The new victims of hate

Bias crimes hit America's fastest-growing ethnic group

Newsweek/November 1, 2000
By Lynette Clemetson

John Lee can barely remember the most terrifying night of his life. One moment he was meeting friends on the steps of his dorm at the State University of New York at Binghamton, the next he lay hospitalized with a fractured skull.

In February, Lee and three other Asian-American students were jumped by three members of the school's wrestling team, who attacked with head butts, kicks and racial slurs. As Lee heard witnesses describe the taunts his attackers shouted You damned chink! That's what you get! he came to a sickening realization. It was all because of race, says the 19-year-old Korean-American. I never thought I could be the victim of a hate crime.

In the past 10 years the nation's Asian population has soared more than 43 percent to roughly 11 million, making them the fastest-growing minority group. But as the numbers have exploded, so have attacks like the one against Lee. A new report by a coalition of Asian-American civil-rights groups shows that violent attacks against Asian-Americans have risen in the 90s to 486 incidents last year from 335 in 1993.

A spate of troubling cases in recent months has underscored concerns. In September two teens wielding a broken broomstick beat a 50-year-old Laotian man in Baltimore as he stood waiting for a bus. And at Cornell University there have been three reports of racially motivated assaults against Asian women in the last month and a half. We see the backlash as communities and social dynamics change, says Sin Yen Ling, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. There is fear on all sides, and it's becoming more deadly.

Part of the problem is that hate crimes against Asian-Americans are vastly underreported. A cultural reluctance to cause a fuss often prevents victims from coming forward, and those who do may feel more comfortable reporting incidents to community groups than to police. Of the three other Asian-American students attacked on the same night as Lee, two have decided to remain anonymous. And Lee himself has been reluctant to become a poster child for activists. I just want to put it behind me and get on with my life, he says. Police officers, too, often fail to recognize incidents as being racially motivated. And the FBI's numbers on anti-Asian violence are consistently lower than those of Asian-American civil-rights groups partly because federal agencies log only crimes like assault and murder, and not intimidation and hate speech.

Halting the trend means confronting long-held misperceptions. The same stereotype that often fuels anti-Asian bias that of the ultrasuccessful minority prospering faster than other ethnic groups also often prevents attacks from being recognized as hate motivated. When Rizalene Zabala, president of the Asian Student Union at SUNY Binghamton, first reached out to black and Latino students to protest the attack against Lee, she was shocked at the initial response. Some simply didn't see us as minorities, says Zabala, a Filipino-American. They think if you're Asian you're automatically interning at Merrill Lynch and that you're never touched by racism. For Ismael Ileto the new hate-crime numbers are more than raw statistics. His older brother Joseph, a postal worker, was killed in August 1999 by the same gunman who had, moments earlier, gone on a shooting rampage in a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. Anger has turned Ileto into an activist. While the country rallied around the Jewish victims injured at the community center, Ileto believed there was little public outcry for his dead brother because he was Asian. He now speaks to groups around the country about the relative invisibility of anti-Asian violence. As long as they think we're timid, easy targets, the violence will only continue to increase, says the 38-year-old UPS driver. What good is quietly working for the American dream if every time you step onto the street you have to look over your shoulder?

It's a realization Lee is coming to slowly. Though police classified his beating as a bias crime, only one of his attackers faces trial for assault (the other two reached plea-bargain agreements for reduced charges). I could have died out there, says Lee with a quiet flash of resentment. The system let me down. Now that his physical wounds have healed, Lee has begun to speak out about his experience, hoping to turn frustration into action

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