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Utahns of Asian heritage keep wary eye for pandemic-related harassment

No formal reports of hate crimes, but several say numbers may not tell the full story

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House Minority Whip Karen Kwan, D-Murray, and Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, pose for a photo in front of the the Vietnamese American Community of Utah office in Taylorsville on Monday, March 8, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For state lawmaker House Minority Whip Karen Kwan, attacks on Asian Americans in the pandemic have brought to mind her great-great-grandfather, who helped build the transcontinental railroad connecting America’s coasts but was barred from U.S. citizenship by federal law.

“It recalls a time in which the Chinese were considered suspicious,” said Kwan. “He came at a time when this kind of rhetoric was the standard way of thinking, that the Chinese were inscrutable, and they needed to be careful of Chinese people.”

More than 150 years later, Utah’s fast-growing Asian American communities are facing renewed discrimination, the Murray Democrat said. Although police haven’t confirmed racially motivated violence like in other states, she’s heard anecdotes of bullying since COVID-19 reached the state more than a year ago.

“It is very much an issue of concern, and our communities are on alert to combat it,” Kwan said.

Utah’s 76,500 residents of Asian heritage account for the state’s fastest-growing minority group, census data confirms. The newcomers from other states and abroad are arriving in Utah for jobs, to be with family or to find less expensive housing than in other places like California or Washington, Kwan said.

While none were determined to be racially motivated, violent crimes against Asian and Pacific Islanders in Utah in 2020 ticked up slightly from a year earlier, much like they have year to year for most of the decade.

The reports increased from 802 to 846 — accounting for 2.53% of all victims — preliminary data provided by the Utah Department of Public Safety shows. The groups account for 3.8% of the state’s overall population, according to census data from 2019, the most recent available.

The actual number of crimes may be higher, with some deciding not to report due to a language barrier or because they don’t want to draw attention or invite retaliation, noted Shu Cheng, executive director of the Asian Association of Utah.

Others are facing behavior that may not rise to the level of a crime but can be traumatic nonetheless.

“We heard this, especially people who have run restaurants and have been having some difficulty, talking about patrons coming in and giving them a hard time and verbally abusing them,” Cheng said. “I think most of the immigrants who come here, they don’t know about politics. They’re just surviving, to support their families, to make sure that their kids are doing well in school and socially.”


Shops and restaurants are pictured in Carriage Square Shopping Center in Taylorsville on Monday, March 8, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill agreed, saying there’s a need for greater education about the state’s strengthened hate crimes law that passed in 2019.

“A lot of the stuff that goes on is borne by these communities and never really reported,” Gill said. “Someone comes into your shop and makes a snide remark at you while you’re running the shop, but you kind of brush that off as the price of doing business.” 

Gill immigrated to the U.S. with his family as a child, and said he was the nation’s only Indian-born district attorney when he took office 10 years ago.

“As an immigrant, I could tell you I’ve endured discrimination and been subjected to racist and discriminatory statements, but so would every other immigrant who’s similarly situated,” he said.

Nationally, video footage of an 84-year-old San Francisco man killed when he was shoved to the ground has drawn widespread attention. It’s also spurred discussions in Utah about ensuring older family members aren’t out on their own.

“What we are afraid of is copycats,” Cheng said. “Utah individuals are very nice to each other, and hopefully we want to make sure that this kind of crime is not going to happen.”

He, Kwan, and others are paying close attention to last week’s shooting death of an Ogden grocer, 65-year-old Satnam Singh, originally from India. A teenager under 16 has been arrested and charged with murder in the case. Authorities in the early stages of the investigation say they haven’t yet found any evidence of a hate crime.

“The guy admitted that he had planned the robbery specifically because he didn’t have as much cash as he wanted,” said Weber County Attorney Chris Allred. “That was his stated motivation for the robbery, and we don’t have any evidence to suggest otherwise.”

Kwan said she believes former President Donald Trump’s use of terms like “Chinese virus,” coupled with comments from public officials within Salt Lake County, have emboldened some.

“That hateful rhetoric only serves to divide us,” Kwan said.

She pointed to comments from State School Board member Natalie Cline, who has urged parents to opt children out of lessons on diversity and racism, and from Salt Lake County Councilman Dave Alvord, who wrote on Facebook that “the left won’t be happy until we each have light brown skin, exactly alike.”

Fellow Democrat and Assistant Minority Whip Sen. Jani Iwamoto said the spate of violence has reminded her of the Detroit killing of a Chinese American man, Vincent Chin, in 1982, when the U.S. auto industry was faltering in a recession and Japanese cars became more prevalent.

“I grew up in a pretty nice environment,” said Iwamoto, who’s from Salt Lake City. “But I always did know what it felt like, in a way, to be called ‘Jap,’ or things like that.”

And her family history isn’t far from her mind. Her grandfather was taken from his home in the Ogden area in the middle of the night in the 1940s, she said, and incarcerated in jails in Utah and other states during World War II.

Aggressors today don’t differentiate between different Asian American communities, she said.

“People don’t say, ‘Oh, you’re Chinese,’ or ‘you’re Japanese,’ or ‘you’re Korean,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s directed to one specific Asian community. It impacts everybody.”

Correction: An earlier version said Iwamoto’s father was incarcerated at internment camps. He was in fact held in jails.