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Countering Racial Bias and Harassment Related to the COVID-19 Outbreak

May 29, 2020 by Byron Katsuyama
Category: Inclusive Communities , COVID-19

Countering Racial Bias and Harassment Related to the COVID-19 Outbreak

Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. have been facing increased instances of racial bias and harassment in the wake of the deadly COVID-19 virus, reflecting a growing tendency among some misguided few to place blame for the pandemic on them. The FBI recently reported a surge nationally in hate crimes against Asian Americans and, according to a recent poll, over 30% of Americans have witnessed some form of COVID-19-related bias against Asians. Members of the Chinese-American community in particular have been targeted, but other people of Asian descent have also been harassed and threatened. Incidents of harassment have included verbal and physical assaults, refusal of service, and vandalism. Ironically, May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month — a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.

In Washington, there have been several reports of similar incidents. A restaurant in Yakima was vandalized and sprayed with racist graffiti, and there have been multiple incidents reported in Seattle. Restaurants in Seattle’s Chinatown International District have experienced significant drops in sales as a result of COVID-19 fears, a trend that began well before the virus first hit Seattle. As early as January, the Seattle-based nonprofit Asian Counseling and Referral Service sent out a warning stating that “immigrant and refugee community leaders and organizations have noticed an alarming increase in bias and harassment against our Asian American communities” as the first coronavirus cases started showing up in area hospitals. 

As Washington gets closer to having stay-at-home orders lifted and more people are interacting in public settings, including public transportation, parks, stores, and the like, there is growing concern that the numbers of these types of incidents may begin to increase. There are several actions that local governments can take to help counter racial bias and harassment associated with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Washington Local Government Response

To counter these incidents, some Washington local government officials and agencies have begun taking actions to stand with and support their Chinese and other Asian-American communities and to condemn COVID-19-related bias and harassment.

Seattle and King County elected officials, including King County Executive Dow Constantine, held a news conference in early February to publicly challenged what they called “harmful misperceptions” surrounding the coronavirus outbreak that were beginning to affect Asian-American communities in Washington and beyond.

City councils in Burien, Tacoma, Redmond, and Everett have adopted resolutions or issued statements declaring their commitment to inclusion and rejecting bias and discrimination against the Asian community due to COVID-19 outbreak.

King County has produced Coronavirus and Stigma and Viruses Don't Discriminate and Neither Should We posters that can be printed or posted electronically. Several King County cities have also added these posters to their COVID-19 information pages. King County’s Hate and Bias Response Fund also provides funding for community-based organizations that are trying to combat hate and bias as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. To qualify, an organization must use the funds for getting out messages to collect and report experiences of hate and bias in the county during the pandemic.

In April, Bellevue’s Police Chief Steve Mylett hosted a virtual town hall meeting, joined by one of the department’s Chinese-speaking officers, to answer community questions about racism against Asians and Asian Americans in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak. In March, Chief Mylett also issued a statement encouraging victims of hate crimes or bias-related incidents to contact the police and report these and promised that the department would vigorously pursue and arrest anyone who commits a hate crime in Bellevue.

Out-of-State Examples 

Local governments in other states have also taken action. In New York, the city's Human Rights Commission created a special COVID-19 response team to address increased cases of harassment and discrimination. The Commission’s COVID-19 and Human Rights page provides information and resources for citizens to understand their rights and protections in light of COVID-19-related stigma and hate crimes.

The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Department of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University created a website to collect and track racist incidents across the country: Its most recent report included over 1,700 registered incidents. 

Resolutions denouncing racial bias and pledging to work with law enforcement and others to curb hate crimes have also been passed by other local governments across the country, including San Antonio and Austin (TX), and Santa Clara County and San Mateo County (CA).

Take Proactive Steps

It is important for local government officials to take proactive steps to counter racism, xenophobia, and hateful speech and behavior being directed at Asian Americans due to the coronavirus outbreak. Public officials can speak out publicly, adopt resolutions and statements opposing racial bias, provide resources to those affected, disseminate accurate information, and aggressively investigate and prosecute hate crimes against communities that may be especially vulnerable during this crisis. This should also include stepped-up monitoring as the state begins to reopen.

Additional Resources

For additional guidance and support see the resources listed below. 

From King County:

From the Washington State Department of Health:

And finally:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Byron Katsuyama

Byron began work at the Center as a Research Assistant in July 1978. He holds a B.A. degree in Political Science from the University of Washington and an M.P.A. from the University of Washington's Evan’s School of Public Policy and Governance. After completing his M.P.A., Byron joined MRSC's consulting staff as a Public Policy and Management Consultant concentrating on municipal administration and policy analysis. Byron is responsible for research in such areas as emerging local government issues, best practices, strategic planning, performance measurement, and local government management. In addition to his consulting duties, Byron also maintains the "Focus" section of MRSC's website and is editor of our "In Focus" and "Ask MRSC" e-newsletters. He also coordinates our HR, Planning, Finance, Government Performance, and Council/Commission Advisors. In his own community of Kirkland, Byron also served for eight years as a member of the city's planning commission. Byron is a member of the Washington City/County Management Association (WCMA) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

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