On Tuesday, Philadelphia police officers arrested Jamie Foster, accused of attacking an Asian man in the city’s Chinatown section and yelling racial slurs at him.
Reports of such incidents have been seen in Philadelphia and around the country, as the pandemic and anti-Asian rhetoric have led to an increase in racially motivated crimes. In response to the attacks, Asian Americans United (AAU), held a virtual discussion titled AAU Teach In: Organizing Against Anti-Asian Violence.
In the past year alone 3,795 incidents of discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that collects data on harassment and violence towards Asians in the U.S. Of that, 68.1% of those incidents were verbal assaults, 11.1% were physical attacks, and civil rights violations — workplace discrimination and refusal of various services — accounted for 8.5% of the total incidents (Figure 1).
AAU – who also recently led a vigil for the victims of last month’s Atlanta shootings – hopes to spotlight historical instances of discrimination to show a pattern of continued prejudice against Asians who have migrated and now live in Philadelphia.
“Anti-Asian violence in Philadelphia isn’t new,” said Debbie Wei activist and co-founder of Asian Americans United.
“The phenomenon of anti-Asian violence has long roots. This isn’t about individuals who decide to perpetrate violence against other individuals. It’s about institutionalized systemic racism and white supremacy,” Wei said.
AAU was founded 1985 by a small group of activists who wanted to raise awareness for anti-Asian violence, substandard housing, and inadequate education for immigrant and non-English speaking Asians in Philadelphia. AAU strives to partner with city officials as well as other community-based organizations to assists the city’s 115,000 Asian residents.
According to census data, nearly 7% of all Philadelphians are of Asian descent. These residents play an intricate role in the city’s economy, owning approximately 11% of Philadelphia’s small businesses.
Scott Kurashige, a professor of comparative race and ethnic studies at Texas Christian University, recalls a similar incident in Philadelphia. Pointing to the 1991 murder of David Reilly, an 18-year-old White Southwest Philadelphia resident in an altercation with a group of Asians in McHesse playground.
“A group of white men saw a group of Asians in McHesse playground… At least two of these white men went to tell the Asians they did not belong in their park one threatened them with his Pitbull and the other claim to have a loaded gun,” Kurashige says. “This was not an unprecedented incident except in this case some of the Asian youth went to a nearby home and came back with kitchen knives.”
In the conflict that ensued Reilly was stabbed and died soon after. Court documents from the 1994 trial state, “during the attack, David Reilly was stabbed in the chest and back by two different weapons, piercing both of his lungs, and causing his death.”
Kurashige says that Reilly’s unfortunate death exacerbated hate crimes against Asians at that time, as erroneous information about the case was widely spread by media outlets.
“The story quickly spread citywide. Framed as a racialized gang slaying through breaking TV news and sensational headlines newspapers repeatedly reported that Riley was quote hacked to death with a meat cleaver even though the police had identified a specific weapon used to stab him.”
A review of newspaper headlines from publications at that time support Kurashige’s claims.
“Neighborhood strives to quell tensions after slaying” reads an article by the Philadelphia Inquirer. National coverage showed a similar trend, with the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune reporting, “Philadelphia youth hacked to death, 2 hurt as Asian-white tensions explode,” and “Philadelphia hoop star slain in racial melee,” respectively.
There are more than 25 Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups in Pennsylvania and members of those communities say they are in constant fear of assault. Mohan Seshadri, co-executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance (API PA), says that while recent attacks have brought some awareness to this cause, the requirements for an incident to be formally categorized as a hate crime impacts reporting data.
“Hate crime had this very specific definition that I think we can go back and forth about whether or not it is accurate,” Seshadri said. “When it comes to the government services that exist to actually provide support or tracking of these instances and there’s certainly not enough resources to provide care for our folks who have been going through this violence and have come out the other side.”
Members of Asian communities hope that the recent uprising against social injustices will also bring awareness to the causes they have fought for. However, leaders in the Asian American community make sure that the momentum from newfound attention is not overshadowed by political motives.
“When it comes to what we need, its especially [important] not use this specific political moment to justify their agendas and their interests,” says Seshadri.