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Activist Amanda Nguyen on recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes: "We are dying to be heard"

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Police departments in major cities reported a nearly 150% increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2020 compared to the year before, according to an analysis by California State University's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Amanda Nguyen, CEO and founder of the civil rights nonprofit Rise, joins CBSN's "Red and Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano to discuss a viral video that she posted to raise awareness about anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. She also calls on the Biden administration to address inadequacies in the teaching of AAPI history in U.S. schools.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: New analysis finds the number of hate crimes against Asian-Americans in major cities rose nearly 150% in 2020 compared to the year before. According to California State University's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, there were 122 incidents in 16 of the nation's most populous cities. To put that into perspective, in 2020, the New York Police Department reported 28 hate crimes targeting Asians. Compare that to just three incidents in 2019.

Experts say law enforcement agencies vastly under-report these types of crimes, so the actual numbers are likely much higher. According to the non-profit Stop AAPI Hate, there have been an estimated 2,800 incidents targeting Asians nationally in the past year. Activists have linked the recent wave of unprovoked violence to racist rhetoric surrounding the origins of COVID-19, language that was commonly used by the Trump administration.

One of the activists fighting to draw more attention to the problem is Amanda Nguyen. In February, she posted a video on Instagram calling on the media to increase their coverage of rising anti-Asian racism.

AMANDA NGUYEN: On Wednesday, a 64-year-old Vietnamese grandmother was assaulted in San Jose. And on the same day, a Filipino American was slashed across the face on a subway in Manhattan. The mainstream media does not spotlight our stories enough. We matter, and racism is killing us. Cover our stories. Cover this man's story. Our community is being attacked, and we are dying to be heard.

ELAINE QUIJANO: That video went viral, racking up over three million views in 24 hours. It has since sparked a national conversation, and Amanda joins me now from Washington. She is the founder and CEO of Rise, a national civil rights non-profit. Amanda, welcome. Thanks very much for being with us.

AMANDA NGUYEN: Thank you so much for having me.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So it has been now about a month since you posted that video on Instagram. What has the response been like, and have you sensed a change in the tone of conversations around this topic?

AMANDA NGUYEN: We are in a moment of reckoning right now. We're in an inflection point, and that's thanks to literally millions of people who felt like for the first time they could speak openly about the racism and grief that they've experienced as an AAPI. That's also thanks to the millions of people who in other communities decided to stand in solidarity. So I'm incredibly humbled and also living up to the moment right now, trying to so that we can push forward together for a more equitable future.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So I want to talk more about other groups in a moment, but a lot of your activism focuses on taking some kind of legislative action. What would you like to see done to address these kinds of crimes? Because I know there are some really nuanced conversations happening in the AAPI community-- and for people who don't know, AAPI is Asian-American and Pacific Islander community-- over more policing, for instance, but it's a really complicated and emotional debate.

AMANDA NGUYEN: Absolutely. So my team at Rise focuses on helping people pen their own civil rights into existence. Justice means different things for different people. At this moment, we think that the core of the issue is invisibility. Therefore, the solution must be visibility. That means building empathy. I want to draw attention to the structural powers in place that have systematically omitted AAPIs from the conversation, from Hollywood to even our federal government.

There was a study in 2009 that showed that some federal agencies don't include AAPIs pie within their definition of racial minority. We're talking about the data that is collected from us, political polling, and of course, mainstream media. Our stories have been erased. And when we are erased, that erases our humanity. Silence is violence.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And, you know, Amanda, you have joined forces with other Asian-American social media influencers to have conversations about this campaign to stop Asian hate. Tell us more about that.

AMANDA NGUYEN: At the core of it is this idea that we all have a role to play. The cold creeps forward when everyone decides that it's wisest to stay silent another day until someone takes a torch and charge forward and lights it up, and right now we are lighting it up. Peace is not the absence of visible conflict. In order for there to be true peace, we need to hold a light to the darkest corner of human experience, and right now that is what the AAPI is experiencing.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So, you know, Amanda, over the summer, of course, we saw people of different backgrounds coming together, uniting and calling for justice after the murder of George Floyd. How important is that kind of unity in dealing with anti-Asian hate?

AMANDA NGUYEN: It's incredibly important. Justice is not zero sum, and it's so critical that in this moment we are able to do so in a cross-community solidarity manner. Things must be intersectional as we move forward, and I'm so grateful to the Black community who have stood up and said, we stand with you, and I'm grateful to other community members who have also done the same.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So, you know, it's interesting, Amanda, yesterday we had Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth on the program to discuss a variety of things, but this topic was one of them. And she, of course, is an American War veteran. She served in Iraq. She is of Asian descent, and she brought up the fact that, even at this point in her life, she still gets asked the question as a sitting United States Senator, where are you from?

And I know that there are some AAPI folks who don't mind that question at all. I also know for other AAPI people, that is a question that carries a lot of weight and feels very heavy. So for people who may not understand, you know, for some folks who may be well-intentioned and genuinely trying to make a connection with their fellow human being, can you just talk about that? What are your thoughts on that?

AMANDA NGUYEN: Thank you so much for bringing this up. At the core of the question is this idea that we don't belong. And it may seem innocent, but it plays to the fact that our history, our contributions, our grief as a community have been consistently committed and consistently erased. We are Americans, and I call upon all elected leaders to denounce anti-Asian hate crime and also uplift AAPI voices, and I think everyone has a role to play in that, not only elected officials.

ELAINE QUIJANO: I also wonder, Amanda, just culturally, have there been barriers to the AAPI community not coming together to voice some of these concerns before this moment? Because, as we know, long before the political rhetoric that we've heard in recent years, this sentiment, this anti-Asian sentiment has been in this country. So, you know, this is not a new thing, as so many others have pointed out. Have there been some cultural sort of influences characteristic of the AAPI community that have led to, as you say, an omission or an erasure of the AAPI voices?

AMANDA NGUYEN: So I want to talk about the model minority myth. It's this idea that AAPIs as a whole are silent and can work really hard, and one day down the line, if we don't raise issues, we will be given the keys to the kingdom, and that has shown to be just absolutely not true. You know, part of the mission is this idea that we will just erase all of the activism that AAPIs have done in the past, right?

There are plenty of Asian-American Pacific Islanders who have fought for our community. It's just that our history isn't taught. But even beyond that, I do think and recognize that there is a generational gap, right, between immigrants who have come over here. I'll just speak from my own experience. I know that my parents, as both refugees from Vietnam, just wanted to survive, just wanted to assimilate.

And I want to say to everyone that it's OK to speak up because we are Americans, and we have the same constitutional rights to petition the government to make this country a more perfect union just like everybody else.

ELAINE QUIJANO: We only have a couple of minutes left, but you mentioned history, and you have a very specific sort of ask with respect to the Biden administration and, in particular, education Secretary, Miguel Cardona. Tell us about that.

AMANDA NGUYEN: I do. I want to know why I wasn't taught my own history. I want to know why the KKK targeted Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans, and I didn't find out about that until I had to watch a Netflix show on it, right? I want to know why one of the largest lynchings in US history against the AAPI community was never told in our history books. Why is it that it's only until our people are dying that we can finally come to this reckoning and say, oh, well, the problem here is because we haven't treated you as a part of this community before. We are Americans. We are dying to be heard, and that includes teaching us as part of American history in textbooks in schools across this country.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Amanda Nguyen. Amanda, thanks very much for coming on and sharing your perspective. We really appreciate it.

AMANDA NGUYEN: Thank you so much for having me.