The pandemic underscored that we need to foster global solidarity and understanding. But it led to a rising tide of violence against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. An open letter to the Peace Corps community.
By Glenn Blumhorst
The pandemic has underscored that we need to foster global solidarity and understanding. Ominously, it also sparked an uptick in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. In the past year alone, some 3,800 incidents have been reported, with most of the violence directed against women.
For months, some have used hateful rhetoric to exploit the virus and stoke the flames of hate, resentment, and fear. This is unconscionable but undeniable — and, if we’re honest, unsurprising.
This week brought a new dimension of horror: On Tuesday, a series of shootings at spas in Atlanta and nearby Cherokee County. Eight people were killed by a white male. Six of those murdered are women of Asian descent. Another person was injured.
We condemn this violence unequivocally. It has caused revulsion throughout the Peace Corps community, and rightly so. But not only that: This unchecked violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders telegraphs to those in the Peace Corps community who are of Asian descent that they, too, could be a target. I have heard from returned Volunteers who are truly shaken.
After more than a year of witnessing escalating violence against Asian Americans, we must raise our voices and call for an end to this violence — and to the rhetoric that has fueled it. These incidents have taken place across the country, and communities have rung alarm bells again and again.
As I write this, we know four of the names of the victims of the shooting: Xiaojie Tan, who owned Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia. She would have celebrated her 50th birthday yesterday. Daoyou Feng, who was 44 and had just begun working in the spa a few months before. Delaina Ashley Yaun, who was 33, and had come to the spa with her husband for a couples’ massage. She was killed; he survived. Paul Andre Michels, an Army veteran who lived in Tucker, Georgia, and was 54; he had recently begun working as a handyman at Young’s Massage. Yong Ae Yue was a licensed massage therapist and was laid off in 2020 when the pandemic hit; she had recently begun working again. She was 63 years old. Hyun Jung Grant was 51 years old and a single mother and worked at Gold Spa in Atlanta; in South Korea, she had been an elementary school teacher. Soon Chung Park had moved to the Atlanta area several years ago and helped manage a spa. She had lived most of her life in the New York area and was planning to move back to New Jersey when the pandemic was over. She was 74 years old. Suncha Kim worked at one of the spas and was 69 years old. She was a grandmother and, according to family, had been married more than 50 years. Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz of Acworth, who was making his way to a money exchange next door; he moved from Guatemala to the United States a decade ago and was critically injured in the attack.
What does that have to do with the Peace Corps? Everything.
The statistics of the past year are frightening — but the thousands of reported incidents are only that — reported incidents. More broadly, the FBI reported a 20 percent increase in hate crimes over the past four years. And, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, early on in the pandemic the FBI specifically warned of a surge of anti-Asian violence.
One more disturbing truth is, just a few days later, this is no longer the latest incident of violence against Asian Americans.
What does that have to do with the Peace Corps? Everything. If we are committed to a lifetime of Peace Corps ideals, we must stand against hate. As we noted early in this pandemic, our nation finds itself faced once more with a brutal truth articulated years ago by Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps: “We must also treat the disease of racism itself.”
A California-based coalition, Stop AAPI Hate, began chronicling incidents and gathering resources last year. The New York City Peace Corps Association has shared this toolkit put together by a coalition of anti-hate crime groups. We encourage members of the Peace Corps community to share additional ideas and resources.
Lawmakers have begun calling for March 26 as a day to speak out against hate speech directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We fully endorse this effort, and we ask all members of the Peace Corps community to join us in marking March 26 as a National Day of Action and Healing. And join us in participating in a worldwide vigil to remember the victims of the Atlanta shooting at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. The vigil will be livestreamed at 326vigil.org.
Let me also say this: It should not escape us that this day of action comes almost exactly three years after the first March for Our Lives event, in March 2018, speaking out against gun violence in the United States. The women and men killed and injured on Tuesday were slain with a gun purchased just before the murders.
Nor should it escape us that a volunteer coalition in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which last year set out the document and stem the rising tide of violence against Asian Americans, formed under the name United Peace Corps.
We need to hold ourselves accountable to the ideals that have inspired us — and others.
And we’ve got tremendous work to do here at home when it comes building peace and friendship.
Story updated March 26, 2021, at 12:30 p.m.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association.