Tag Archives: Arab American

“Often Our Communities Are Pitted Against Each Other” says Manjusha Kulkarni of A3PCON

A rash of hate incidents against Asian Americans is spreading like a virus since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

On March 16, eight people were shot and killed at three Atlanta area spas amid growing fears nationwide of anti-Asian bias. Six of the victims were Asian women.

Anti‐Asian hate crimes surged by a staggering 149% in 16 of America’s largest cities, even though overall hate crime dropped by 7% in 2020, according to a fact sheet released by the California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

With the stabbing of a 36 year Asian man in Chinatown In February, New York leapt to the top of the leaderboard for the most number (28) of racially motivated crimes against people of Asian descent in a major city, followed by Los Angeles (15) and Boston (14), in hate incidents reported to the police.

Data shows that the first spate of hate crimes occurred in March and April ‘amidst a rise in COVID-19 cases and negative stereotyping of Asians relating to the pandemic’.

The brutal spike in attacks on Asian and Pacific Island Americans (particularly seniors)  amid an epidemic of anti-Asian violence ,“is a source of grave concern for our community,” said John C Yang, of AAJC. “While battling COVID19, unfortunately Asian Americans have also had to fight a second virus of racism.”

At an ethnic media briefing on February 19, civil rights advocates called for a unified response to counter racial and ethnic divisions, bigotry and incidents of hate.

“What we are experiencing is the America First virus,”  declared Jose Roberto Hernandez, Chief of Staff, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, where hatred is manifesting in a rash of vicious attacks targeting Asian Americans.

STOP AAPI Hate, a national coalition aimed at addressing anti-Asian discrimination, received 2,808 reported incidents of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans across the U.S. between March 19 and December 31, 2020. Sixty nine percent of anti-AAPI attacks occurred in California, followed by New York City (20%), Washington (7%) and Illinois (4%).

According to STOP AAPI Hate, victims reported prejudice incidents that ranged from physical assault (8%), coughing and spitting (6%), to being shunned or avoided (20%). The vast majority (66%) reported verbal assaults.

In another study, hateful comments on social media also reflected racist trends sweeping the Internet. The term Kung Flu spiked in March and July last year in a Google key word search, while an analysis of Poll and Twitter posts from January 2020 saw a similar surge of Sino phobic racial slurs in March.

The most victimized group in the AAPI population – almost 41% – were people of Chinese descent while  Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos also were targeted.

The effect on the Asian American community is significant, said Yang, President and Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, referring to a Harris poll that showed three-quarters (75%) of Asian Americans  increasingly fear discrimination related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Another poll, added Yang, reported that 40% of Asian Americans either experienced discrimination or heard someone blame Asia or China for COVID-19. Many of the people who felt threatened are frontline workers in essential jobs at grocery stores, hospitals and community centers and custodial services.

“The surge in violence is creating an atmosphere of  tremendous fear,” noted Cynthia  Choi, Co-Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and co-creator of Stop AAPI Hate.

Hate against Asian Americans is not a new phenomenon added Yang, referring to historical fear and prejudice that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the incarceration of 120 thousand Japanese Americans during World War 2, and the war on terror after 9/11 that impacted Arab Americans.

Asian Americans are often demonized for being ‘foreigners,’ or carriers of disease, but during the pandemic, said Yang, the ‘need to blame’ someone for the virus has exacerbated those fears and morphed into violence against the Asian American community.

Hateful rhetoric from President Trump, who referred to COVID19 as ‘the China virus, the Wuhan flu, and the China plague’ at political rallies, further inflamed racially motivated violence against Asian Americans.

“That has had a lasting impact”, stated Choi.

Her view was echoed by Manjusha Kulkarni, Executive Director of Pacific Policy and Planning Council, who pointed to “.. a very direct connection between the actions and the words of the former presidents and the administration.” She referred to policies initiated by the former administration to ‘alienate, isolate, and prevent our communities from getting the support they needed, and to reports her organization received, containing ‘the words of the president.’

“Words matter,” said Yang, calling on people to come together to dismantle the contagion of racism and hatred.

AAPI advocates drew the strong support of Marc Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League, who condemned the ‘climate of intolerance which has been created in this nation.” He reiterated his support for AAPI, accountability for perpetrators of violent acts, and commitment to cross cultural understanding “which is central to civil rights in the 21st century.

“Hate anywhere, is hate everywhere,” noted Morial. “We stand against efforts to demonize the Asian American community.”

So how is the nation addressing this issue?

“What we need to work on is establishing the checks and balances in society that grant equal power to everybody,” said Hernandez, “at home, at work, and in the community.” Yang called for a stand against hatred, for witnesses to report incidents, and for bystander intervention training, so people know what do when they witness accounts of hate. He urged setting up dialog at local levels.

A number of AAPI organizations, including  OCANational Council of Asian Pacific AmericansChinese for Affirmative Action, and Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, have joined forces to unanimously condemn anti-Asian hate crimes. Several civil rights advocacy groups – Chinese for Affirmative Action, SAALT, and A3PCON, offer in language links on their websites, to report hate incidents.

At the national level, said Yang, Biden’s national memorandum against AAPI hate is a good start in terms of data collection and better understanding of the hate Asian Americans are facing. But the government needs to invest in communities – in victim response centers, financial resources for victims and cross-community, cross-cultural conversations,” – to break down the barriers of prejudice.

“Often our communities are pitted against each other,” said Kulkarni, “that is how white supremacy works.” She remarked that sometimes AAPI communities tend to turn on one other because of ‘close proximity’ geographically or socio-economically, while too many people in AAPI communities accept the model minority myth or anti-blackness “all too easily.”

Communities need to collaborate to combat this culture of hatred and take responsibility to work on solutions, rather than accept the premises of white supremacy, added Kulkarni. She called for healing rather than division.  “We have so much in common …that we should be able to work together for the right, restorative and transformative justice.”

Everyone has a part to play in highlighting this issue. urged Yang. “The virus of racism is very contagious and affects all of our communities. We need to fight that virus together.”

Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Originally published February 24, 2021.

Where Do I Fit In?

Dr. Hamoud Salhi  was excited about completing his very first US census form. As a professor of political science, he understood why the decennial mattered. He had studied census processes in Algeria, his country of origin, and currently teaches ‘cultural pluralism’ to American students at California State University, where he is an Associate Dean.

Dr.Hamoud Salhi

And yet, when Dr. Salhi began filling out his 2020 Census form, he grew puzzled.

As a person of MENA origin, “I was ready to “express my identity and see where I fit.” said Dr. Salhi.

But the census form fell short of his expectations.

Its list of ‘self-identification’ options did not offer criteria that Dr. Salhi felt matched his own racial and ethnic credentials. In some ways it seemed like a lost opportunity to express his identity.

“Am I white, Arab or African American?” he questioned. “Where do I fit in?”

Dr. Salhi voiced his concerns at a telebriefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services and supported by the California Complete Count on May 13, to understand why people from the MENA region (with roots in Middle East & North Africa), are not separately classified in the enumeration.

The discussion examined why individuals like Dr. Salhi, with MENA origins, struggle to assert their identity in the census.

“The concept of MENA is very complex,” said Dr. Salhi, adding that census language and terms have not kept up with the diversity of the MENA community which represents more than 11 racial and ethnic groups .

In 2015, when the AAI appealed to the census to include MENA as a category in 2020Census, it included all 22 member states of the Arab League and various transnational groups in its definition of MENA. But the Census Bureau rejected that classification in 2018, citing the need for more research.

Without a MENA category, Dr. Salhi was perplexed.

Should he check “white’, the classification historically afforded to people of Arab descent?

Or ‘Northern African’ – a French construct for colonized  Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, that excludes Egypt and Libya from that geography.

Should he opt for ‘African American’ because he straddles both continents as an American with Algerian roots, even though the term with its controversial racial origins does not truly represent him?

Though the Census Bureau asserts that its questions on race and ethnicity are based on how people ‘self-identify,’ and, that its race categories “generally reflect social definitions in the U.S,” it uses language and definitions that confuse the distinction between race, ethnicity, and geographic origin.

These blurred distinctions make it challenging for some respondents, including those of MENA origin, to ‘self-identify’ and provide an accurate demographic representation of themselves.

“There is no sense in how the census defines race and ethnicity that is acceptable academically,” says Dr. Salhi.

Race is not about self-identification as “it is usually associated  with biological and physical differences,” he explained, and ethnicity is more about self-identification.

“You self-identify who you are by your culture and how you relate to that culture.”

In another twist, by associating ethnicity to Hispanic origin, the census further complicates the concept of ethnicity, says Dr. Salhi. “Is my ethnicity is defined by whether I’m Hispanic or not?”

“The options do not describe accurately where I fit in,”  he says. Instead, Dr. Salhi offers a simple solution to resolve the issue.

“What about a straight-forward question – ‘What is your ethnicity?’ and “simply list the categories.”

Dr. Loubna Qutami

Dr. Salhi’s question represents “a struggle that’s a 100 years old” said Dr. Loubna Qutami, a post-doctoral fellow at UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department, who shared a historical overview of the MENA story in America.

Arab immigrants began petitioning the US courts to be legally classified as white in the US census in the 1920s, she explained, not because they saw themselves as white, but because they realized that being white was rooted in power distribution and privilege.

“Whiteness was tied to eligibility for citizenship, eligibility for property ownership, and for having certain political and human rights.”

However, the census evolved after the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s to serve a different purpose. No longer was it used to differentiate between the rights of people based on their race; instead, the census became a tool to achieve social justice.

“By closing gaps in equality between communities,”  said Dr. Qutami, census data began to inform how public monies were allocated to neighborhoods, schools, and community-based organizations to create a more equal society.

Unfortunately, being classified as white meant that MENA communities were losing out on funding that was being given to other minority communities.

So Arab advocacy groups  (The Arab American Institute, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, ACCESS, and other grassroots organizations) began advocating for census reclassification to help MENA communities prove their demographic count and become eligible for funding.

But reclassification has proved elusive.

The MENA designation did not appear on the 2010 census, and, though the Obama administration in 2015 considered including the MENA category in the 2020 Census, it was denied by Karen Battle  from the Census Bureau in a public announcement.

This setback compounded other problems that Arab Americans have had to contend with said Dr. Qutami. Anti-Arab sentiment which was sparked by the events of September 11, began to increase  after the Trump administration’s xenophobic immigration policies and travel ban. As a result, MENA communities feel dis-invested in participating in something like the census.

“There’s no trust in the state” says Dr. Qutami. Instead, there exists a legitimate fear that census data will be weaponized against Muslim communities for surveillance.

However, Arab American advocacy groups  are continuing to pressure the  Census Board for greater visibility and self-identification on the census, while grassroots organizations are investing in outreach efforts to mobilize MENA constituencies and encourage their participation in the enumeration.

Participating in the decennial will help determine who comes from a MENA background, what the neighborhoods are, who‘s living below the poverty line, who’s eligible for food stamps, and who’s struggling with access to benefits, says Dr. Qutami, who has relied on the America Community Survey and her own research to collect this data.  A key outcome of a more accurate count is that it could enable MENA communities achieve the political representation necessary to contest longstanding discriminatory policies, and access the public resources and benefits they need.

“Participating in census will help us on a collective level,” said Dr. Qutami, as including a MENA classification in the census will better reflect the cultural pluralism of our increasingly diverse society.

It’s a two pronged approach that the MENA community hopes will pay off in the next census.

For Dr. Salhi, it may mean another ten years before he can self-identify on the census by simply checking off a single option.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents.

Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.


Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash