On Racism in America

Originally written with Andrew Zhao, PHS ’23 for PHS Tower:


Derek Chauvin’s conviction on April 21st, and the subsequent passing of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in the Senate, are the first steps towards accountability in a fight that has been drawn out for far too long. In the past year Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, along with numerous other protests and movements, have sought to raise awareness of the evils of racial injustice.  George Floyd and countless other victims of discriminatory hate crimes have been painfully seared into our memory, while so many victims’ names have been forgotten, never to receive their justice. Reflecting on all of these cases and outcomes is emotionally taxing — yet, we hold out hope for a brighter future.

A little shy of a year ago on Memorial Day, the image of George Floyd’s neck under Chauvin’s knees for more than nine minutes and his death ignited months of nationwide protests that drew over 15 million Americans from all walks of life. From the steps of government buildings in Washington DC to the streets of cities and towns all over the country, millions of people knelt, shouted, and marched. Last summer, hundreds of local residents joined the movement and marched through Princeton in a Black Lives Matter rally aimed to educate its constituents about racism in their hometown. Witnessing these massive protests on the news and humble rallies on our doorstep, we had wished for accountability and progress.

Unfortunately, the change didn’t come as quickly as we hoped. Only a few weeks ago, we heard of the killing of 20-years old Daunte Wright in the Minneapolis area, 11 miles away from where Floyd died. Around the same time, Chicago police revealed footage of the murder of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who died with his hands raised and unarmed. These fatal events renewed our anger and sorrow towards the systems that cause this violence, but also fanned the flame of a burning collective desire for change. 

Moreover, my own ethnic group has fallen victim to racism. Violence and hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have been skyrocketing since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our nerves are constantly struck by waves of news stories of such targeted hatred and violence. In Oakland, 75-year-old Pak Ho died from a traumatic injury after a robbery. In San Francisco, Nepalese Uber driver Subhakar Khadka was assaulted and coughed on by his own passengers, in his own car. Restaurant owner Mike Nguyen of San Antonio found his ramen shop vandalized with racist graffiti, including one statement that simply read “HOPE U DIE” and another perpetuating the insensitive COVID-19-related nickname “KUNG FLU.”

The constant, unending reports of increasing violence toward Asian-Americans, especially elders, deeply disturbed us. Seeing videos of seniors being knocked to the ground and hearing news of perpetrators targeting women and children, we are reminded of our own families. Will our grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, brother, or sister be next? This question played through our minds as parents left for work, as grandparents strolled in parks, as siblings played at school or in town. The fear of violence reaching our families had already rendered Asian households victims of racist hate.

The heightened insecurity in Asian-American communities peaked with the news of a mass shooting on March 16th in Atlanta, Georgia, where a young man targeted three spa businesses owned by Asians. Among the eight victims who died in the senseless killing, six were Asian women. Unable to hold back their anger and fear anymore, Asian-Americans went to the streets to protest all over the country. Once again, Princeton residents showed support at a Stop Asian Hate rally on March 27th at Hinds Plaza.

Within a year, these two rallies at Princeton addressing racial issues demonstrate  a strong sense of community and solidarity. It truly is inspiring and uplifting that people from different ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds can come together to denounce racist hate and violence. In such a pivotal time in our nation, it is crucial that we remember the fight must be fought united. Racism, discrimination, and targeted violence are all a product of misguided values. Unless society unites against these values, meaningful change will never take place.

Many say that Derek Chauvin’s conviction on all three charges is a victory. In our opinion, it is just the first step to a larger fight for racial justice. While violent, alarming hate crimes have grabbed headlines and captured the attention of so many people around the world, another racial evil continues to affect racial minorities in America. Microaggressions, subtle and indirect forms of discrimination and marginalization, often go unnoticed by perpetrators, yet victims may remember the hurtful words, actions, and patterns for years. In an attempt to bring attention to the impact of microaggressions, protesters have discussed how in everyday life, microaggressions show up. Princeton’s Stop Asian Hate rally is no exception.

Princeton High School alumna Ying Ying Zhao, a speaker at the rally, delivered a powerful poem about microaggressions surrounding her name. Speaking from her own experiences, she noted how her name was associated with foreignness and how people changed their attitudes towards her upon hearing her name. Her words struck a chord with many protesters, who remembered their own painful memories of microaggressions. 

Whether it is disgust towards cultural traditions, mockery of accents and speech patterns, or assumptions of criminality or inferiority, patterns of racist behavior appear in everyday life. Questions such as “where are you really from?” and statements like “your English is very good!” often carry hidden meanings beneath a seemingly mundane surface. The underlying prejudice evident in these words leave deep marks and often cause minorities to question their own identity in America. Such actions are often let go with no consequence, which further demonstrates the work that must be done to educate people about the harm their actions can cause. 

Conviction of racial hate crimes, such as Derek Chauvin’s case, is not enough. Racism shows up in all forms, much of it subtle and masked. Not only must society provide accountability, but it must face the evils that are not so clear. Until society can condemn not just outright violence but also microaggressions, there is no justice in this fight. As racism persists as a prominent issue in America, we must continue to band together to stop it. 

– Han Li, Princeton Civics