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Missouri Asian American leaders say hate has long history but progress is happening


May is recognized as Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. A month to show Asian Americans' contributions to America's history.

While it's a time to celebrate monumental stories. However, rising numbers of hate crimes against Asian Americans has contributed to hurt and fear within the community, fear that dates back hundreds of years.

Lynn Itagaki, an associate professor at the University of Missouri with a master's degree in Asian American studies, points to prior historic examples dating back to the 1800s.

In 1871, a mob in Los Angeles' Chinatown attacked and murdered 19 Chinese residents. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the U.S.

In modern American history, nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were forced into internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death by two Detroit autoworkers who thought he was Japanese.

"In the whole part of the 20th century with the wars in Asia, we have been encouraged to treat Asian Americans or to treat people who look like they are Asians as the enemy," Itagaki said. "The question of where are you really from, these are ways on a daily basis Asian Americans are taught or are reminded that they'll always be perceived as foreign."

Itagaki was born in Hawaii and later moved to southern California. She has degrees from Harvard and the University of California-Los Angeles. Itagaki has worked on both coasts and the Midwest. As an educator, Itagaki said she tries to teach and connect people to what they are most familiar with and how it can relate to Asian American history.

It's those connections, Itagaki said, and conversations that can hopefully help decrease the number of hate crimes happening to the Asian community. Itagaki also pointed to making sure there's more representation of Asian Americans in communities and places of work - something one Missouri lawmaker would also like to see more of.

Democratic state Rep. Emily Weber, who represents Jackson County, in 2020 became the first Asian female lawmaker elected to the Missouri legislature. She said the results of the 2016 election inspired her to get involved in politics.

"I'm not the kind of person that's just going to sit back. I wanted to do something," Weber said. "The day after the 2016 election it really just made me jump in and start helping other candidates from the Missouri and Kansas side to get them elected."

Weber was adopted from South Korea. At 3 months old, she moved to rural Kansas. Colwich, Kansas to be exact. Her dad is a dairy farmer and was also a city council member. Weber said both of her parents were very involved in community work, which exposed her to that ethic at a young age.

While she continues to work for laws that align with her ideals, she knows that being the first Asian American female lawmaker in Missouri carries its own importance.

"I went to the grocery store, literally a day after the 2016 election and I was told to go back to where I came from, China doll. So that was my realization that elections matter," Weber said.

It wasn't the first time Weber said she had to deal with hurtful words.

"The first year I was here, there was another representative who started using the term 'China virus' on the floor," Weber said.

Not long after that, a man killed eight people at three Asian spas in the Atlanta area. Weber said it made her push harder to get people to stop referring to COVID-19 by the derogatory term.

"My argument was very pointed, this phrase is causing physical harm to people right now. Stop using it, " Weber said. "If I wasn't an elected official, I don't think anybody would have pushed as hard as I did to make this stop."

The Stop AAPI hate coalition launched in March 2020. It helps keep track of incidents of hate, violence, harassment and discrimination against the AAPI community.

From March 19, 2020, to the end of 2020, 4,632 hate incidents were reported. In 2021, 6,273 were reported. Of those cases, 61.8% were hate crimes against women.

"To think about the kind of fear that Asian American women living in this urban area are now saying they feel ..." Itagaki said.

While both Itagaki and Weber said it will take some time for the community to heal, there are also some important movements happening.

"I think in terms of visibility, Asian Americans as victims and survivors of violence has come more to the forefront," Itagaki said.

"You know some of the stereotypes of people who are AAPI is we don't speak out, we kind of just fade in the background. We don't get involved in local government or politics. A lot of that is not true," Weber said. "I do think that it takes somebody who is like me, I guess to show that you can do it. You have a voice."

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Deborah Kendrick

Deborah is a weekday evening anchor and investigative reporter for ABC 17 News.


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