Spike in anti-Asian hate could lead to systemic change in schools

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This story is from The Hill’s Changing America publication.

After a year of increasingly severe and frequent attacks against Asian Americans, experts say it will take systemic change to make lasting improvements.

A good place to start, they say, is at higher learning institutions.

Asian American faculty members are taking steps such as creating educational resources for students and the public, and speaking out about the “model minority” myth that can lead to damaging consequences for Asian American students.

“Universities are really critical, because young people are the base of the movement to fight racism,” says Russell Jeung, chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University.

A co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, Jeung and his colleagues said they saw a disturbing uptick in anti-Asian violence, with victims reporting nearly 4,000 incidents between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021.

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, a staggering 81 percent of Asian American adults in the U.S. say violence against them is rising.

Experts note that the Asian American community has faced discrimination for centuries, in part because Asian Americans are left largely out of U.S. history books, and most colleges don’t offer courses in Asian American studies.

That could be about to change, though.

“There’s kind of a disjuncture between the ways in which Asian American history and Asian American studies don’t often get taught in higher education, whereas the model minority discourse kind of frames Asian Americans as heavily tied to upward mobility through education, right, so there’s kind of this disjuncture there,” says Lily Wong, an associate professor and faculty affiliate of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center (ARPC) at American University.

One of the first of its kind, American University’s ARPC was founded to generate research, educational tools and policy analysis “geared towards dismantling racism in its many forms.”

“The center does provide a very particular space and resource, and it has a very unique mission,” says Wong. “It gives us in academia some space to connect with the public, and I think that is what most [Black, Indigenous and people of color] BIPOC faculty really want to do — to give back to the community.”

Wong says that while the center is unique in its focus, there are other spaces in universities aimed at doing similar work, such as those that run ethnic studies departments.

One advocate for the expansion of ethnic studies curriculum is Jeung, who said that area of study is intended to “expose the roots of racism and to build racial empathy and a renewed sense of justice and equity.”

Faculty members at other universities across the country seem to agree that an increase in educational resources about Asian Americans and other minority groups can help facilitate an increased awareness and understanding amongst students. While Wong says it is rare to see an Asian studies program at colleges and universities outside of California, the growing debate around the topic has seemingly renewed an appetite for such programs.

One example can be found at Dartmouth College, where more than a thousand students have signed a petition calling on the school to establish an Asian American studies major.

“When U.S. universities refuse to support Asian American studies that are framed in a way that we have framed it, it’s really a missed opportunity to think about how we might have a more nuanced understanding of American racism beyond binary terms of black and white,” says Eng-Beng Lim, a professor at Dartmouth.

It was at that same college, though, that a then-assistant English professor named Aimee Bahng was denied tenure despite having unanimous support from a departmental committee. When it came time for higher-ranking campus officials to weigh in, Bahng was handed a rejection. It came during a time when students were making a push for an Asian American studies program, and Bahng had even begun planning potential classes.

Experts say that while establishing an Asian American studies department is a feat in itself, without institutional support it will not have a strong enough foundation to grow.

“It really brings up the question about resources, and the need for more hiring,” says Wong. “I think a huge part of it is that we need a sustained, intellectual space to circulate the information and the education about this long, rich history of ethnic studies, including Asian American studies within the U.S., but what I see in a lot of universities is that ethnic studies is underfunded, if it even exists.”

Wong says that many students come to her classroom and read Asian American literature for the first time in their lives, and some start the class unaware of historical events such as the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese internment camps. The professor says that this lack of knowledge is what makes it difficult for many Americans to contextualize incidents of violence, like what happened earlier this year with the series of shootings at Asian spas in the Atlanta area.

“If higher education is done well then education extends past the students to the general public. If done right, we can relieve a lot of the burden of education and advocacy work from folks that are mobilizing on the ground right in the community,” says Wong. “And if we can do that advocacy work through education, we can help carry that burden.”

Tags anti-Asian attacks colleges Education in America Hate crimes universities
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