The history of attacks against Asian Americans is complicated. Addressing it will be, too
Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT) 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."
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 immi