As the coronavirus pandemic gripped the Chicago area last March, Inhe Choi already was hearing about Asians and Asian Americans encountering racism on the CTA and at grocery stores.
People including some of her own relatives told her of being screamed at while riding public transportation or shopping, said Choi, executive director of the HANA Center.
Now, the killings of six women of Asian descent in a mass shooting in Atlanta has heightened concerns about racism that Asian communities face.
The number of reported hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans remains low in Chicago, but that could be in part because of a reluctance to report racism or harassment, advocates say.
Language barriers and immigration status could also be factors in the low number of documented hate crimes, according to Choi. A person who’s victimized might not go to the police but instead turn to community organizations, religious leaders or friends, she said.
“To heal and to move forward, this is the moment to do something different and think differently,” Choi said. “It shouldn’t take another mass killing for people to talk and reimagine different solutions.”
In Chicago, there were two hate crimes that involved a bias against Asians in 2020, according to Chicago Police Department records. In 2019 and 2018, the department also logged two hate crimes that targeted Asians. From 2012 to 2020, there were 18 such hate crimes, according to Chicago police statistics.
About 6% of the city’s 2.6 million residents identify as Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Chicago police Cmdr. Don Jerome, who oversees the Deering District that includes Chinatown, said it’s possible some people aren’t reporting incidents. Still, he said he doesn’t think the anti-Asian sentiment seen elsewhere is happening in Chicago.
Jerome said there haven’t been any hate crimes targeting Asian Americans so far this year in Chicago. The department is adding patrols and has placed bilingual officers on every shift in case a non-English speaker wants to report something to police, Jerome said.
“We are trying everything we can to make sure it is safe and feels safe,” he said.
Jerome said he thinks that having had police officers go to events in the city’s Asian American communities has, over the years, helped build connections, pointing to how people have shared video footage with police involving crimes.
Yoonsun Choi, a professor at the University of Chicago who researches the racial experience of Asian Americans, has been studying young Filipino Americans and Korean Americans in the Midwest. She said that, around 2018, she began to see a rise in the number of mental health problems in those groups, such as depression and suicidal thoughts. She thinks racial distress has been one of the reasons.
Because of cultural traditions such as not wanting to speak openly about problems, some people who encounter racism might be hesitant to talk about what happened even with their own families, Yoonsun Choi said.
She said she didn’t report an incident herself when someone yelled at her, which she believed happened because of her ethnicity. Now, she said she encourages others to speak up about such incidents.
“Do not internalize these experiences,” Yoonsun Choi said. “Don’t self-blame but report. Silence is not going to save anyone.”
A national coalition of advocates and academics called Stop AAPI Hate has begun collecting reports of hate incidents. There were 92 in Illinois reported to the group from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, according to the group. The incidents account for about 2.4% of the total 3,795 hate incidents it’s documented across the country.
Most of the incidents involved name-calling or other verbal harassment, according to a report by the group. Some included being coughed or spat on, and others involved vandalism and online incidents.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, said the difference in the hate crime statistics and other reports could be a sign of under-reporting.
Levin defines the difference between hate crimes and hate incidents this way: Incidents are instances of aggressive prejudice that don’t rise to the level of an “arrestable crime.”
Levin said some some police departments have started documenting these reported incidents in addition to hate crimes, which could track tensions in communities.
“I think this is a time for cities like Atlanta, but Chicago as well, to review not only their policies but their structures,” he said.
He said police could have a two-tier review process for hate crimes to help ensure cases aren’t wrongly classified. He also said there should be efforts to increase reporting that could include regularly hosting meetings with community leaders.
Jerome said the Chicago Police Department takes reports of incidents even when they don’t involve criminal acts. He said people should report incidents that leave them feeling uneasy.
In Chicago, Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago started virtual bystander intervention trainings last fall. Days after the attacks in Atlanta, Catherine Shieh, the anti-hate training coordinator for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, led more than 60 people through scenarios to help people figure what to do if the person is a witness to a hate incident.
Shieh said doing something is better than doing nothing.
“The best way to have a safe community is to build community,” she said. “We cannot police our way into safe neighborhoods.”
Shieh said one way to address racism is through social reforms such as ensuring voting rights to help hold police accountable. She also wants to see the Illinois General Assembly pass a bill that would mandate that schools teach Asian American history.
“When we tackle racism as a crime, something to be tried and really heal from, then we will figure out how to break down the segregation of our neighborhoods,” Shieh said.
At Wheaton College, Raymond Chang, a campus pastor and president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative, said the campus held an outdoor vigil after students asked to pray together.
“I’ve cried, my wife has cried, I’ve seen my students cry, my friends have cried,” Chang said.
He said the group tried for months to raise awareness about racist rhetoric that blamed Asians for the coronavirus pandemic. The rhetoric was similar to past racist talk that painted Asian Americans as a “disease” or a threat to the West, Chang said.
“It’s deeply racist and connected to a longstanding attitude about Asian Americans,” he said.
Esther Kim, a senior at Wheaton, grew up in a suburb outside Atlanta. Though she is back on campus, last year she had to quarantine at home in Georgia and said that, during that time, she could feel the difference in attitudes toward Asian Americans because of the pandemic.
“Even when I waved to my neighbors, how they responded to me after COVID came, there was a huge difference,” Kim said.
She said she started to feel unsafe. She soon will graduate and is dreading going home to Georgia given the mass shooting in Atlanta.
“Just knowing that could have been me or my mom, that’s just jarring to really think about it,” Kim said.
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.