In a good-hearted, and highly symbolic action, three Asian-American nonprofits in Orange County, California donated much-needed face masks, gloves, and other protective equipment to the first responders of the county. Noting the recent attacks and animosity towards Asian Americans in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Howard Li of the Chinese American CPA Association, one of the donors, said, “Our enemy is the virus, not the Chinese. It’s time to put aside our differences, and we will succeed.”
Following up, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, in a Washington Post op-ed, urged his fellow Asian Americans to combat the racism they are experiencing with patriotism and demonstrations of just how American they are, thus loading yet one more burden of dealing with the issue of racism upon those who are its targets.
Andrew Yang, of course, understands this solution as inadequate. He notes in his op-ed that Japanese Americans joined the armed forces in large numbers during World War II. But it did not stop this nation from sending Japanese Americans to internment camps because of their ethnic origin. Patriotism only goes so far when fear and racism collude to make the kind of toxic mix Steve Dubb describes in “Don’t Just Flatten the Curve; Break the Pattern.” It is, then, the responsibility of each and every one of us to do as much as the targets of racism are forced to do.
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In this case, blaming the coronavirus on the Chinese started at the very top with Trump’s references to the “Chinese virus.” The FBI expects the incidents of hate crimes against Asian Americans to continue to grow as we weather the coronavirus. This is similar to what happened with Muslim Americans after 9/11. And then, too, Muslim Americans were asked to show how devoted they were to this country with little impact on the vitriol showed them by racists. Today, the vitriol is fueled by an administration and political leaders who seem to take pleasure in publicly blaming China for this pandemic. This can only further fuel the racism of those looking for someone to blame.
What would really help to curb this? Perhaps following the guidelines of the World Health Organization (to whom the Trump Administration has just cut US funding), which cautions against associating the names of any illness with a region or location because it could cause stigmatization. It may be too late for this, since Trump has reveled in calling this the “Chinese,” or “Asian,” or “Wuhan” virus. In light of this, his follow-up statements that we need to protect our Asian American citizens tend to ring hollow.
Writing for Vox, Li Zhou indicates that others with a public platform—lawmakers, civic leaders, and others of note—need to directly address this ongoing prejudice. She includes Yang in this group, who should be willing to call out and condemn verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans. This week, several members of the House of Representatives and the Senate introduced a resolution that calls on law enforcement to hold people accountable for the hate crimes they commit.
Perhaps what is most concerning in all of this is the clarity of how much discrimination, racism, and inequity is present in this nation. The pandemic has brought this out in many ways—not just in the racist blaming of Asian Americans for the virus, but in the systemic racism manifest in the numbers of people of color who are falling ill and dying of this disease in comparison to white populations. The Asian nonprofits in Orange County, California, are right to support their first responders. But any focus on super-patriotism as a means of deflecting racism is off track. No one should expect the Asian American community to shoulder the burden of confronting the prejudice and hate of racism as just their problem. As Li Zhou writes, “There’s nothing to be gained in denying the reality that Asian Americans, many immigrant groups, and people of color are still treated differently by those who hold biases or find it advantageous to inflame existing disparities.” Being patriotic will not change racists. Perhaps making racism unacceptable will.—Carole Levine