To the ears of Asian Americans, the escalating crisis of the novel coronavirus in the United States is set against two horrible sounds.
One is the high-pitched wail of a mounting infection rate and an economy in free fall, as thousands more people are diagnosed every day and hundreds of thousands lose their jobs.
The other is the low drumbeat of anti-Asian racism. It’s a background noise growing louder, as President Donald Trump and many Republicans have tried to drown out critiques of their own bad decisions by refocusing blame on China and Chineseness.
This has had immediate, terrifying consequences for Asian Americans who could be perceived to be Chinese, and it’s a narrative that we will struggle to resist on our own. Though reactions to this scapegoating show how divorced Asian Americans have become from the solidarity we need – and why belief in our own exceptionalism was a trap.
Over the past two weeks, many Republicans pivoted to insist on the term “Chinese virus” at every opportunity. It was just the latest chapter in the Trump administration’s standoff with the Chinese government – an oppressive regime that does deserve criticism for its handling of the outbreak, whose officials have falsely suggested that the new coronavirus came from the United States. When confronted about his use of the term last week, Trump claimed that he was trying to be “accurate”: “It’s not racist at all, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why.” He finally recanted Tuesday, saying he’d no longer say “Chinese virus” – perhaps because China has been able to weaponize American xenophobia for its own ends. For Asian Americans, though, the damage is done.
The GOP knew that most Americans wouldn’t associate the word “Chinese” with the Chinese Communist Party. They just didn’t care, shrugging off the idea that linking an ethnicity to a deadly, economy-destroying pandemic would get people hurt. Within weeks of the first positive diagnosis of the coronavirus in Washington state on Jan. 21, there were reports of Asian Americans around the country being harassed, intimidated, and assaulted by people who assumed they were Chinese and blamed them, personally.
The changes that the coronavirus has wrought are so overwhelming, a photo of people standing close to each other already feels like a missive from another planet. So it’s easy to understand how this latest flare of bigotry could be seen in a vacuum: new era, new kind of racism. The only historical reference points that the media seem to use are those that involve Asians – Japanese internment, or late 19th century propaganda about “yellow peril.” I’ve even seen some of my fellow Asian Americans try to redirect the hatred, complaining that they’re being targeted despite not being Chinese, or that it’s stupid to be racist because South Korea and Taiwan have done such a good job at containing the virus.
This is a blinkered narrative. What is horrifying about coronavirus racism is not that it is new, or that it hits the “wrong” Asians. It is that what’s being targeted at Asian Americans – what the Trump administration has mindlessly enabled – is part of the ongoing story of American bigotry.
Asian Americans have sometimes struggled to understand our place within the wider landscape of race, bamboozled by the “model minority” myth pushed by white politicians. As the historian Ellen Wu has written, the idea that Chinese Americans in particular were high-achieving and compliant was exploited first to bolster an alliance with China during World War II, then spun to discredit the black civil rights movement. (A movement from which, ironically, all Asian Americans greatly benefited.) The model minority term is one of American white supremacy’s most successful campaigns, simultaneously driving a wedge between Asian Americans and other people of color and alienating us from our own right to dissent. What did we have to complain about, anyway?
Then there’s the term Asian American itself, a civil rights-inspired creation of the 1960s that has never managed to contain all the identities it was supposed to hold. A fourth-generation Chinese American shares little family history with a first-generation Cambodian immigrant – and the knowledge that many non-Asians don’t know or care about the difference can feel like an insult. We are an ethnically diffuse, low-voting group, wildly divided in economic class and too concentrated on the coasts to have any real impact on national elections. We are not, and have never been, a powerful united front. That’s part of why it’s so easy for Trump to call it the “Chinese virus,” wounding us all: Electorally, it won’t even hurt him.
That is, unless we use this moment to double down on solidarity. Asian Americans have often been accused, accurately, of not showing up for other people of color. We have shied away from taking responsibility for our complicity in systems of power. (Although some Asian Americans have also been fiercely progressive advocates for racial and economic justice, even beyond our own little corner.) As many writers and thinkers of color have pointed out, it feels almost unbearably lopsided that white Americans can be so mediocre at ally-ship, while the rest of us flagellate each other and ourselves for not caring enough, not doing enough. The temptation to opt out altogether is strong. This might feel especially true, as we struggle with a kind of solidarity that feels completely unintuitive: physical retreat.
That’s why it’s so important to keep reminding ourselves that coronavirus racism is far from unique. It’s the same kind of hate that erupted after 9/11, aimed at Muslims and South Asians; it’s the hate that black Americans have been enduring for centuries. Asian Americans’ fixation on Asian-specific racism elides the bigger story.
In November – about a month and a half before doctors in Wuhan first identified the virus – the FBI released a report from 2018 showing that hate crimes involving physical assault were at a 16-year high. Vandalism was down; violence was up. Black Americans, as usual, bore the brunt of most hate crimes. Notably, there was also a significant upswing in violence against Latinos, on the heels of Trump’s brutal rhetoric over undocumented immigrants and his obsession with the border. Experts stressed that the hate crime count was an imperfect record, since reporting and standards vary so much across the country. Nonetheless, the message seemed clear: Scapegoating works, and it works fast.
Now it’s Asian Americans’ turn. According to a representative from the organization Chinese for Affirmative Action, there were at least 300 news stories published around the country between the end of February and beginning of March about attacks against Asian Americans. Since then, a woman attacked a Korean college student in Manhattan, allegedly yanking her by the hair and punching her in the face while yelling, “Where’s your coronavirus mask, you Asian b—-!” Just a few subway stops away, a teenager kicked a 59-year-old Asian man to the ground screaming, “F— you, Chinese coronavirus!” A few days later, a man attacked a Burmese father and his two children with a knife while they were shopping at a Sam’s Club in West Texas. And those are only some of the most violent events. The reports of being yelled at, intimidated, or even spat at are legion. Some of the attackers also defy our assumptions of the lone, white race warrior: a few of the perpetrators are other people of color. What stronger proof do we need of our painful divisions?
On Monday, Trump tweeted, unconvincingly, “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States, and all around the world.” Needless to say, his is not the kind of “protection” we can believe in. As Asian Americans push back against what’s happening, I want to believe that other groups will show up for us, too – that they can trust we would show up for them. This is the perfect moment for Asian Americans to acknowledge our debts to other people of color, and show that we care just as much about anti-blackness, anti-brownness and ongoing colonialism as we do about what happens to people who look like us. We’ve never been alone in this; it’s time to stop acting like we are.
Coronavirus may be a new virus. But the hate it inflamed was there before, barely symptomatic and easily triggered. We should all assume that we’re already infected – and agree together that we’ll fight to eradicate it.
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Leung Coleman is a writer and a senior editor at the Nation.