AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin’s Equity Office is seeing another surge of COVID-19 related anti-Asian racism in the local community.

“There have been occurrences of verbal harassment, people being spit on, business owners receiving death threats,” Rocío Villalobos said.

Villalobos, the Immigrant Affairs Coordinator at the city’s Equity Office, sees similarities to cases they’re hearing about from the West Coast.

“This mirrors incidents that also started to increase in [California’s] Bay Area, in particular, with elderly Asian residents being attacked and someone being murdered,” Villalobos said. “We’ve seen that reflects what’s happening here as far as seeing a surge in incidents. Maybe not to that severity but incidents of harassment, of physical threat.”

Villalobos calls the resurgence “horrific.”

“People are already experiencing a lot of trauma right now thinking about COVID in Texas, but then you layer on top of that the winter storm, you layer on top of that a range of crises that communities are already experiencing and it makes it even more difficult to try and just survive and get through both COVID, get through the storm and to feel safe and ultimately, I want for people to feel safe. They deserve to have safety just as much as everybody else.”

The city created her position more than a year ago. Villalobos was hired and started in March — right when COVID-19 started spreading throughout Texas, and Travis County issued its first stay-at-home order.

Very early on, helping protect Austin’s Asian American population took on increased importance. Villalobos said her role to support immigrant communities in the area is “necessary and it’s been needed for quite a long time.”

Fear of reporting incidents

Many incidents go unreported, Villalobos said.

“I think right now, a lot of people feel reluctant to report or denounce what’s happening out of fear that it will make them even more of a target.”

Last year, the California-based reporting center for Asian American Pacific Islanders, Stop AAPI Hate, received more than 70 incident reports of anti-Asian American hate in Texas. In Austin, where there were 18.

Stop AAPI Hate Data
Stop AAPI Hate Data on reported types of discrimination incidents against Asian Americans

More than 3,000 incidents from around the country have been reported to the group since mid-March 2020. Types of discrimination ranged from verbal harassment and physical results to potential civil rights violations, including workplace discrimination. The encounters don’t often rise to the legal definition of a hate crime.

Last April, the City of Austin’s Equity Office partnered with local nonprofit Austin Asian Community Health Initiative (AACHI) and others to conduct a virtual town hall. The groups talked with community members about the rise of COVID-19 related anti-Asian racism.

AACHI started tracking incidents to figure out what support and resources community members needed to feel safe. KXAN has reached out to the group for those numbers and is still waiting to hear back.

The U.S. Congress also spoke up about COVID-19-related anti-Asian racism. Roughly 150 members called on the Justice Department to take action.

As a result of its town hall, the City of Austin created a standalone “Report COVID-19 Racism” page, which includes many Asian languages. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) created the incident report form. The city hopes more Asian Americans come forward to report incidents. You can also report incidents to Stop AAPI Hate.

Creating a safe space and how to help if you see racism

Last year, Austin’s Asian American Resource Center (AARC) offered a bystander intervention workshop called “Active Narratives” that explored different ways to intervene in an incident.

(Asian American Resource Center)

“You will see some type of conflict happening. It could be a verbal one, it could be a physical one. The idea, as a bystander, you are an active participant in what’s going on. You’re not just [standing there]… a lot of people think of bystander as someone who’s just watching,” Leila Grace Pandy said.

Pandy is the culture and arts education coordinator at AARC. She’s heard from many community members about COVID-19 related anti-Asian racism.

“It’s an issue that they care deeply about,” she said.

While AARC staff doesn’t have plans to do another workshop, they are considering starting a variety of programs that could create a safe space where Asian Americans can feel comfortable to talk about their experiences and find support. Learn more about the Asian American Resource Center and its programs.

The City of Austin’s Equity Office shares the same resolve.

“All of it has to do with making sure that people are recognizing one another’s shared humanity and what it means as far as creating communities that are safe for all of us. Right now, we’re seeing that people need it more than ever in this moment,” Villalobos said.

Learn more about the city’s Equity Office.