Hundreds turned out to protest hate crimes against Asian-American people at a March 27, 2021, rally in Princeton, N.J. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo/New Jersey Monitor)
Ritu Chandra is a stand-up comedian, so deft at delivering a punchline that she was on stage almost every weekend before the pandemic. So she’s comfortable being the center of attention.
But the unwelcome attention of a stranger in her local park one recent summer morning has left her with lingering nightmares — and a fierce drive to fight racism and find justice.
Chandra and a friend took their dogs to Columbia Park in Berkeley Heights on July 17, walking the milelong loop around sports fields and playgrounds. An older white woman approached, hurling profanity their way. Chandra grabbed her smartphone and hit record, capturing what happened next.
“You f***ing c***k b***h!” the woman said, after she charged toward Chandra.
The minute-long encounter prompted police to charge the woman, later identified as Leslie Mugford, with harassment and ethnic intimidation. Mugford and her attorney, Christopher G. Porreca, didn’t return requests for comment.
It was one of thousands of bias incidents reported by Asian Americans since the pandemic started. The skyrocketing rates of hate show no signs of slowing down.
In an August report, the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate said they fielded 4,548 reports of hate incidents nationally in 2020. But 2021 almost surpassed that annual total in just six months, with 4,533 incidents reported from January through June. Nearly two thirds of those incidents were verbal harassment, like what Chandra experienced, and women were more often targeted than men, Stop AAPI Hate found.
Hate crimes against all marginalized groups last year hit its highest level in two decades, with 8,305 incidents reported, according to data collected by the FBI.
Hate crimes are up in New Jersey, too. More than 1,100 bias incidents were reported through Aug. 31, meaning this year’s totals will likely to exceed last year’s 1,441 reported bias incidents and the 994 from 2019, according to state police and the Attorney General’s office. Anti-Asian incidents accounted for 7% of all bias incidents reported so far this year, data shows.
“People just feel empowered now to use racial slurs and commit acts of violence against Asian American people without consequence,” said Chandra, whose parents are from India.
As alarming as the increases are, anti-Asian hate and harassment are more common than the numbers show, because language barriers and distrust of the system keep some victims from coming forward, said Marita Etcubañez, senior director of strategic initiatives at the Washington, D.C.-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC.
Etcubañez and others agree the pandemic — and former President Trump’s racist nicknames for the coronavirus as the “China virus” and the “Kung Flu” — largely drove the spike in anti-Asian incidents.
“During the Trump administration, a lot of us were continually appalled by the things we saw and heard. But a lot of this wasn’t new,” Etcubañez said. “It’s just that the veneer that was on all of it is now gone. People who harbored such sentiments quietly started saying them out loud and were emboldened to act on their racism.”
With the pandemic ongoing, advocates fear haters will continue to lash out at Asian Americans.
“We all have to find more productive and kinder ways to grapple with all of the challenges that the pandemic in particular has brought up for us,” Etcubañez said.
A growing demographic
That’s an especially urgent duty, considering how much New Jersey’s Asian American population has grown in recent years, said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson).
“When you look at the census numbers that just came in, 11% of the state now is Asian American, so that’s over a million people. In my hometown of Jersey City, the largest population group now is Asian American — we’re 28% of the city’s population,” Mukherji said. “The Asian American diaspora has grown rapidly within the past two decades.”
Mukherji is one of just three Asian Americans in the state Legislature, which last spring created a new Asian American Legislative Caucus. He hopes Asian American representation will increase after the Nov. 2 election — and together, they can better advocate on behalf of the state’s Asian American population.
Multiple Asian American candidates will be on the ballot — Republican Bina Shah and Democrats Sadaf Jaffer, Anjali Mehrotra, Shama Haider, and Ellen Park are seeking Assembly seats, and Republicans Agha Khan and Vihal Patel are Senate hopefuls.
But Mukjerji isn’t waiting for reinforcements. He and state Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), the only Asian American in the state Senate, spent the summer working on a bill that would require schools to teach Asian American history, similar to a law Illinois passed in July. They plan to introduce it — and hopefully pass it — when lawmakers reconvene in November for their short lame-duck session.
“Asian Americans have been battling two pandemics – COVID-19 and hate,” Mukjerji said. “Public officials with a pulpit calling the coronavirus the ‘Kung Flu’ or the ‘China virus’ have normalized the hate, which inspires more of these attacks. Like all forms of hate, it usually comes from a place of ignorance. So the hope is that, at least for the next generation, learning about the history of these immigrant communities and their American story will serve to educate and help curb this kind of thing.”
Public officials with a pulpit calling the coronavirus the 'Kung Flu' or the 'China virus' have normalized the hate, which inspires more of these attacks. Like all forms of hate, it usually comes from a place of ignorance.
– Assemblyman Raj Mukherji
Mukherji also plans to push this fall another bill he and Gopal introduced that would create an Asian American Pacific Islander Commission to advocate for and protect the state’s Asian American community. The bill passed both chambers and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
The rise in hate crimes has led three state lawmakers from Burlington County to propose a hate crimes registry, a public, searchable database identifying people convicted of hate crimes here. Some civil rights advocates have objected, saying such databases do little to improve public safety or rehabilitate offenders.
Revictimized by the system
Long before the park encounter, Chandra knew well that racism lurks in all sorts of places. She has experienced housing discrimination, is sometimes mistaken for “the help,” and recalls a neighbor once marveling at how “tan” she was.
She hoped, though, that the country’s racial reckoning in recent years would have spurred the courts to take her encounter with Mugford seriously and community leaders to publicly stand against hate in the community.
Instead, she felt re-victimized. The municipal prosecutor handling her case was insensitive, uninformative, and dismissive, saying Mugford’s taunt was “not the right racial slur,” she said. Township officials took two months to speak out against bias in the community. Chandra sought solace from the Union County victims’ rights advocate, but says she was told they couldn’t help because it was a municipal matter.
“The lack of accountability actually all feels way worse than the woman who attacked me in the park, because these are the people you expect to help you,” Chandra said.
Why have rallies and lawn signs if you’re going to ignore the real victims in your community?
– Ritu Chandra
The municipal prosecutor didn’t return requests for comment.
Berkeley Heights Mayor Angie Devanney said she has twice asked Union County Prosecutor William Daniel, whose office downgraded the case to municipal court, to “take another look at this matter to ensure justice is served.” Daniel’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
AAJC has called for communities to expand supports for residents subjected to racial trauma. Berkeley Heights aims to do that, Devanney said, explaining the township has a new Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Advisory Committee.
Council members also are considering holding cultural sensitivity training for municipal prosecutors and public defenders, hosting town halls to seek public input on addressing bias and hate crimes in Berkeley Heights, appointing a victims’ advocate, providing counseling to victims, and reconsidering penalties for bias crimes, Devanney said.
Devanney defended the township’s two-month delay in publicly responding to the incident, saying: “This is a pending legal court case, and we have been very careful to not do or say anything that may jeopardize the case.”
But communities should quickly publicly respond to bias incidents, Etcubañez said.
“Some people would say those are just words, but words absolutely make a difference. They can help people feel more welcome in a community or more empowered to speak up when something like this happens, and they can send a signal to people that this sort of thing is not acceptable,” Etcubañez said.
AAJC has partnered with anti-street-harassment group Hollaback! to provide “bystander training,” in which they teach bystanders how to safely intervene in hate incidents and support the victim. The groups have trained more than 100,000 people, as of June, Etcubañez said.
Hunting for the humor
As a comedian, Chandra has mined her experiences as an Indian-American woman for her stand-up act.
Finding the humor in traumatic things can be therapeutic, she said, and she dreams of the day she can find something funny in this ordeal.
But she’s not there yet. Since July, she has made it her mission to publicly demand better of Berkeley Heights officials, speaking out at council meetings and posting video of the encounter on social media.
“I do not want to see anyone else re-victimized by the people who are supposed to help them,” she said. “People don’t believe these things happen, and there’s nothing that compares to seeing it with your own eyes. This was such an unprovoked thing — and even if it was provoked, that’s not even an excuse.”
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