Longtime Orange County political figure Van Tran says he can recall three instances within the last year, where he either witnessed or was the subject of anti-Asian harassment. 

“It’s definitely a very troubling and disturbing trend,” said Tran, who’s Vietnamese American and was once a Republican state assemblyman. “It has been extremely disturbing,” 

And an alarming figure came from Orange County’s top prosecutor last month, at a news conference in Little Saigon about hate toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community during the Coronavirus pandemic: 

More hate crime cases were filed at District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office in the last two years than in the previous few decades.

“Do not tell me we don’t have hate that has manifested itself beyond speech but into criminal acts,” said Spitzer, standing outside a beauty college in Garden Grove last week at a press conference alongside a host of Asian American elected officials across the county. 

Data provided by his office showed that indeed, the office pursued 17 hate crime cases in the years 2019 to 2021 — more cases than the nine total cases filed in the previous 25 years combined, said District Attorney spokesperson Kimberly Edds.

Edds said the data pertains to all types of hate crimes, not just hate toward Asian Americans.

Read: Hate Crimes Spiking Across Orange County, Up 89 Percent Since 2015, According to New Report

But, even before the pandemic, the OC Human Relations Council said it received as many as 30 reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans specifically, between the years 2010 and 2019.

That’s according to data, which only goes up to 2019, provided by OC Human Relations CEO Alison Edwards.

Edwards said her group gathers that data — as much as it can, at least — by reaching out to entities like local law enforcement agencies and school districts, as well as hosting an online hate crime reporting portal.

Where the DA’s office pursues hate crime cases that might have enough evidence to prove in court, Edwards said OC Human Relations also logs hate crime incidents like vandalized property, where sometimes there isn’t enough evidence to charge the specific person behind it — leaving some victims to go without justice. 

“People might file police reports but there’s no evidence — they just wake up with a Swastika on their door with no idea who did it, and people will take a report but nothing comes of it,” Edwards said Wednesday.

Read: Cities Adopt Anti-Discrimination Resolutions Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Around the time of Spitzer’s remarks in Garden Grove, the issue was playing out — to national attention — further down in one south Orange County enclave: 

Neighbors in Ladera Ranch had been taking shifts to protect the home of an Asian American family on their street, whose security camera footage showed kids leaving things on their front doorstep and throwing rocks.

It’s the latest example — in an area of Orange County facing its own wealth of racism controversy — of a countywide trend with spiking prejudice toward a demographic that’s been scapegoated for a global pandemic. 

Meanwhile, some say the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents, and the growing conversation around it, also signals Orange County’s ever-changing — and at times flawed — understanding of one of its largest nonwhite demographics.

To some, that misunderstanding goes back to years of neglect.

A Complex Community’s Complex History

The US flag was carried through the entire route of the 2020 Tet Parade in Garden Grove. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Priscilla Huang of the Asian Americans in Action advocacy group said anti-Asian sentiment in Orange County didn’t begin with the Covid-19 pandemic, after all. 

In 1906, the City of Santa Ana purposefully burned down its Chinatown — to the cheers and support of elected officials at the time — after claiming to have found one man there with leprosy.

Huang said the Chinatown blaze rings echoes of the hate Asian Americans are getting now with Covid-19: “Any time there are public health threats, Asians are scapegoated … there’s a lot of history here that’s specific to Orange County.”

And during last year’s summer of social justice protests following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, locals like immigrants’ rights activist Tracy La pointed to one Little Saigon city’s history of police mistreatment toward Vietnamese Americans. 

In the late 1990’s, the Garden Grove Police Dept. settled a class-action lawsuit brought by two Vietnamese American high schoolers, who said the police snapped photos of them as part of an ongoing campaign to crack down on gangs.

La, who is the co-founder of local advocacy group VietRISE, also feels that the county’s perception of Asian Americans may have been complicated because of the way political parties increasingly target perceived constituencies, specifically calling out the November 2020 elections.

Republicans saw success in an area of the county with the largest Vietnamese American population — winning county, state and national seats representing parts of Little Saigon over Democratic opponents. 

And in Orange County overall, Michelle Steel and Young Kim, two Republican Korean American women, made history when they beat the Democratic incumbents they challenged for Congress. 

Read: What Did Orange County Residents Tell Us This Past Election About Themselves?

Huang argued that doesn’t mean there was an overwhelming Republican consensus among Asian Americans:

“We did see that … in other Asian American subgroups, there was certainly high turnout for Democrats in 2020.”

Notably last year, the election of 37th District State Senator Dave Min — a first-generation Korean American — consolidated a majority for Democrats across Orange County’s state Senate seats.

Tran credits last year’s wins for Republicans in Little Saigon to well-run campaigns by candidates who understood their communities: “They were skillful and able to reach out to the communities at large within their constituencies.”

La and others who hoped for such areas to trend Blue blame it on a Republican narrative before the election — tying Democrats to ideas of socialism and communism in front of an electorate where, for many Vietnam War refugees and later generations in Little Saigon, communism strikes an emotional chord and memories of a traumatizing war that forced families to flee their country.

La said the county’s influential Democratic Party leaders failed to understand how to correct that narrative.

Read: Struggles of Second Generation Reveal Long Shadow of War

It didn’t help when a former Democratic Party of Orange County vice chair, Jeff LeTourneau, triggered uproar for re-sharing a post on social media praising the late Ho Chi Minh in September last year — sparking backlash among LeTourneau’s colleagues, who were paying attention to political campaigns where such communities were a key part of the electorate.

At the same time, La previously said, the controversy that month effectively reduced the county’s Vietnamese American community to a communist-versus-anti-communist dichotomy, rather than a dynamic interest group facing real quality of life issues.

It resulted in a news conference spectacle that month, just before the election, where several local officials and candidates responded to LeTourneau’s re-post by shouting “Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam” in unison in front of a small group of people and the press. 

A line at a voting center in Westminster, a city in Little Saigon, during the November 2020 general election. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

More Than A News Conference

Many times within the last year, high-profile and documented instances of anti-Asian hate in Orange County have been met with swift news conferences, like the one at Advance Beauty College last month and one in November last year, which was responding to the vandalism of six Buddhist temples in Little Saigon.

Both of those conferences saw an abundance of elected officials and law enforcement leaders, who largely issued the same types of condemnations, statements and calls to address prejudice in their areas. 

But Tran said it will take more than just a nice speech: “Of course everybody comes out as against racism, but at the end of the day, what are you doing about it and what type of strategy do you have to end this other than just being reactive?”

“It’s more than a criminal issue. It’s a social or cultural issue that needs to be addressed if you want a cohesive, or at least decent, community,” said Tran, who recounted an incident last year at a grocery store, where he said he and his son were harassed by another shopper. “It’s beyond politics. It’s emotional.”

Santa Ana Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan, at this past Tuesday’s City Council meeting, in her ending remarks pointed to the troubling incidents in central county: 

“In Santa Ana we had a Buddhist temple that was vandalized, and neighboring cases in Garden Grove in which a family was verbally assaulted and called names, derogatory terms, in their own backyard,” said Phan, who is the first Vietnamese American woman elected to oversee one of the country’s densest metropolitan areas.

Harry Nakamoto was the council’s first Asian American member, serving from the early 1970s to 1980s.

Phan recounted a moment “a couple weeks ago” where she warned her mother of old age to be careful at grocery stores because people “might attack” her — a cautionary circumstance Phan called “insane” at that night’s meeting. 

“I hope all of us can treat our neighbors as friends and not as enemies or foreigners or outsiders, whether not we speak the same language, share the same food, or share the same culture,” Phan said.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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