2021 brought historic breakthroughs for Asians in America, but at an enormous cost

Demonstrators during an AAPI Rally Against Hate in New York, U.S., on Sunday, March 21, 2021. Photo: Amir Hamja/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

In the year since the shooting death of six Asian women in Atlanta-area spas, more people of Asian descent have been elevated across politics, sports and entertainment than ever before, while the larger community has continued to struggle with anti-Asian attacks.

Why it matters: The Atlanta shootings, which killed eight people in total, put a new spotlight on a historically overlooked and vilified group. But the tragedy also resulted in visibility that enabled Asians in America to make new strides.

  • "There was so much attention on the hate crimes [from this past year] … that it made Asian Americans [speak out to say] we are part of this racial landscape," Pawan Dhingra, incoming president of the Association for Asian American Studies, told Axios. 

State of play: The scale and impact of the Black Lives Matter Movement following the killing of George Floyd enabled people to start talking about systemic racism in a new way.

  • By the time the Atlanta shootings took place, public dialogue could tie in the impact of race, sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen told Axios. 
  • The media was asking Yuen to educate and not "to defend whether Asians were victims," she said. "It was just obvious to everyone."

Flashback: Asian Americans had already been living every day looking over their shoulders since the onset of the pandemic, when President Trump began to repeatedly call the outbreak the "China virus."

  • Even before the mass shooting in Atlanta, attacks like the one that led to the death of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai grandfather, had started to galvanize the community and activate media coverage of the growing number of anti-Asian attacks. 
  • Around the same time, the swearing-in of Kamala Harris as the first Black and Asian vice president of the United States marked a symbolic kick-off to what would become an explosive year for Asian political representation.

A snowball effect: "People saw that Asian Americans are able to tell their own stories, that we can … demand recognition as members of this country. It helps see us as people worth electing, people who can represent non-Asians in their localities," Dhingra said.

  • Boston chose Michelle Wu as mayor; Aftab Pureval became the first Asian American mayor of Cincinnati, and Bruce Harrell became the first Asian American and second Black mayor of Seattle. 
  • In New York City, five Asian Americans were elected to the city council, the most to date.

Media visibility rose to a new level too following the box office success of Marvel’s Asian-led "Shang-Chi" and "Eternals," which were in the top ten 10 highest-grossing films in the U.S. last year. 

  • Chloe Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, became the first woman of color to win the Oscar for Best Director.
  • At the Tokyo Olympics, Sunisa Lee became the first Asian American woman to take gold in the gymnastics all-around event and helped shine a light specifically on Hmong Americans.

What to watch: "Visibility will die down, arguably already has died down," Dhingra said.

  • And because of ongoing tensions with Asia, "the kind of racial system that conflates Asian Americans with Asians" ingrains the idea that "Asians are forever foreigners," said Yuen.
  • 83% of Asian adults say Asians faced more discrimination in the U.S., according to an April poll by Morning Consult.

Worth noting: The Atlanta killer was sentenced to life without parole last summer after pleading guilty to murdering four of the eight victims.

  • He is now facing charges in Fulton Country, Georgia, for the other four killings where the district attorney is seeking the death penalty and sentencing enhancement under Georgia's new hate crimes law, per NPR.

The bottom line: "There is no quick fix. There is no panacea. This is really hundreds of years of work that’s been in the making … that we have to undo," said Cynthia Choi, Stop AAPI Hate co-founder and co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. "And so we have to have that type of [long-term] vision for change."

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