People hold signs during the Rise up Against Asian Hate rally in New York City on February 27.

The history of attacks against Asian Americans is complicated. Addressing it will be, too

Updated 7:49 AM ET, Thu March 4, 2021

(CNN)The quote has been ringing in Jose Antonio Vargas' ears ever since he came across it.

"Nobody came. Nobody helped. Nobody made a video."
They were the words of Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino American who on February 3 was slashed across the face on the New York City subway. He was describing his experience to journalists at the Washington Post and would later echo the same sentiment to city leaders during a recent rally protesting violence against Asian Americans.
For Vargas, Quintana's remarks underscored how he feels Asian Americans have long been seen in the US: as "the invisible within the invisibles."
Demonstrators hold signs at rally to protest violence against Asian Americans on February 20 in New York City.
Despite being the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the country, despite consisting of 20 million people with roots in more than 20 countries, the racism, discrimination and disparities experienced by many Asian Americans are often overlooked, he said. Now, as a string of high-profile attacks has made more people pay attention, that's starting to change.
"It's been really quite stunning to witness 'mainstream America' wake up to this invisibility," said Vargas, a journalist whose organization Define American seeks to humanize immigrants through storytelling.
Wider recognition of the racism Asian Americans have been facing since the start of the pandemic is a critical step, advocates and experts say. But this moment has also prompted some to consider another question: What is the best path forward?

Asian Americans occupy a unique spot in the racial hierarchy

To understand the current problem, it's important to acknowledge the unique position that Asian Americans occupy in the United States' racial hierarchy.
"From the moment that the first Chinese arrived in the 1850s until today, Asian Americans have been considered not White but also considered not Black," says Claire Jean Kim, a professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine.
In many ways, that status has worked to their advantage, Kim said.
Asian Americans haven't experienced the same degree of historical injustices that Black Americans have, meaning they also haven't faced the same structural barriers and inequities. On the whole, Asian Americans earn more and are more likely to have college degrees than other racial groups -- though a closer look at the data yields a more nuanced picture.
And while it's true that Asian Americans aren't as visible in politics and popular culture, their overall lack of visibility has shielded them from the kind of scrutiny and suspicion that has made their Black, Latino and Native counterparts more likely to die at the hands of police violence, Kim said.

That's made them a target during times of crisis

Still, the discrimination and hate Asian Americans have experienced throughout history is very real. Often perceived as foreigners, Asian Americans have been systematically targeted during periods of tension or crisis -- a pattern that's being repeated again today.
In the late 1800s, Chinese laborers were scapegoated for a declining economy and banned from immigrating to the US. During World War II, Japanese Americans were painted as disloyal and rounded up into concentration camps.
In the 1980s, a Chinese American named Vincent Chin was mistaken as Japanese and beaten to death by two White men who blamed Japan for the loss of auto jobs.
After 9/11, South Asians were among those swept up in a wave of Islamophobia.
And since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, countless Asian Americans have been coughed on, spat at, harassed and attacked.
A demonstrator takes part in a rally on February 20 to raise awareness of violence against Asian Americans near Chinatown in Los Angeles.
Tung Nguyen, chair of AAPI Progressive Action and director of the Asian American Research Center on Health, says Asian Americans "suffer from the racism of being made invisible."
He sees the invisibility of Asian Americans everywhere.
It's in the "model minority" myth, through which the successes of a relative few obscure the stark inequalities felt by other subgroups.
It's in the aggregated collection of data, which masks health disparities and justifies the lack of investment in certain communities.
It's in the challenges to language access, which prevent many Asian Americans from accessing resources in their native tongues.
Those notions, which suggest that Asian Americans are outsiders who don't face disadvantages, make it possible for them to be seen as acceptable targets -- and contribute to the spate of violence seen over the past year, Nguyen said.
"It's easier to hurt someone when they're invisible," he said. "Our invisibility is all over the place."

The younger generation is no longer willing to stay silent

Despite those feelings of invisibility, or perhaps because of them, the recent high-profile attacks against Asian Americans have generated a level of mainstream attention that feels different.
Multiracial coalitions have come together to denounce the violence. Actors and athletes have delivered impassioned responses. Mainstream media outlets have published numerous stories. California has allocated more than a million dollars to help track incidents of discrimination and hate, while New York City announced a new push to combat the issue.