SYRACUSE, NY (WRVO) – The month of May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. However, this year, it comes at a time when hate crimes against Asians are rising across the country. That wave of discrimination is hitting close to home for some people in the Asian American community.
Mina Cavallaro is a nurse who treats COVID-19 patients in central New York. She’s also Korean American. As she worked on the front lines to fight the virus, she said she heard increasingly offensive language in the world around her.
“People were referring to COVID-19 as ‘Kung flu’, or the ‘China virus’, or just different variations of very ignorant remarks,” Cavallaro said.
Cavallaro said she first noticed an uptick in Asian American discrimination in the ramp up to the 2016 presidential election. One particular days sticks in her mind, when she was driving with her 4-month-old son a few months after Election Day.
“The car behind me decided to cut me off, so I got off the road a little bit,” said Cavallaro. “And the gentleman got out of his car, spit on my window while I had the baby in the backseat, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, your kind is going to be taken care of.’ And I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. My kid is in the back seat’, and it’s that new feeling of being a new mother, being that mama bear and not knowing, how am I going to explain this to my kids one day?”
Cavallaro is not alone. Syracuse University College of Law professor Mary Szto said the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans is part of a pattern dating back to the 19th century.
“Unfortunately, almost as soon they started to arrive in larger numbers, they were mistreated, they were murdered, they were blamed for economic downturns and for disease, so we’re basically re-living what happened in the 1800s,” said Szto.
Professor Szto said to break the cycle, there has to be a reckoning on many levels. First, she would like to see an apology from the government regarding past mistreatment of Asian Americans. Also, she said the government, schools, religious institutions, and families need to develop a unified message that discrimination is not acceptable.
“The taunting that people do as children has turned into verbal assaults that we see during the pandemic. We see video clips of adults harassing Asians in restaurants and saying ‘go back to where you came from. You don’t belong here. You brought the virus here,'” said Szto.
The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill in an effort to better protect the Asian American community, including expanding public education campaigns and providing guidance to local law enforcement officials on the reporting of hate crimes.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) voted for the bill and said he has attended rallies where Asian Americans have shared concerning stories with him.
“For instance, I had an elderly Asian man tell me he went out on the street, and he was spat upon by somebody,” said Schumer. “And a young woman, vibrant, young woman, said she wouldn’t take the bus and subway to get to work because the stairs, the growls at her, so we need to do something.”
For Cavallaro, she’s focused on creating change in her own community. She speaks with her children’s teachers about incorporating stories with diverse characters into the curriculum and encourages all parents to teach their children about traditions from different cultures, like the Lunar New Year. As for the awareness on the federal level, Cavallaro said she is cautiously hopeful.
“I’m not sure if the damage has already been done and how to repair that and change it, but I’m looking forward to seeing the changes that this can potentially have on my personal life, my kids’ lives, my community,” said Cavallaro.