By Guest Contributor: Christine Chen, Executive Director of APIAVote (@apiavote)
Edison town council member Sapana Shah realized something was wrong the moment she checked social media, learning that she and her neighbors received the same anti-Asian mailer Wednesday which featured a “deport” stamp on the photos of two Asian school board candidates. The postcard also read, “The Chinese and Indians are taking over our town.”
Targeting candidates based on bias and hate toward various ethnic, racial or religious identity is not new. And Shah is no stranger to it as a candidate. She recounted multiple incidents to me over the phone. Shah, a long-time resident in the Edison township of Middlesex County, New Jersey, was told to go back to her country when she ran for local elected office. She once found her campaign signs inscribed with the words “dot head,” an offensive racial slur. As a town council member, Shah endured insults from residents who shouted her down at the end of a public meeting for voting to include Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, as a school holiday.
When individuals are targets of hate, it not only affects them but also entire communities.
Nearly half of Edison residents are Asian. Anti-Asian sentiment brews whenever neighborhoods undergo a rapid demographic shift, boiling over into hate incidents and crimes based on an ethnicity or faith.
There are now two known hate incidents in the political arena of New Jersey: one in Edison with a mailer targeting Asian American candidates; another in Hoboken, in which an opponent’s campaign flier was modified to include the message “Don’t let terrorism take over our town” about a Sikh American mayoral candidate. The fliers were placed on car windshields in the city. These recent incidents trace back to a history of violence in the 1980s when the hate group “dotbusters” attacked South Asians in the Garden State.
These racist flyers are just one example of how Asian American communities have been targets of hate in recent years. Racist political messages lead to an increase in hate violence, particularly affecting South Asian, Arab, Sikh and Muslim communities during the 2016 election cycle.
This harks back to dark times in our history, when individuals committed violent acts based on anti-Asian sentiment, resulting in the senseless deaths of Asian Americans. Remember Vincent Chin, a Chinese American from Detroit who was bludgeoned to death in 1982 by two white men because he “looked” Japanese and thus responsible for taking away their manufacturing jobs. Remember Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian Sikh immigrant who was shot and killed because he wore a turban, and the many other victims who were violently attacked when hate crimes against South Asians, Arabs and Muslims spiked after 9/11. And remember Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian immigrant who was fatally shot in a bar this February after being told to “get out of my country” during a year when hate crime rates against South Asians have returned to post-9/11 levels.
Regardless of your ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, we are all on the same team. Our fates are inextricably linked in a nation built on the dream that immigrants can make a life for themselves despite circumstance. Whether or not that dream is yet realized, the Statue of Liberty is only 29 short miles northeast of Edison—a city recovering from an anti-Asian mailer through a unity rally, hosted by local groups across race and faith.
My dear friends and neighbors, our communities are under attack by people who lack the courage to reveal their faces. We must promote the full self-determination and civic participation of all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We have the freedom to vote, run for office and represent our true American values. We cannot allow these sacred freedoms to be diminished by those who seek to divide.
Hate is a plague. When it goes unchallenged, it can have devastating consequences. It is our collective duty to name and confront hate in all of its forms. To let those who use hate to provoke fear know that hate is not welcome here.
Cities with multi-ethnic communities are becoming the rule not the exception. We will continue to monitor any instances of race-baiting in the 2017 elections and beyond. Here is an antidote that Shah, a respected leader in Edison, suggests to counteract hate violence: “Getting people to vote is the best way to fight whoever is behind the racist mailer.” We are a rising political force in the United States, and one that will not be intimidated into exclusion. To the residents of Edison and Hoboken, we see you, hear you, and are with you. Together we can end hate and rise above division.
Christine Chen is the Executive Director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works with partners to mobilize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in electoral and civic participation.
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