By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
When Tom Chung describes Montclair, he talks about many of the same qualities others do. It’s a place he enjoys for its diversity, and for the community’s progressive values. It’s a place where his family has felt welcome.
It’s not a place where Chung — an American of Korean descent married to a white woman with whom he has three young children — expected to hear the words: “Why don’t you keep spreading COVID, you f—— ch—.”
“I was so stunned. My jaw dropped, and I just sat there,” Chung said.
The incident happened Sunday, March 28, he said. His family had friends over, and his children had been playing outside, when he noticed a man sitting in a parked car for 45 minutes on the street, Chung said. First, the man said he was waiting for someone who lived on the street, but wouldn’t say who, Chung said. When he asked the man to move — leery of a stranger close to his children without more of an explanation — the man instead said he pulled over because he had a heart condition, Chung said. The man became angry and confrontational, he said.
“Anger was the last thing I was feeling. First, it was just shock,” Chung said. “And then, like 20 seconds later, I was like, ‘Oh my God. This guy isn’t right in the head. And my kids are right there. And he knows where I live.’”
Montclair police Lt. Tyrone Williams said the incident remains under investigation, and was considered a bias incident, but not a crime. Chung said he also didn’t believe it rose to a crime — but also wanted the man to know he’d gotten law enforcement’s attention.
Chung and his family are far from alone in their experience — made uneasy and at times fearful by increased reports nationwide of anti-Asian bias, hate and even violence in the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a fear made more acute by March 16’s Atlanta massage parlor shootings that claimed the lives of eight people — six of them Asian women. It’s a fear that has drawn hundreds of members in just weeks to a newly formed AAPI Montclair Facebook group (for Asian American and Pacific Islander residents), where participants recount their own experiences with overt hate and with more subtle acts of othering, and discuss steps to protect themselves and their families.
Chung’s children attend Montclair Kimberley Academy, but many other members of the Montclair AAPI community find themselves faced with an immediate worry — that their children will soon return to in-person learning in township public schools for the first time in a year, for the first time since the pandemic began.
“I’ve seen a growing number of AAPI parents who have communicated concern, or even decided not to send their children back to in-person classes, in light of the staggering rise in anti-Asian sentiment and hate,” said Jeena Moon, who in collaboration with other parents drafted a March 31 letter, now signed by hundreds of Montclair residents, asking the district to take proactive measures to combat anti-Asian bias and bullying.
When the district asked families earlier this school year whether they planned to return their children for a hybrid learning plan or keep their children learning remotely — as New Jersey allows families in any district to do this year — about 52% of Asian students expected to remain home. The only racial or ethnic demographic that saw a majority of students planning to return was that of white students. The district has recently asked families for updated preferences, but hasn’t yet released the results of that outreach.
The letter to the district stresses anti-Asian hate isn’t a problem foreign to Montclair. It asks for a letter from the district acknowledging “the current climate of anti-Asian hate nationally and locally (yes, even in Montclair),” and for concrete steps to ensure the return to school is welcoming for all children. It seeks an affirmation that schools won’t tolerate racism, xenophobia or bullying, and that school leaders will educate the community on the many forms racism and microaggressions can take — for instance, calling the coronavirus the “China virus,” speaking in “fake Chinese” or expecting Asian students to be “model minorities.”
The letter asks the district to share resources on anti-racism, mental health and cultural competency with educators in advance of reopening, and to ensure school counselors and anti-bullying coordinators are trained in anti-racism, including anti-Asian racism.
The letter is, in part, the product of the discussion happening in AAPI Montclair and other community Facebook groups.
“I was a little overwhelmed about how stories came in and people started sharing their experiences,” Linda Kow, one of the AAPI Montclair administrators, said.
Amber Reed, another of the administrators, said for parents of public school students, the threat of anti-Asian racism in schools is a pressing issue — “as much as the ventilation and the windows and all the other [coronavirus safety] preparation that’s going on.”
“We’re not asking for them to eliminate anti-Asian racism,” she said. “We know that’s not realistic. What they can do is share resources with families, describe what [anti-Asian racism] looks like.”
Linda Tsuei, another of the group administrators, said she’s seen anti-Asian racism go ignored, when she’s sure similar experiences targeting other groups would get due attention. She recounted a Glenfield Middle School online event where a child, unmuted, screamed out “ching chong chang.”
“It went unaddressed by any teacher, any parent,” Tsuei said.
The hope, she said, is that the schools can help combat the normalization of anti-Asian bias she’s experienced all her life.
Asians, she said, “pre-COVID, post-COVID, during COVID are not thought of as a protected class.”
Julie Kim, who has helped the Facebook group’s administrators and letter’s authors with outreach, said that ultimately the goal is to “be included in the diversity discussion.”
“I think the Black Lives Matter movement has been amazing in bringing things to light. What we’re realizing is that we need to be part of that conversation. Diversity can’t just be a Black and white thing, but really across the spectrum,” Kim said.
Montclair schools are home to any number of efforts and initiatives intended to combat bias. The Board of Education has issued multiple statements reaffirming inclusivity and condemning hate. The district has a Department of Equity, Curriculum and Instruction, as well as an assistant superintendent for the same. It conducts several activities a year aimed at promoting anti-racism.
But the letter’s and group’s organizers are hoping for a more concerted effort, specifically acknowledging and working to address the wave of anti-Asian bias as their children return to class. And they say the response they’ve received from the district so far has been mixed.
In one of his weekly community bulletins on April 1 — the day after the parents’ letter was sent to the district — schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds wrote: “As I stated in [an earlier community bulletin], the district condemns the hate, discrimination and violence against Asian Americans. We will always stand in solidarity with the Asian community, and remain a district committed to diversity and anti-racism. Standing for what is right and teaching our students the evils of discrimination in any form are part of our core beliefs and values.”
Kim called that message “sadly lacking in urgency.” And she said she didn’t like “that [Ponds] felt the need to say that he’s said this before.”
The organizers said they also felt the same about an initial response from Board of Education President Latifah Jannah, referencing the district’s existing policy on Educational Equity and Anti-Racism, which she said provides “guidance, training and opportunities for discussions about topics of race, privilege and power in our community, its impact on student achievement, as well as the philosophy of restorative justice.” She also said the district would be convening an equity committee.
Kim wrote in a letter back to Jannah on behalf of the group: “What the hundreds of parents of Asian American children in Montclair urgently need now, however, is for the commitment expressed in Dr. Ponds’ statements and [the existing policy] to be supported with timely, real-world action.”
She thanked Jannah for her response and Ponds for his condemnation of anti-Asian hatred, but said the parents would look forward to learning more specifics about steps the schools would take.
“There is a palpable fear in our community that must be understood and acknowledged,” she wrote.
Ponds and Jannah haven’t returned messages from Montclair Local, sent April 1, seeking response to the parents’ letter. The school district began its spring break the following day.
Reed said the group sees some hope for actionable steps — encouraged by a letter from Nishuane Elementary School’s leadership to the school community discussing meetings focused on microaggressions, social justice and the anti-racism curriculum and ongoing workshop and committee efforts to deepen racial literacy. The letter also pointed to resources collected by AAPI Montclair members.
“We hope the other 10 schools in the district, and district leadership, will look to Nishuane as a model,” Reed said.
Editor’s note: Amber Reed is married to Justin Jamail, a member of the Montclair Local’s governing board. The open letter discussed in this story is also included in paid advertisement in the April 8 print edition of Montclair Local. Under Montclair Local’s editorial independence policy, we maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue.