Long before she was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential individuals, received the White House Champions of Change award from President Barack Obama, became the executive director of the AAPI Equity Alliance (AAPI Equity), or co-founded Stop AAPI Hate, Manjusha Kulkarni witnessed the fight against racism first-hand.
Her family immigrated from India to the U.S. in the late 1970s, following the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which urged highly skilled professionals to launch new lives in America.
Her father, a physician, helped set up the neonatal intensive care unit in Montgomery, Alabama; her mother, also a physician, was rejected for a job by a panel of all white men, who asked her why it was that foreigners came to the U.S. and took all their jobs.
”So, my parents chose to bring what would become a class-action lawsuit against not only the physicians in that hospital but against the University of Alabama’s residency program,” Kulkarni tells Daily Kos.
Her parents eventually reached a settlement with the help of an attorney on the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and it was this case that inspired her, and “seeing that laws could make a difference and could redress racial discrimination,” she says.
Kulkarni, 51, ended up working at Southern Poverty Law during a gap year between college and law school. During law school she spent summers working at the ACLU and MALDEF, eventually deciding to commit her life’s work to civil rights.
And her work at Stop AAPI Hate fights against anti-Asian and Pacific Islander discrimination daily.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the devastating Atlanta spa shooting, in its latest report, Stop AAPI Hate cites nearly 11,000 self-reported hate incidents experienced by Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
“It’s alarming to see these numbers stacking up because they are absolutely preventable,” Kulkarni says. “We urge state lawmakers to review and implement our policy recommendations and work with us to invest in all of our communities and stop anti-AAPI hate.”
Although Kulkarni says her work was showing progress until President Trump showed up, she added that it takes a concerted effort to fight against racism.
”COVID and Donald Trump together gave a platform for white supremacy to be more acceptable for everyday Americans,” Kulkarni says, adding that the Republican Party played a huge role when it issued a 57-page memo to the GOP candidates in 2020 on how to talk about COVID and blame China, as well as how to talk to reporters when they were called out for their racism.
“So this wasn’t just one crazy man with racist ideas. He had a whole host of folks,” Kulkarni says.
She says that if you look at the violence against the South Asian and American Asian community, you can’t ignore policies going back to 9/11, requiring 80,000+ Muslim men to be called for special registration and ending with 13,000 of them deported.
“How many of those men were found to be terrorists? None. Not a single one. I think what happens is you see that it becomes legitimized,” she says, adding that even Democratic President Joe Biden recently authorized an investigation into the Wuhan lab leak theory.
“Why are we giving that credence? We just fall into their hands and in the weaponry that they're using against our communities,” she says.
There was a 73% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 compared to 2019, the FBI reported and Daily Kos staff writer Aysha Qamar highlighted. “Due to misconceptions and misinformation about the virus, violence against members of the Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community continues to rise nationwide,” Qamar wrote in a post about at least 70 attacks on Asian women in the Bay Area. “Women and the elderly especially are more susceptible as bigots continue to target them.”
Kulkarni says it’s important to remember that upward of 90% of attacks on Asians are not crimes but hate incidents. It’s not that they shouldn’t be addressed, she says, but the nation needs comprehensive solutions—and policing is not the answer.
“Every AAPI woman is not going to have a police officer escort her around all day long. Nor do we want that. We don't want to live in a police state,” Kulkarni said. “We don't want to further mass incarcerate young African-American men. We need to look at those attacks as public health issues. We’re looking for long-term systemic change. Like the CDC director, Rochelle Walensky said, racism is one of the most serious threats to public health in America today. I would just love for more people to be in that fight with us because we need all hands on deck if we're going to turn this ship around.”
When asked how she stays optimistic amid everything that seems to be tearing at the fabric of our democracy, Kulkarni admits that she believes the country is falling into a state of authoritarian fascism. She doubles down to say that she also feels the nation has been living in an “apartheid state” in terms of how resources are allocated.
“You know, you look at one set of public schools and they're great and the other one doesn't have running toilets,” she says. “I still believe in some of the ideals, even though some of the forefathers and foremothers didn't anticipate or want people like me in the U.S.”
“America can be its best self, but it's going to take every one of us and it's also going to take acknowledging the systems. It's not like anybody can just get up and do this. The system recognizes certain people with education and privilege, with certain types of skin privilege, gender, et cetera. But, I am still hopeful. Otherwise, I couldn’t do this work, of course,” Kulkarni says.
If you have experienced or witnessed an act of hate toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, you can CLICK HERE to report or learn more.
The Good Fight is a series spotlighting progressive activists around the nation battling injustice in communities that are typically underserved and brutalized by a system that overlooks them.