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Facing Asian American Discrimination with Resolve

A new organization is breaking ground against Asian hate.

Key points

  • Discrimination and violence against Asian Americans is on the rise, with a 164 percent jump in hate crimes in the past year.
  • About a quarter of white Americans do not realize that Asian-American racism is a problem, according to a recent report.
  • Asian Americans are largely invisible. Most people can't name a prominent Asian American or only think of film stars.
  • Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH) is an organization that aims to fight racism, build representation and provide resources.

An interview with Ming Chen and Norman Chen, co-founders of LAAUNCH—Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change.

LAAUNCH, Used with Permission
Asian American (In)visibility
Source: LAAUNCH, Used with Permission

I recently had the pleasure of learning about the important work of former schoolmates from growing up in the '70s and '80s on the East Coast. At the time, I was aware of discrimination against Asian Americans and others, especially as I learned in Jewish religious school to mistrust authoritarianism and fight against hatred.

I was aware at the time that discrimination against Asian Americans was baked into norms of culture and behavior. While insidious and destructive, it was more or less considered normal, involving name-calling, making fun of accents, corrosive humor, and more nefarious and endemic ways in which people were biased against and bullied Asians Americans, Pacific Islanders, and of course other groups.

Much of the mainstream humor of the time, in fact, revolved around such stereotypes, of ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality, physical differences, learning differences, and almost anything else you can imagine. Few stopped to consider what that might be like for our friends and neighbors, who likewise might not have felt comfortable speaking out about problems.

It is with pleasure that I have the opportunity to share this interview—especially at this moment in history when all forms of bias and hate are again on the surface—as an ally, with Asian American family. Opportunities are arising now which may lead to real change, even in the face of stalwart opposition to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Grant Hilary Brenner: What is LAAUNCH and what is your mission?

Ming Chen and Norman Chen: LAAUNCH stands for Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change. Two months before the U.S. Presidential election of 2020, a group of six old friends got together to talk about what we could do for the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in light of rising growing anti-Asian sentiment.

The pandemic, and Trump's divisive rhetoric, alarmed us. LAAUNCH's mission is threefold: to combat anti-Asian American racism, build representation and provide resources for the AAPI community and our allies.

Our flagship project was just released—the STAATUS Index, which stands for Social Tracking of Asian Americans Throughout the US. Taking a cue from the Anti-Defamation League's annual Survey of American Attitudes Towards Jews, we believe that in order to fight racism, we first need to measure and track it. The full report is available here and will be a multi-year survey to track the wider American population's perceptions about Asian Americans.

GHB: Why is addressing racism against Asian Americans especially important now?

 LAAUNCH, Used with Permissoin
Political Divides
Source: LAAUNCH, Used with Permissoin

MC and NC: The rise in hate crimes in the US jumped up 164 percent this past year. There is real violence and animosity on the streets in the biggest cities, provoked by politicians pointing fingers and a deep-seated fear of the other. From our STAATUS Index, we see that classic stereotypes exist as toxic myths.

Model Minority: Most common adjectives to describe Asian Americans (“smart,” “intelligent,” “hard-working”) have remained consistent for over 50 years

Perpetual Foreigner: However, 20 percent of respondents to our survey say Asian Americans are more loyal to their countries of origin than to the US.

Yellow Peril: Twenty-six percent of Republicans, 6 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of people over age 65 believe “China Virus” is an appropriate term for COVID-19.

Respondents are most comfortable with an Asian American as a doctor or nurse, friend, or co-worker but less comfortable with an Asian American as a boss—or president of the United States.

GHB: Are there any surprising or counterintuitive statistics you want people to know?

MC and NC: From our STAATUS Index, there are several key findings. We'd like to draw your attention to the ones that the media really picked up on:

  • Twenty-five percent of white Americans don’t view anti-Asian racism as a problem.
  • More than 40 percent of US adults can’t name a prominent Asian American.
  • Asked in a poll to name a prominent Asian American, the top answer was "don’t know."
 LAAUNCH, Used with Permission
Politics of Discrimination
Source: LAAUNCH, Used with Permission

Other interesting findings from our STAATUS Index are that Americans incorrectly believe that Asian Americans are over-represented in leadership. Approximately half of respondents in our study believed that Asian Americans are fairly represented or over-represented in leadership positions in the U.S. This is despite the fact that Asian Americans hold only about 2.6 percent of the most powerful positions around the country while making up 6.8 percent of the population.

Asian Americans are largely invisible. For example:

  • When asked to name prominent Asian Americans, top answers, in order, were “None/I Don’t Know,” “Jackie Chan,” and “Bruce Lee"; top female was “Lucy Liu.”
  • In movies and on TV, respondents see Asian American actors six times more often in supporting/background roles vs. lead roles.
  • Most frequently cited roles were stereotypical martial arts expert, doctor, gangster, sex worker, or maid.

GHB: Why is this work important to you?

MC and NC: Both of us grew up in safe middle-class communities in America, as second-generation Asian Americans. We were able to go to the top schools and have successful careers, and we were/are "the Model Minority." This monolithic belief that Asian Americans are smart or hardworking does a disservice to the larger swath of Asian Americans in the US who are operating below the poverty line, who can't move up the supposed American dream ladder, and who are not considered for higher-level jobs.

We are very concerned about the future for Asian Americans in our country. Rather than face xenophobia, scapegoating and racism, we hope to see Asian Americans recognized, respected and celebrated for our role in American society. The mission of LAAUNCH is to help make this vision a reality in our country.

GHB: What can readers do to help?

MC and NC: System racism is insidious—often difficult to pinpoint because it is so ingrained and built into our society. It may sound elementary but we would urge readers to be curious—what is the history of Asians in America? Who do I personally know who is Asian? Take time to appreciate the cultural contributions Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made.


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