elected officials interviewed for this story stressed the importance of an immediate response from other local officials. In Diamond Bar, county prosecutors declined to charge the driver.

“For us, as a community, it was more of a betrayal of the system,” Council Member Andrew Chou said. “It kind of brought back a lot of bad memories where past incidents of hate against the AAPI community were left unaddressed.”

Electeds also stressed that healing takes time and resources, especially when communities suffer back-to-back attacks. Monterey Park responded in part by providing counseling, a community healing fund, and low-interest loans to affected businesses. It is critical to provide cultural- and language-specific counseling and outreach services. Services and policies do not matter if people don’t know about them.

“It doesn’t help to have red flag laws, if it’s not complemented with an outreach program that is reflective of the diversity of this nation,” Lo said.

But it’s not just the headline-grabbing incidents that city officials need to respond to. It’s small, everyday insults and acts that encourage greater acts of hate. One elected recounted how a voter asked if they were going to turn the city into Chinatown and said the election campaign took too many pictures of Asians. Others noted that residents would sometimes take a more hostile tone with them compared to their white colleagues. One spoke about receiving “the regular” hate mail and being told to go back to their country.

Elected officials laid much of the blame at the feet of national leaders who proliferated terms like “kung-flu,” which researchers have linked to increased hate crimes. “It’s just unbelievable stuff,” Chou said. “I never thought I would hear a national natural leader use words like that to mock and lay blame at the AAPI community. It’s despicable, abhorrent, and unacceptable on any level.”

To that end, electeds stressed the importance of acting proactively — especially when communities are isolated or disengaged politically. It’s important to build trust in every corner of the community, just like you would for a housing project. City officials can use their platform to get on the news, pass resolutions, or create safe spaces to publicly discuss difficult topics.

“As an elected official, it’s about bringing people together with those conversations, ensuring everybody gets to listen and hear one another, and not allow these petty little differences [to] continue to tear this country apart,” said Fung, who was attacked with a concrete block in 2022.

Proactive actions can help prevent tragedies 

For AAPI officials, there’s also a lot of value in simply being seen. Chou noted that he is often one of a handful of AAPI officials at non-Asian events. Showing up, speaking up, and building inroads with other communities builds solidarity and reduces the likelihood of people scapegoating AAPIs.

“Oftentimes people feel like they can dismiss the Asian American community because we lack representation,” Chou said. “And when something does happen, we as a community often are left to fight the battle ourselves. There’s no one speaking out about it.”

This may sound like a call for assimilation — which many acknowledged was a dirty word but a practical reality. However, it doesn’t mean you have to give up your identity. For Siri Pulipati, the vice mayor of Rancho Cordova, it means educating yourself about other cultures and other people about your culture. It means focusing on the things that people have in common, not the things that divide them.

“I am a proud Indian American, and I flaunt my culture every chance I get,” Pulipati said. “You will have people that are stuck in their ways and are going to be racist and hurtful to you anyways. We have to choose to ignore them and move on. … if one person understands why we’re doing things the way we do, that’s a win.”

This does not mean the burden should fall solely on AAPI officials. White elected officials also have a role to play. “Use the privilege that one inherently has to educate oneself, and in turn, educate others to be a resource and gain the trust of the community,” said Rachel Hernandez, Riverbank council member. “Allow our electeds of color to be a bridge while uplifting them so they can continue to be a resource and trusted person.”

Build policies that uplift everyone

Beyond speaking out and building trust, there are several policies and actions that city officials can advocate for or adopt to reduce anti-Asian hate crimes and speech. The first is to encourage residents to report incidents. AAPIs are the least likely to report hate-based incidents, with many citing that the process is too difficult, or that their report won’t make a difference. Many, due to their immigration status, are wary of law enforcement.

Moreover, most hate-based incidents do not meet the legal definition of a crime, much less a hate crime. City officials can advocate for better definitions of what constitutes a hate crime, enhanced penalties for those who commit hate crimes, and changes to policies that encourage discrimination.

“Just because things are not crimes doesn’t mean that it’s not traumatic and harmful,” said Annie Lee with Stop AAPI Hate. “It absolutely is.”  

Electeds can also advocate for better data — particularly disaggregated data, and especially in smaller communities. Some policymakers use limited data or small populations as justification for not providing services. But although these numbers are small, the disparities are huge.

“We’re still fighting for so much — to gather diverse data and educate people on the importance of disaggregating that data,” Hernandez said. “A handful of Asian American organizations end up having to represent a huge diaspora of communities.”

Better data can be the first step to better services for everyone. For example, most AAPIs feel unsafe on public transit. With more accurate data, city officials can advocate a range of solutions — like more frequent stops and more lights — that benefit all residents.

For AAPI officials, it’s crucial that they nurture the next generation of AAPI leaders and advocate for their inclusion at all levels of government. Pulipati says she’s felt a sea change in Rancho Cordova since joining city council. She’s helped create inroads to communities that did not know about the services the city could provide them. Many have become leaders themselves or become more civically engaged.

“The world is watching”

Despite these challenges, officials are hopeful for the future. They’re more comfortable about speaking out and building inroads. Many no longer feel like they must choose between being Asian and being American: They can be both or something new entirely. It’s something they’re keen to protect, not just for themselves, but other marginalized communities.

For many electeds, in an election cycle already defined by anti-Asian and anti-immigration sentiments, it’s never felt more important.

“We know what’s happening around the world, and I am concerned about it becoming part of the campaign trail in 2024,” Lo said. “I do have concerns about it impacting all communities. The world is watching how America deals with elections and also issues [of] xenophobia and racism. … How we deal with these elections will have an impact on other countries, how they view democratic governance.”

Looking for more ways to reduce anti-Asian hate in your community? Stop AAPI Hate and the Cal Cities API Caucus have several resources with more specific, practical. and data-backed solutions.