Unfair treatment in stores and restaurants. People turning away as if they’re afraid. Verbal threats and physical assaults. Attacks on Asians in American cities have been soaring since the COVID-19 outbreak, with New York, which has the highest numbers of Asian Americans in the country, accounting for an alarmingly large portion of these incidents.
Professor of Social Policy and Social Work Qin Gao, a long-time resident in the city, could not stand by and watch while this spike in discrimination was happening. Gao is the founding director of Columbia University’s China Center for Social Policy, a faculty affiliate of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, and a member of both the University’s Committee on Global Thought and the Faculty Steering Committee for the Columbia Global Centers | Beijing.
Among her many research initiatives, Gao works on the New York City Longitudinal Survey of Wellbeing, also known as the Poverty Tracker. Since 2012, the Poverty Tracker has been collecting detailed information on income, material hardships, and family health and wellbeing of some 4,000 New York City residents and their families. Co-led by CSSW professors Irwin Garfinkel and Jane Waldfogel and senior research scientist Christopher Wimer, the survey is administered by two research centers based at the School of Social Work, the Columbia Population Research Center, and the Center on Poverty and Social Policy, working in concert with Robin Hood, New York City’s largest poverty-fighting foundation.
Gao has been involved in the Poverty Tracker study since 2019 when it expanded to include a sample of Mandarin-speaking households. The latest Chinese-speaking cohort joined in June 2020, not long after the pandemic swept into New York State.
In a process overseen by survey coordinator Xiaofang Liu, Gao and her team came up with new questions about whether participants had experienced incidents of anti-Asian discrimination and harassment, in hopes of capturing both the immediate and long-term impacts of COVID-19.
What they found was even more disturbing than they had anticipated. Invited to present the team’s preliminary findings at the Columbia University forum “Combating Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia,” hosted by the Columbia Global Centers | Beijing and the Office of University Life, Gao reported that of the over 400 Chinese New Yorkers who responded, 57 percent said they had experienced at least one form of discrimination in their daily life, with 20 percent reporting having been threatened or harassed. While the most common form of discrimination consisted of verbal harassment and racial slurs, respondents also described having been excluded from activities, verbally threatened or physically assaulted, and denied services when shopping or using public transportation.
But what was even more concerning, Gao said, was the toll these incidents had taken on the residents’ psychological and emotional wellbeing. “Discrimination hurts and damages, leading to high levels of anticipatory stress and vigilance,” she said. Sharing a visual of the New Yorker cover of an anxious Asian mother and a young child on the NYC subway platform, she said that many respondents had reported feeling overwhelmingly uneasy in public places. Some said that worries about their family’s safety meant that they now avoided certain places or social situations, or avoided leaving home altogether.
When combined with economic disruptions and difficulties due to COVID-19, “New Yorkers of Chinese descent who had material hardship were more likely to experience racial discrimination and had more related stress than those without material hardship,” Gao said. “Material hardship” is defined as having difficulty paying bills or covering food and housing costs (true for nearly a third of the group). It can also refer to undergoing a medical hardship (true for about 16 percent of the group).
To cope, respondents said they were using a range of strategies—from passively accepting the situation and self-blame to taking actions such as seeking advice, protesting unfair treatment, and even trying to reason with their harassers. While many expressed both fear and discouragement, some also expressed hope that that situation might improve, especially through alliance and solidarity with others, Gao reported.
She ended her presentation with a slide showing images from a public art project by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, a 2010 alumna of Columbia College and the public artist in residence for the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Galvanized by the Commission’s statistics showing a sharp rise in incidents of anti-Asian discrimination, harassment and bias, Phingbodhipakkiya launched “I Still Believe in Our City”, a public art campaign that celebrates East Asian and Southeast Asian New Yorkers as strong, compassionate members of their New York City communities, standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.*
Gao and her team are now working closely with Robin Hood to plan the upcoming release of a report on anti-Asian discrimination in New York City. “We are grateful to our study participants and inspired by their courage to face the challenges of the ‘double pandemic,’” Gao says, adding: “We are determined to share these findings broadly to influence policy responses that will lead to positive change.”
*Initially launched in Brooklyn in November of last year, “This Is Our Home Too” currently adorns Manhattan’s Financial District. The banner image for this article shows one of the 45 unique pieces comprising Phingbodhipakkiya’s project (source: NYC Commission on Human Rights).