How the legal profession is fighting anti-Asian-American hate during the pandemic

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In honor of May being Asian Pacific Heritage Month, we offer weekly discussions about issues of importance to APA attorneys, such as overcoming the blatant racism that has flared during the current pandemic.

The Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is “facing an unprecedented crisis” because of the racism that we are facing during the public health crisis, says Gary Zhao, president of the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago and an advisory board member of Thomson Reuters Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color.

The scope of the hateful rhetoric and assaults against AAPI individuals during the current crisis spans across the country and has greatly increased mostly because China has been blamed as the epicenter of the disease. Some of the worst recent incidents include:

  • Two children, ages 2 and 6 were stabbed at a Sam’s Club in Texas because the alleged perpetrator thought the family was Chinese and spreading the disease, he told police.
  • In March in New York City, the police department indicated it made “two hate crime arrests in the cases of victims who were targeted by assailants who made anti-Asian statements.”
  • In another incident in Naperville, Illinois, “a 60-year-old Chinese American man was jogging when he was attacked by two women who spit at him and told him to ‘go back to China.’”

Kori S. Carew, Esq, head of inclusion and diversity at Seyfarth Shaw, says that some AAPI attorneys have shared with her that while they themselves have not experienced the racism personally, people in their families or their friends have. And other AAPI attorneys say they are now very hypervigilant when they go out in public.

Overall, AAPI attorneys have expressed an interest in bringing awareness to their experiences and discussing the tough subject of xenophobia and racism during the pandemic. Many are planning education programs for their individual firms and legal community as a whole.

Legal bar associations take action to combat hate

In response to all of the discrimination and racism, Zhao noted the collaboration of national bar associations, including those from the national Hispanic, Black, South Asian, LGBT, and Women’s bars, that earlier in April issued a strong statement to denounce anti-Asian hate.


Gary Zhao

Also in early April, Zhao called for the community and local, state and federal offices to collectively respond. “This is a time for quick action by our community’s leaders to take on racism and xenophobia directly,” Zhao said at the time. As a result of public statements like Zhao’s, officials are calling for an immediate stop to the hatred and violence against our fellow citizens. For example, the Illinois Attorney General released at statement saying, “Racism has no place in our society, and we must stand together to condemn racist acts when we see them, particularly during this crisis.”

In addition, local officials are working with bar associations and other community groups to investigate and prosecute these incidents. Kim Foxx, the State’s Attorney for Cook County, Ill., met with the Filipino American, Chinese American, Korean American, Japanese American and South Asian American bar associations in mid-to-late April, and vowed to “investigate and prosecute all discrimination, harassment, and hate crimes in connection to the pandemic as appropriate.” Foxx also urged members of AAPI community to report incidents.

Employers should provide support to AAPI employees

For legal employers, there are many ways to support your AAPI community. First, you should remind everyone that your workplace has no tolerance for discrimination, bias, and hateful comments. Specifically, misinformation and xenophobic rhetoric that scapegoats Chinese or Asian Americans for reasons related to COVID-19 will not be tolerated.

Further, employers can combat feelings of isolation experienced by some AAPI employees because of this hateful atmosphere, specifically:

  • Leaders — Employers should make sure that the organization’s leaders from the diversity and inclusion function and HR are reaching out to Asian American employees to check in and offer support.
  • Managers — Employers should remind managers of AAPI staff to ask how members of the community are coping with the situation and whether the company can provide resources to help AAPI staff deal with the stress.
  • Peers — Team members of AAPI colleagues can also check in with their colleagues to ask if there is anything that members of the community might need.
  • Advocates — Organizations should provide additional information on how individual employees can advocate outside of the workplace, such as contacting local political leaders to ask them to condemn the hateful comments and targeting of Asian Americans and reaching out to law enforcement to request they actively investigate any incidents against members of the AAPI community.

Indeed, everyone — leaders, managers, and fellow employees — need to acknowledge the impact of extra stress among AAPI colleagues caused by the spike in these types of incidents. Such empathy can go a long way to make members of the AAPI community feel they belong.

These times of social distancing and economic uncertainty are difficult for everyone; however, it is extra challenging for members of the AAPI community who may feel under attack during this time. Indeed, everyone has a role to play in showing support and empathy.

“This is a time when we need to come together and set aside our differences and biases so that we can overcome this crisis as a community,” Zhao states. “This is a time for quick action by our community’s leaders to take on racism and xenophobia directly.”