A demonstrator in New York holds up a photo of Christina Yuna Lee during a February 14 rally protesting violence against Asian Americans.
CNN  — 

What hit Hong Lee so hard about the killing of Christina Yuna Lee was how easily it could have been her.

Late one night in February, Christina took a car back to her New York Chinatown apartment, where a man followed her up six flights of stairs and forced himself into her home. She cried out desperately for help, but before anyone could reach her, she was stabbed dozens of times to her death.

Christina was an Asian American woman around Hong’s age. They shared a mutual friend. And Hong, too, had an experience that left her afraid for her life – a memory that has been fresh on her mind lately given the string of Asian American women who have been killed in recent weeks.

Michelle Go was pushed to her death on the New York City subway tracks. GuiYing Ma died from her injuries after being struck repeatedly in the head with a rock last year in Queens. Julia Li was killed while driving in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mary Ye, a spa worker in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was shot and killed during an attempted robbery. Fang Sihui, a spa owner in the same city, was killed under similar circumstances just three weeks earlier. All the while, the trauma from last year’s Atlanta spa shootings still felt raw.

Hong Lee became an advocate for victims of anti-Asian violence after her own experience with racism.

“It’s just odd to me that all these attacks are happening all at once,” Hong said.

The brutality and seeming frequency of these high-profile incidents have Hong and other Asian American women on edge. But making sense of the tragedies has proved especially difficult.

The victims have been from various class backgrounds – attacked on streets and subway platforms, at homes and workplaces. The perpetrators have been White, Black and Hispanic – their actions sometimes without expressing obvious anti-Asian bias. Meanwhile, rates of homicides and other violent crimes increased last year in cities nationwide.

As ​74% of Asian American and Pacific Islander women report having personally experienced racism or discrimination in the past year, community members are pushing leaders to do more to address public safety. But without a clear, identifiable pattern to the attacks, advocates, elected officials and citizens are divided about the root of the problem – and what’s needed to solve it.

Asian American women face a distinct threat

In August 2020, Hong was standing in line at a Los Angeles restaurant when she says a man handed her a business card and asked her to have lunch with him. When she politely declined, she said he snatched his card back and yelled at her to “go back to f**king Asia.” He proceeded to hurl profane and derogatory insults at her for the next several minutes. Effectively backed into a corner, Hong felt there was little she could do besides film the encounter while she waited for police to arrive.

“I honestly was preparing for the worst case scenario,” she said. “I thought, ‘If I walk out of this restaurant, what if he follows me? What if I get raped? What if I get murdered? What if he assaults me?’”

From the 19th century Page Act, which depicted the majority of Chinese women in the US as sex workers, to US military occupations in Asia to pop culture touchstones such as “Full Metal Jacket,” Sung Yeon Choimorrow notes that Asian women in the United States have long been stereotyped as sexual objects or as being submissive – making them especially vulnerable to harassment and violence.

This sign was seen at a March 19, 2021, vigil for victims of the Atlanta spa shooting in New York.

Racism and sexism against Asian American women intensified with the start of the pandemic as the community was scapegoated, said Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. With then-President Donald Trump referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” or “kung flu,” it seemed to her that others felt emboldened to act on anti-Asian sentiments.

She recalls how, early on in the pandemic, a man chased her down her neighborhood while she was on a walk with her young daughter. “Go back home with your China virus,” she remembers him yelling.

But while the pandemic might have heightened the violence and harassment Asian American women face, the underlying issue has always been there, according to Choimorrow.

“(There are) all sorts of crazy assumptions people make about how Asian women are docile and submissive and don’t stand up for ourselves or think for ourselves,” she said. “I think that makes us very easy targets.”

The scope of violence is hard to capture

It’s difficult to disentangle the racialized misogyny that Asian American women in particular face from the racism that has intensified for Asian Americans overall since the pandemic began. But two years later, Asian American women are still reporting incidents of violence and harassment.

Police released surveillance footage Monday capturing an incident from last week, in which a woman in New York was shown being punched dozens of times in the head and face and stomped on seven times by a man who had allegedly called her an “Asian b*tch.” The continuing reports are a testament to how persistent racism and sexism against Asian American women is, said Connie Chung Joe.

“That was just the sparkplug that ignited so much of this hatred,” said Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, referring to the pandemic. “What’s kept it sustained is deep-seated racism and gender violence and misogyny.”

A police officer in New York's Chinatown hands out leaflets with information on how to report on hate crimes on March 17, 2021.

Capturing the true extent of violence and harassment against Asian American women, however, has been complicated.

Statistics from advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate suggest that women are disproportionately affected in a surge of anti-Asian hate incidents, but the organization’s data is crowdsourced, self-reported and not independently verified. Further, researchers started collecting it after the start of the pandemic (notably, to combat what they deemed incomplete data from police departments and government agencies), making it hard to assess the scope of anti-Asian hate in previous years.

Hate crime and bias incident data collected by law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, are notoriously unreliable and underreported. Still, the FBI’s annual hate crime statistics report found that attacks motivated by bias against Asians jumped 73% from 2019 to 2020 – the most recent year for which data is available. Researchers at Cal State San Bernardino found that hate crimes against Asians reported to police in 24 of the nation’s largest cities and counties were up 189% in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. While those numbers don’t disaggregate hate crimes against Asian American women, findings from community groups are noteworthy.

A crowd gathers in New York at a vigil for Michelle Go, who was killed in January after being pushed in front of an oncoming subway train.

“It’s notable that women are reporting (more hate incidents than men),” said Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “And we also have very detailed stories about what is happening to them.”

When police arrived at the restaurant where Hong had been harassed, she said an officer told her encounters like the one she experienced happen all the time. She said they informed her the incident wasn’t a crime, so nothing could be done.

Hong’s experience underscored how law enforcement can be ill-equipped to respond to incidents that might not rise to the level of an arrest or prosecution. When officers dismiss such reports instead of recording them as hate incidents, victims might be less likely to turn to the police in the future, said Joe.

Hong struggled with whether to go public about the harassment. Part of her wanted to forget the whole thing. But reports of anti-Asian racism seemed to be rising, so she posted the footage to social media to raise awareness.

Soon after she gave a local TV interview, Hong said another woman came forward saying she had a similar encounter with the same man. Several other victims followed with their own stories, LAPD Detective Orlando Martinez confirmed to CNN. And in the meantime, Hong said the police department reached out to apologize and document her experience as a hate incident.

The attacks lack a clear pattern

Recent attacks on Asian American women have raised some big questions: What factors led to the violence and how could they have been prevented?

Answering those questions, though, has been challenging because there isn’t an obvious pattern to the attacks, beyond the race and gender of the victims. Some lack a clear motive.

In the high-profile cases of Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go, authorities have said there wasn’t evidence to suggest that the crimes were motivated by racism. (New York City Mayor Eric Adams later criticized police for being too quick to rule out that possibility, and the heads of the New York Police Department Special Victims Division and Hate Crime Task Force were soon reassigned as part of what WABC reported was a routine reshuffling.)

Commuters wait for a train at the Times Square subway station days after Michelle Go was pushed from a subway platform there and killed.

Neither of the suspects were reported to have used racial epithets, nor did they appear to have documented histories of anti-Asian bias. In the absence of such indicators, the conversation turned to the backgrounds of the suspects.

Assamad Nash, the man accused of killing Christina Yuna Lee, was homeless and facing other criminal charges. Martial Simon, the man accused of kil