Students and community members gather around the speakers on Thursday, March 25, 2021, during a vigil for the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings at Scoville Park in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

The March 16 Atlanta spa shootings — during which 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long murdered eight people, six of them Asian-American women, and wounded one — have prompted what could be a national reckoning on the mistreatment of Asians in the United States.

In Oak Park and River Forest, the shootings galvanized residents, Asian-American and non-Asian-American alike, to directly confront the spread of xenophobic and racist attacks directed toward people of Asian descent since the pandemic began.

Days after the attack, on March 16, community members gathered in Rehm Park, 515 Garfield St. in Oak Park, to show support for the Asian-American community.

And on March 25, a few hundred people attended a vigil for the Atlanta shooting victims held at Scoville Park, 800 Lake St. in Oak Park. 

“This horrific crime comes after a year of intense anti-Asian racism in America, which was and still is perpetrated by the media and our government during the pandemic,” Amelia Yu said during the vigil.

“Most importantly, we must remember that anti-Asian racism is not new in America,” said Yu, who is 18 and a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

“We have been called the ‘virus,’ the ‘model minority’ and the ‘yellow terrorist,’” she added. “We have been beaten, killed, rounded up and simply discriminated against. This is the America we live in, where scapegoating whole ethnicities is normalized for the purpose of maintaining white supremacy.”

Yu, who started the vigil by offering a moment of silence for the 10 victims shot March 22 by 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Al-Issa in a Boulder, Colorado supermarket, is the president of Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE), a social justice-oriented group of student-activists at OPRF. The group took the lead in organizing last week’s vigil.

During a phone interview on March 26, Yu and Zoe Haralambidis, a 17-year-old senior at OPRF who is a member of the Pan Asian Leadership Society at the high school, said they can both attest to the rise of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.

“I’ve seen some insensitive social media posts and have heard people called profanities and heard things on the streets,” Haralambidis said. 

According to a Pew Research study published last year, nearly 60 percent of Asian Americans reported believing that racism directed toward them has increased. 

And data compiled by California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism has shown “an alarming trend,” according to experts who spoke to Voice of America. 

The center’s study found that “there were 122 incidents of anti-Asian-American hate crimes in 16 of the country’s most populous cities in 2020, an increase of almost 150% over the previous year,” Voice of America reported. 

Yu and Haralambidis said that changing the way Asian-American history is taught in schools and changing how the media portrays them may be powerful antidotes to racism and xenophobia. 

“The elementary and middle schools, as well as the high school in Oak Park have to create more representation and diversity in the curriculum,” said Yu. 

What Asian-American history they do remember being taught almost always dealt with oppression, they said. 

“The Asian history we do learn doesn’t teach us about our historical figures and what we have brought to America, as opposed to what America has done to us,” said Yu. 

Amy McFarlane, who teaches fourth grade at Willard Elementary in River Forest and lives in Oak Park, said she attended the Rehm Park gathering with her husband.

Since the George Floyd murder last summer, McFarlane and her colleague, Janeice Millon, have been working to diversify the curriculum in District 90. 

“We said, ‘We have to be more deliberate about the learning we’re doing as teachers and the curriculum we’re teaching,’” McFarlane said during a phone interview on March 29. 

During the summer, McFarlane and Millon convened a group of teachers and administrators to watch the documentary 13th, which explores the history of Black racism in America. 

They’ve also organized discussions around a range of books, such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, McFarlane said, adding that they’re expanding their reading and learning to include books that explore the collective experience of people of other cultures and ethnicities, particularly Asian Americans.

McFarlane’s and Millon’s group, informally called the Diversity Discussion Group, meets monthly. McFarlane said she also sat in on community meetings convened by local residents in Oak Park to discuss Asian representation in schools. 

On March 23, a group of Oak Park and River Forest community members sent a letter to the District 200 school board and OPRF’s administration. 

The letter addressed “the extent to which” anti-Asian racism “has become naturalized and taken for granted, to the degree that many Americans do not even recognize discrimination and violence against Asians as a form of racism. This has become abundantly clear in the official response to the Atlanta shootings and the way that race has been pre-emptively dismissed as a factor in the violence.” 

The latter point was a reference to, among other examples, the Atlanta Police Department’s swiftly ruling out in an incident report the possibility that the spa shootings were hate crimes, even though they told the public at the time that they were still investigating the shooting, according to NPR reporting. 

“This blindness to and tendency to downplay anti-Asian racism, though, is also inextricably linked to the erasure of Asian Americans from American history and culture,” the OPRF letter stated. 

In the letter, community members said many organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice of Chicago, are pushing for the passage of the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act in the Illinois General Assembly.

The bill would require all public schools in the state to include Asian Americans in their American history curriculum. Community members in Oak Park and River Forest are hoping that OPRF starts pro-actively implementing the requirement “robustly in all grade levels.”

Community members also hope OPRF organizes and holds an event “that would seek to educate both current students and the general public about the reality of anti-Asian racism in American society and the discriminatory treatment directed of Asian Americans throughout American history, information that should be part of the regular curriculum.” 

On March 19, outgoing OPRF Equity Director LeVar J. Ammons issued a statement about the Atlanta shootings, which included links to resources designed to “speak to the Asian-American experience” and to “bring context and perspective” to the shootings.

“As we move forward into the fourth quarter of the school year, we need to focus our energies on learning and standing with and up for one another so our district and school community can be stronger than ever in these most uncertain times,” Ammons stated.

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