For Montclair Local

Serena Lee, a sophomore at Montclair High School, remembers encountering anti-Asian prejudice as early as the third grade — being called a “weird Chinese disease.” She’s been disappointed in the pandemic to see anti-Asian comments posted online, sometimes by her classmates.

For Lee, and many other members of Montclair’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, March 16’s Atlanta massage parlor shootings that claimed the lives of eight people — six of them Asian women — had a particular impact. Lee, along with fellow sophomore Tatiana Daradar, called on classmates and peers for a show of solidarity. 

They asked on social media for help compiling a list of Asian-owned restaurants and places to shop in and around Montclair. Lee shared the list of nearly 30 businesses on Instagram.

“We tried to turn this horrible situation and negative trend into something uplifting,” said Lee, 16, who is Chinese-American.

They’re far from alone in expressing distress over prejudice they’ve encountered in and around Montclair — a community that prides itself on its diversity and welcoming spirit — or in a desire to support people struggling through traumatic news. 

Parents have been speaking out against racism online, through the private Montclair Mommies and Daddies Facebook group, and in the editorial pages of papers like Montclair Local.

In civic circles, Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller and the Town Council, the Essex County Board of Commissioners, and Montclair State University President Susan Cole have all issued statements denouncing the attacks.

Wayne Richardson, president of the Essex County Board of Commissioners, summoned the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered a statement on March 23, a week after Robert Aaron Long allegedly went on a shooting rampage at three Atlanta massage parlors.

“If members of one group are violently attacked because of their race, ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, we should all feel attacked,” Richardson said. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘I can see nothing more urgent for America to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of the disease of racism.’ We know that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to forge unit across all barriers.”

Painful experiences

Daradar, 15, who is Filipino, remembers a recent ugly incident in the parking lot of the Willowbrook Mall.

“We were parking and there was another car going for the same spot,” she recalled. “The lady in the other car starts screaming at us, ‘Go back to your own country!’ Then she stormed off.”

A Montclair parent, Amber Reed, said both of her children had been subjected to anti-Asian teasing in school. In a letter to Montclair Local, Reed spoke of a boy who asked her son if he carried the coronavirus. She described how other kids refused to sit next to her daughter in kindergarten when she brought toasted seaweed in her lunchbox. And Reed said when she posted online about her experience, several others started doing the same.

"AAPI families in Montclair are not alone in knowing there is a particular sting that comes from experiencing racism in a town that prides itself on being a bastion of diversity. ... But just as a slur can both be witless and result in real harm, so the dream we share of our town can be betrayed over and over and yet remain largely true," she wrote.

Tara Christine Williams also grew up Asian in America. Born in South Korea, she came to the United States as an infant, grew up on Long Island, and came to Montclair in 1999 to raise a family. But Williams said she didn’t always feel welcome in Montclair.

There was the time she brought her toddler son to The Little Gym on Greenwood Avenue and was given an intense grilling by another customer, who was white, she said.

“The line of questioning was more like an interrogation,” she remembers. “It was absolutely surreal and ridiculous.”

Then, in 2018, a guy started screaming at her as she was getting on the DeCamp bus Bellevue Avenue and Valley Road, she said. The stranger ended his rant by making a deep bow, the Asian sign of respect, but Williams said he meant just the opposite.

During the pandemic, she was sitting in a café. “I sneezed, and a man immediately got up and left,” she said. As for the reports of a rise in bias crimes against Asians, “I think people are just angry and reacting. They need to find a target. Many times, the Asian person is the target.”

Bias incidents and crimes

Authorities investigating the Atlanta case haven’t said they conclusively see race as a motivator. Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said after Long’s arrest he “made indicators that he has some issues, potentially sexual addiction, and may have frequented some of these places in the past.” Long’s roommate told the New York Times the 21-year-old evangelical would admit nearly monthly that he’d gone to massage parlors for sex, in pained confessions intermingled with talk about letting God and his parents down.

But the majority of those killed were Asian, making the possibility of a racial motive or element paramount for many. And the killings occur against a backdrop of prejudice and violence against Asians that’s growing in many communities. 

According to a California State University study, anti-Asian bias crimes in America’s 16 largest cities rose 145% from 2019 to 2020, even as bias crimes overall dropped slightly.  Nationally, there were 3,795 bias incidents against Asians between March 19, 2020 to Feb. 28, of 2021, according to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate. More than two-thirds of those incidents were of verbal harassment, and 11% involved physical assaults, the report said.

Incidents that appear to be bias-related are not always prosecuted as bias crimes. In Montclair, police say they’re aware of two incidents of harassment with a racial element in 2020 — both allegedly committed by the same man, on back-to-back days.

According to police, the first incident occurred on Jan. 31 of last year. A 33-year-old Asian woman told police she was walking up Bloomfield Avenue when an elderly white man told her to "go back to China" and then spat. Police charged the man with harassment. The next day, Montclair police charged the same man with harassment after an African-American woman complained that he called her the N-word. 

Harassment is a disorderly persons offense. Bumping a harassment charge up to bias intimidation would require approval by the Essex County Prosecutor's Office. Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti said the prosecutor's office bumped up the complaint by the African-American woman, but could not explain why the complaint by the Asian woman was not given the same treatment. 

So far, Montclair Police haven’t recorded any bias crimes in 2021, though they continue to investigate the appearance of stickers promoting the white Supremacist “Patriot Front” group that began appearing in spots in town last year. Spiller has denounced the group, saying Montclair isn’t immune to violent extremism, but “our diverse community shines as an example of everything this group is against.”

Beyond the statistics

But for many people of Asian birth or descent living in Montclair, prejudice is a too-common experience — even if it’s not always reflected in the criminal statistics. 

Reed said in her letter that when she posted online asking about incidences of anti-Asian racism, she found “my family’s experience has been atypical only to the extent that it hasn’t been worse.” 

Dr. Khyati Y. Joshi, a professor of Education at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said racism against Asians “has been here since the Chinese came over to work on the railroads.” Maintaining “white purity” was one of the rationales behind adoption of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all Chinese immigration.

Former President Trump’s frequent references to the “China virus” and the “Kung Flu,” helped fuel the current anti-Asian sentiment, she said. But Asians have long been scapegoated for all sorts of diseases, like malaria, dating back to the 19th Century, she said.

“The idea that Asians are the dirty, and that they carry disease is part of U.S. history,” said Joshi, one of the founders of Jersey Promise, an Asian advocacy group.

Joshi said racist ideas should be challenged, but in a smart way.

“Silence is complicity,” she said. “But one of the best ways to respond is with a question. Why are you making that statement? Why do you believe that? It doesn’t have to be you getting on a soap box.”

Reed, in her letter, said confronting racism means going beyond public allyship, and having conversations that are “private and painful.”

“Sometimes we must sit down with the small people we love, reveal another sad thing we’d have given anything to spare them, and ask for their help,” she wrote. “The dream, of course, was always for them. Let’s keep it going.”

Editor’s note: Amber Reed, quoted in this story, is married to Justin Jamail, a member of Montclair Local’s governing board. 

An earlier version of this story misstated the locations of some incidents described by Tara Williams.