‘As the world’s melting pot, New York City must be welcoming to people from every corner of the Earth. Our city’s diversity, including our 1.2 million Asian neighbors, is what makes us the greatest city in the world.’
New York’s Chinese communities are in the midst of celebrating their Lunar New Year, with more than two weeks of events to welcome the Year of the Ox. And while COVID-19 has tempered this year’s festivities, something else is casting a dark shadow: a sharp rise in racism toward Asian Americans. Simply because they resemble people from the country where the pandemic began, they were victims of 259 documented anti-Asian hate incidents in the city in 2020. East Asians have borne the brunt, being blamed for the pandemic and stereotyped as infected, even though the city’s first case came from Iran.
The details of these hate crimes, and probable ones, are even more jarring. At the start of the pandemic, a man repeatedly hit an Asian woman at the Grand Street subway station, saying she was diseased. In March, someone in Queens approached an Asian American father with his son, shouting racist remarks, then hit the man over the head. In August, an Asian woman on a 5 train was spit on by a man who blamed her for the virus. In December, a group of six people confronted an Asian woman on the A train, shouting anti-Asian remarks and punching her multiple times. And just last week, a man in Queens pushed a 52-year-old Asian woman to the ground, allegedly making racist comments, leaving her unconscious and requiring stitches.
This is only a small sampling of recent incidents. And we can only imagine how many went unreported, along with microaggressions like people distancing themselves from Asian Americans.
As an African American, I know the profound toxicity racism can wreak. Such hatred directed toward any ethnicity is intolerable and inimical to basic human dignity. Moreover, the inequities racism engenders might even have physical health effects, helping to explain why Chinese New Yorkers likely have the highest COVID death rate in the city, even when controlling for comorbidities.
Racism is not mere harmless words, but a serious threat to our health. That is why I introduced S8673B in Albany, which would declare racism a public health crisis. The bill would create a task force to make recommendations on how to close racial gaps in health and other outcomes, engage authentically with communities of color, and raise awareness of the toll racism plays on our health.
Such a task force is only the first step. There are many other things our city can do to make sure we are inclusive of our Asian friends and family. Firstly, our city’s use of the term “Asian” in data, lumping together people from almost a third of the world’s land mass, can miss important insights. For example, the city’s COVID statistics list “Asian/Pacific-Islander” as the ethnicity with the lowest hospitalization rate, yet South Asians have the second highest rate in the Health + Hospital system.
More importantly, some Asian American communities will continue to have worse health outcomes unless we address the social determinants of health. Among other things, that means having economic stability. Which is why the next city’s next comptroller must ensure that Asian-owned MWBEs are getting a fair share of city contracting dollars, and promote living wage jobs with benefits. There must also be a sense of safety for Asian New Yorkers, instead of a growing fear of hate crimes and discrimination. The comptroller will have to guide the city on smarter spending on crime prevention, which does not necessarily mean more police. And it means stable living arrangements, so the comptroller must invest more pension fund dollars in construction of affordable housing.
As the world’s melting pot, New York City must be welcoming to people from every corner of the Earth. Our city’s diversity, including our 1.2 million Asian neighbors, is what makes us the greatest city in the world. This virus does not discriminate by race, and we cannot use the pandemic as a pretense to do it ourselves.
Kevin Parker is a New York State Senator representing Brooklyn’s District 12 and is a candidate for New York City Comptroller.