Thu Nguyen’s house in Katy has been pranked for a decade. She has woken up to find dead animals thrown in her yard.
Her family has been in the nail business for almost two decades. During the pandemic, their employees had dealt with a rise in racist comments, especially when it came to enforcing the state’s mask mandate.
The salon was also broken into.
Her family can’t prove any of these acts are race related. But they’ve also struggled to come up with an alternate explanation.
“When all of this anti-Asian rhetoric and these incidents are happening around the country, you do feel, like, targeted,” Nguyen said.
Houston has not seen a dramatic spike in anti-Asian hate crimes that has impacted the rest of the country, according to local data. But experts say that hate crime data is notoriously unreliable, due in part in underreporting and the high bar to prove bias in any type of crime. And the true scope of the problem may be hard to gauge in the region.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, almost 4,000 incidents have been documented by the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, most of which originated in California and New York. More than 100 hate incidents were recorded in Texas, making up just 2.7% of all reports.
Houston Public Media obtained police data on hate crimes against Asian Americans. In 2020, the Houston Police Department reported 2 confirmed crimes and Harris County Sheriff’s Office reported 5 crimes. Both jurisdictions said there were no such crimes in 2019.
The day after the deadly March 16 shooting at an Atlanta spa that left eight people dead, HPD Chief Art Acevedo tweeted that the department “has not seen an increase in hate crimes toward the Asian community.” Officials from neighboring Fort Bend County, whose population is more than 20% Asian, have reported similar trends. Police in both counties increased patrolling in Asian neighborhoods in the days after the shootings.
But Nguyen, whose family chose not to report the pranks to police — and who is also the director of the OCA National Center, an advocacy group for Asian American and Pacific Island communities — said she believes those crimes are being underreported due to a lack of knowledge and familiarity with the reporting process, a dearth of Asian language resources and distrust of law enforcement to follow up.
“Historically, we’ve seen government largely ignore the needs of our community and that extends to law enforcement,” Nguyen said. “There are other Asian ethnic groups who have been specifically overpoliced and targeted by law enforcement.”
The group has called for more community resources to provide support and protection for victims, but not an increased presence from law enforcement.
Yan Zhang, a professor at Sam Houston State University that studies hate crimes against Asian Americans, noted that in data shared with her from HPD, non-hate crimes against Asians Americans in Houston, such as aggravated assaults and robberies, also haven’t spiked during the pandemic.
But even though Houston crime data doesn’t show a statistically significant rise, that doesn’t mean anti-Asian hate isn’t happening in Greater Houston, Zhang said.
“We do have the official data, but everybody knows that is significantly underreported,” Zhang said. “So we don’t know the actual [numbers].”
Zhang says that Asian Americans are the least likely of any racial group to report any type of crime. When these crimes are reported, there must be evidence that bias was a motivating factor for it to show up in the official hate crime data, such as the offender uttering a racial slur or having a history of anti-Asian hate.
“It is so hard to identify people’s motivation because it’s not a manifested feature,” Zhang said. “It’s more hidden.”
A few days after the Atlanta shootings, OCA Greater Houston organized a rally and vigil at Discovery Green. Hundreds of Texans showed up, including many outside of Harris County, to condemn anti-Asian discrimination and honor the victims.
“When [police] said that he ‘just had a bad day,’ I thought, ‘that’s unbelievable’,” said Qian Peng from Sugarland. “You just don’t kill eight people when you have a bad day.”
Some attendees, like Peng, say they haven’t experienced a rise in racism in the pandemic. But many others in attendance shared multiple accounts.
Sandi Chai, who came all the way from College Station, said a stranger cursed her out in an H-E-B parking lot for being Asian. She now goes in groups to the supermarket.
But that harassment, she says, started long before COVID-19, especially with one of her neighbors. For months, he gave her a hard time about her parking, nodding to a stereotype that Asians are bad at driving. He also made unwanted advances towards her and her daughters, and once asked her to move in with him.
She wanted to avoid him, but one of the parking disputes got hostile last May. She said the neighbor tried to punch her, but stopped a few inches before her face.
“[He] shouted at me and told me I didn’t know how to read English, that my English is bad,” Chai said. “It was very insulting.”
Her 19-year-old daughter Zoe Brown watched the whole thing unfold from their apartment.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Brown said. “I was honestly scared, but I’m proud of my mom because she stood up to him.”
Other parts of Texas have seen documented cases of anti-Asian hate specifically related to the pandemic. In San Antonio, a restaurant owner found phrases like “Go back To China” and “hope U die” spray painted on the window of his business. The unidentified vandal also spraypainted things like “Kung flu,” a reference to the racist term popularized by former President Donald Trump.
Many public officials — including some in Texas — have been accused of stoking violence against those in the Asian American community with their rhetoric. Eric Tang, director for the Center for Asian American Studies at UT-Austin, told Texas Standard host David Brown that while racism against Asian Americans isn’t new, it’s back in the spotlight because of such rhetoric.
“No one can say that they didn’t see this coming,” Tang told Texas Standard.
At the Houston rally, Lin-Lin Liu brought her two kids who held up signs saying ‘don’t hurt my ah-ma [grandma]’ and ‘don’t punch my ah-gong‘ [grandpa].’ She says her kids were horrified when they read news stories about attacks on elderly Asians over the past year.
She wanted to use the rally as a teaching moment for her children about the importance of speaking up.
“All this discrimination, either overt or covert, all of that needs to stop,” Liu said. “Maybe it’s too late for my generation, but they’re young. And maybe they could do something to end it.”