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Jo-Ann Yoo lives in New York City, but she rarely takes the subway anymore. It makes her nervous. Yoo is nervous because the subways are a strange place to be right now. There aren’t as many commuters as there used to be, and a few weeks back, there was a string of violent attacks. “I used to love the subway,” Yoo says. But now she’s on high alert. “You’re underground. Sometimes the ride from one station to the next is a long, long ride, and you’re basically in a little metal box.”
One more thing to know about Jo-Ann Yoo: She’s Asian. In fact, she’s the executive director of New York’s Asian American Federation, which means that for the past two years, she’s been counting up one attack after another. Between 2020 and 2021, one advocacy group tallied up nearly 11,000 “hate incidents” against Asians Americans. And it’s hard not to feel like these attacks are getting more brutal, not less.
Yoo says she knew from the time the pandemic started what could come. It began with the Chinese restaurants emptying out. But she’s surprised it’s lasted this long. “I did not expect this to be this long, and I’ll say that my anxiety and my fear is increasing.” For two years, we’ve been talking about increased violence against Asian Americans. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Yoo about why this story hasn’t changed. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Tell me about that first moment when you suspected things were going to take a turn for the Asian American community, back in March 2020.
Jo-Ann Yoo: I was at my sister’s house, and I was working on my laptop, and the story popped up that said they discovered this virus in Wuhan, and I stopped typing and said, “Oh no,” because we saw what happened with the Muslim community after 9/11. All of the Americans with nothing to do with what happened but yet they were targeted. They were vilified. They were marginalized, and everyone’s anger was directed toward them. And I thought, Here we go again. It’s now the East Asians’ turn.
Given that you had this foresight, how quickly were you meeting with city officials to create a plan?
We did reach out to the city. My response was: “What’s the city doing? What’s the plan?”
Did they have one?
No. Let me be candid here: No, they do not have a plan. They said, “We were going to do something, but now that nobody’s riding the subway, we’re not going to do it.”
What were they going to do?
Subway campaigns and things like that.
Yeah. To be fair, I don’t think anybody imagined the level of violence that my community was going to face. Those were some really tough days and nights.
When did you realize that what you feared could happen was actually happening? I saw that you had even started seeing incidents in your own neighborhood.
Oh, absolutely. It happened to me. I was restless, so I went out in the afternoon just to go check it out—this was sometime in April. And I remember it being a really nice day, and I had my mask on, and I was just going to walk around the block to see what has closed. First of all, everything was boarded up. It was really scary, and it was like, Oh my gosh, I think I’m walking through a deserted town. And when I got to the end of my block, somebody stood in front of me, and I said, “Oh, excuse me.” And I turned right to pass him, and he moved with me; I moved left, he move with me. And I just had to tell myself, “You need to keep calm.” So I needed to just backtrack, turn the corner, and get home. And I’m sure to this person, it was funny because I’m not big and it was easy to intimidate me.
But that was a moment when I thought, I’m going to be really careful when I go out at night. And because of what was happening, I developed these bizarre rituals.
I would walk down the street, but when I heard people running, any time I heard footsteps behind me, my stomach would be in knots, and I would immediately turn around either facing a wall or just bracing myself for something to happen. And every time that happened, I’d turn around and it was people who were running. They were going out for their exercise. And it made me so angry with myself that I could not trust my fellow New Yorkers. I thought, Why are you so paranoid? But that paranoia has proved to be justified.
You’ve put your finger on something when you talk about how the community thinks about these crimes. You’ve said that half of the community worries about too much police presence, and the other half wants a police officer attached to every Asian person. And I’m kind of curious about how you negotiate that. When you’re in a conversation with a bunch of the people you work with and you’re hearing those kinds of back-and-forths, what do you say? How do you negotiate there?
I am really committed to getting my communities, both sides, to come in and talk, but oftentimes it’s like herding cats because they’re political opinions, and people run hot on everything these days.
For all of the conversations we have about the role of law enforcement in our communities, the reality is that there are times when we’re going to need law enforcement to help us. When somebody gets slashed—
There’s no one else to call.
Right? You need to call somebody so that the person who’s harming other people can be stopped and they don’t harm many others. But they’re not the only solution. The other solution is how do neighbors look out for each other? How do we have safe walks? How are people keeping an eye on each other?
Because law enforcement isn’t the answer to everything, and to be honest, there has been some negative interactions. We’ve had stories where police officers refused to take any statements of what happened—saying it’s not a hate crime. We’ve heard those stories over the past two years. There’s a language barrier. There’s a cultural barrier. There might be immigration reasons why you don’t tell anybody. There may be many, many other reasons why you don’t go to the police, and those are all valid reasons.
But we also need to figure out an outlet for those people with discomfort with law enforcement. How do they get to report these stories? And that role was taken up by all of the amazing nonprofit organizations who kept their doors open. So some of those numbers that we have and that we’re keeping track of, those came from the community organizations themselves. That’s really extraordinary.
I remember in the last year or so seeing reports about violence that was inflicted on Asian people. And it was notable to me that it wasn’t a report from the NYPD. I believe it was reporting from local organizations. Do you think that’s how things should work? Or is that more a sign that there’s a problem that local organizations need to step in and start trying to track how Asian Americans may be being abused in this moment?
This is a problem we need to fix. Nonprofits should never have to take the place of what government can do. They have all the resources. And a lot of people did ask me, “So what should government do?” And there are times in just my sheer anger I’d said, “How the hell do I know what to do?” Because I’m not the mayor. I don’t know what all the resources are available that can be put to helping people. I’m just trying to figure out how to keep people from getting punched in the face on their way to work. I don’t know the entire range of city services that could be deployed to work on this. And so sometimes, I would have my moments of “Why do you ask the victims what the solution is?”
I look at the past couple of years and what’s taken place at the government level, and I see some of the hallmarks of what you’ve been talking about here, which is police and the government working hand-in-hand with community organizations. The NYPD formed an Asian Hate Crime Task Force, and there was a law passed in Congress that appropriated money to community organizations to fight against anti-Asian hate, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. So I see a lot of things happening, but I have to wonder in your mind whether all of those things have made any difference and if not, why?
I think they’re slowly making a difference. Money from government, as you know, takes a long time. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved. But that money is helpful because it’s a short-term fix. It immediately puts support systems on the ground. Where we need to have a conversation is long term. And it’s not just how do we keep people safe? But how do we prevent this from happening? And those conversations are happening now.
Sounds like you’re saying this is a Band-Aid, basically, and actually we need maybe surgery.
You’re right. We need to have our fellow New Yorkers realize that we are not the other. It’s the long-term game plan to have people realize, Oh, Asian Americans, they’re Americans, too. We’ve been invisible. And we’ve been painted with this horrible myth of you are the model minority. You always find your own solutions. We don’t need to do anything for you. And my community has been stymied by that. Some of the poorest New Yorkers are Asian Americans. We have this unprecedented population growth—not just in New York City but in the state and the country—and the resources to support our community don’t match the growth.
I feel like this year, 2022, as a New Yorker, it started with this shock to the system, which was the death of Michelle Go, who was pushed in front of a subway. And then very quickly after that, just a month later, the death of Christina Lee, where a man followed her into her apartment in Chinatown and stabbed her. Of course, both of these women were Asian. And in both of these cases, the people who assaulted them had a history of assaulting other people. One assailant had a history of mental illness. Do you think that complicates the story here? And does it frustrate you that neither of these cases has been classified as a hate crime, even though they were both attacks on Asian women?
It doesn’t frustrate me. It gives me a great moment to pause for a lot of empathy.
Empathy toward the perpetrators?
Yeah and the homeless population in general. And that’s what makes it even harder for the victims. Because after Christina Lee’s death, as a Korean American woman, I fell into a deep depression. There were days when I would just sit at my computer and look out the window and just cry all day long because I think about her and I think about her life and I think about her death and I think about her family.
I don’t know what justice looks like when you are vulnerable. But I know there’s a lot of anger in the community because they’re saying, “There are homeless people. How come nobody is helping them, so they’re out harming other people?” That’s a very real question. That’s not a question for me. That’s a question for the elected leaders
What do the elected leaders say when you ask them. I mean, you speak to them regularly.
We have not gotten answers. But right now, there’s going to be more shelters in Chinatown. And the Chinatown residents are very, very angry.
Some would say it’s good for people to have a place to live, right?
Absolutely. But the challenge is that the community has not been outreached to in a way that they would like. They found out this is what’s happening. So they’re angry. And that anger has been building and building. After Christina’s death, there was a town hall where there were 600 people who are very angry. And one of the things I’ve been saying has been when these things happen in our neighborhoods, you need to engage us and you need to engage us early. You can’t wait till the eleventh hour. There’s a lot of anxiety and anger in the community. They have the right to be frustrated. And the community engagement is not happening fast enough.
It’s interesting you say that it’s hard to get a hold of someone and make sure that they’re listening in government because we do have a new mayor, Eric Adams, former police officer, who also talks about mental health a lot and the importance of mental health. It sounds like you’d actually have a lot of things to talk about.
We just had our very first meeting. I was grateful that the mayor convened that space, and I did ask him, “Could we meet again and again and again?” I don’t expect the mayor to have all the answers. We need to convene and really look at the systemic changes that need to happen so that there aren’t any more victims, so that we have residential services where people are fed and they can see a doctor and they can get treatment. We need that. We need to look at what holistic services look like. I took up more than my time, and I think the mayor was kind enough to indulge me.
Are you optimistic that if I call you up in a year, things will have changed?
That’s a tough one. I want to say I’m optimistic. I want to be hopeful, but I think the reality is government works slowly. Anytime we go outside the system, it becomes uncomfortable. So we’re never allowed to be innovative and try anything new. And this is a time that we need to try new things and we need to have innovations. I hope everybody is patient enough.