skip navigation
Share this:

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

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

Editor's Note: This blog post originally appeared in May 2020 and has been updated. 

Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. have been facing increased instances of racial bias and harassment in the wake of the deadly, year-long, COVID-19 virus, reflecting a growing tendency among some misguided few to place blame for the pandemic on them. In recent weeks there have been a series of incidents, including a deadly mass shooting in Atlanta, that are once again raising alarms in Washington and across the country. 

Beginning in March of 2020, the FBI was reporting a surge nationally in hate crimes against Asian Americans and, according to a national poll conducted around the same time, 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, vandalism, and even violence against seniors

In Washington, there have been several reports of similar incidents over the last year. 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 2020, 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. 

Now, as we move to Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan and more people begin interacting in public settings, including buses, restaurants, parks, stores, and the like, there is growing concern that the numbers of these types of incidents may increase. There are several actions that local governments can and have taken to help counter racial bias and harassment associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

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 Mayor Jenny Durkan and interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz recently issued a joint statement vowing to increase their outreach to the Asian American community and to add more police patrols and community service officers in the city’s International District.

City councils in Burien, Issaquah, Tacoma, and Redmond have adopted resolutions or issued statements condemning violence and hate toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, declaring their commitment to inclusion, and rejecting bias and discrimination aimed at them due to COVID-19 pandemic. 

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. Web messaging relating to COVID-19 offers opportunities to combat bias too. A COVID-19 fact sheet on Skamania County’s website encourages citizens to “help stop fear by letting people know that being of Asian descent does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19.” COVID-19 case data by race and ethnicity posted by some jurisdictions (see example from Thurston County) confirm this fact.

Last year, 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 “Stop AAPI Hate” website to collect and track racist incidents including cases of verbal harassment and physical assault across the country. Their most recent report listed 3,795 incidents that occurred between March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021. 

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 San Diego, Santa Clara County, and San Mateo County (CA).

Many have blamed the use of politically charged rhetoric in referencing the origins of COVID-19 for fueling the rise in anti-Asian incidents. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015 issued best practices for naming new infectious diseases to help minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people. The WHO guidelines specifically instruct people outside of the scientific community to avoid using geographic locations in disease names. 

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 Washington State:

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.

Photo of Byron Katsuyama

About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.