The Invisible Minority: Asians in New York City

This is a story about race. And a basic question of who we think of when we consider New Yorkers who are struggling. Where are they from? Which neighborhoods do they often live in?

One group of New Yorkers has historically considered themselves to be invisible or overlooked. And it is the more than 1.4 million Asian Americans who live in our city.

Many even say Mayor Bill de Blasio himself has often left Asians out and often refers to minorities as "Black and brown," but no one else.

"When he constantly excludes mentioning Asian Americans it makes Asian Americans feel like they have a City Hall that doesn't even know they exist," said state Sen. John Liu, who was the first Asian American member of the City Council and then the first Asian American elected to citywide office when he became the comptroller.

Perhaps nowhere is the omission of a minority more consequential than when it's at the hands of the government. "A tale of two cities" is the narrative de Blasio introduced into dialogue when he was first running for mayor — that one city is affluent and mostly white. The other city, struggling and in need of help, is mostly Black and Latino. Critics say this powerful imagery omits one key group that constitutes nearly 14% of the city's population.

Driving to this moment, leaders in the Asian American community say, is the disproven model minority myth that Asians do just fine when left alone; that they end up becoming accountants, or doctors, or engineers. The false stereotype ends up penalizing Asian New Yorkers.

It was at its most obvious in 2018 when Mayor de Blasio would run for president and moved to eliminate the entrance exams for New York City's specialized high schools, which includes Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School. Facing a woeful lack of diversity across the city's 1,800 public schools, the mayor targeted three schools that happen to have a large percentage of Asian students. Schools with high percentages of white students were left alone. The mayor's reasoning, which framed Asian Americans as rich New Yorkers leveraging their wealth for unfair advantages, infuriated the community.

"In fact, his exact words were, it was a scheme to make the rich richer," Liu said. "That just incensed the Asian American community because Asian Americans are not privileged. That's a stereotype that doesn't help anybody."

In fact, as Liu pointed out, the vast majority of Asian American families striving to enter specialized high schools work low wages and often live at or below the poverty line.

FOX 5 NY visited a food pantry in Queens for this report. A long line formed long before the pantry opened and ran down the street, around the corner. In the line were seniors and the young, all of them Asian, and not New Yorkers living a model minority dream.

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Critics say the mayor's suggestion that Asians are, as a group, privileged in any way that justifies reducing their representation in specialized high schools was widely noticed and condemned.

"You can only imagine how painful it is when a group sacrifices everything for something that is the cornerstone of our prosperity, and that's education," Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams told FOX 5 NY.

"When I go into Chinatown, when I go into Sunset Park, I am seeing the same pain and struggles that I see in Brownsville and South Jamaica Queens, in the South Bronx," Adams, who is running for mayor, added. "And it is really unfair to believe that when you think of an Asian person that you were thinking about somebody or someone who is extremely affluent and not struggling."

On top of the false model minority myth is the racism Asian Americans face, which has exploded since the pandemic began. NYPD data shows more than a 900% increase in hate crimes targeting Asians. Unprovoked attacks have raged from broad daylight attacks on women to subway assaults on seniors. In January, a man was slashed in the face from ear to ear. In February, there were two separate subway pushing incidents. The victims in both cases are seniors, both are Asian.

NYC, NYPD confront surge in anti-Asian hate crimes

By August 2020, the spike in hate crimes prompted the NYPD to create its Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Task Force.

"Here in New York City, Asian Americans have been targeted at a disproportional rate," Deputy Inspector Stewart Hsiao Loo, the task force commanding officer, said at an event announcing the formation of the unit.

There are more examples of a struggle ignored. Established during the pandemic was City Hall's racial inclusion task force. The program Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises, M/WBE, was to direct city pandemic-related spending to local minority and women-owned businesses. Many say Asians were left out. While Asians constitute 25% of the city's minority population, the group received 3% of M/WBE spending. 

City Comptroller Scott Stringer, also a mayoral candidate, said Asians have been left out.

"I am not satisfied — we have spent more than $1.5 billion between March and August 2020 on COVID-related expenses," he said. "Only $43 million went directly to Asian Americans and that is simply not enough, it's not adequate. It's 3% — that's a drop in the bucket."

Then again, in November, City Hall's Small Business Administration rolled out a pandemic loan program designed to help small businesses survive. Yet it excluded the ZIP code covering most of Chinatown, which was the first neighborhood to be economically hit. Long before the work "lockdown" was uttered during the pandemic, foot traffic, tourists vanished.

A City Hall spokesperson told FOX 5 NY that Chinatown was excluded because its ZIP code includes affluent neighborhoods, such as Soho and Tribeca, and that meetings are underway to find a way to include Chinatown in the loan program. 

Chinatown's pandemic crisis continues

Regarding the M/WBE program, City Hall said in a statement, "The Taskforce is comprised of City agency leaders, which includes Asian American leaders within the administration" and is meeting with leaders in the Asian American community to "address their concerns." 

When asked about his attempt to kill the entrance exams for specialized high schools, de Blasio said, "I've said before, I want to say it again, I apologize to members of the New York City Asian American community who felt that the specialized high school vision was meant to exclude them. It was not."

The issue was still on the mayor's mind when, the next day, he appeared as a guest on Hot 97's Ebro in the Morning radio program.

"There was a question, the question from a journalist, very heartfelt — he said a lot of Asian parents felt offended when I tried to change specialized high school admissions," de Blasio said. "And I said, I have come to realize that I sent the wrong message to those parents and I apologize for that because a lot of immigrants, hard-working people struggling to get their kid an education, and they thought I was trying to take something away from them, which is not what I wanted to do."

Still, some do not see a misinterpretation but instead see a fundamental lack of understanding for a community they say just hasn't been on the mayor's radar the past seven years.

"I don't think the mayor, there's any malice towards the Asian American community. I think it's mostly out of ignorance or lack of attention," Liu said. "But for that to persist for so long, it starts to feel malicious to Asian Americans. Asian Americans want the same opportunities afforded to everyone else."

Leaders in the Asian American community who spoke to FOX 5 NY for this report make clear that the inequities facing Asian Americans — whether they are from East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or Southeast Asia — are in no way the same as what Black or Latino Americans experience. One source even recited a list of cases that included George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner, making a point there's a pattern that generally has not involved Asians.

What they do say, however, is that Asian Americans face a unique form of discrimination, injustice, and hardships. And want a city that doesn't have to be reminded they exist. A city where they're not an invisible minority but become New Yorkers who are clearly on the mind of its mayor, its City Hall, and local government.