Hate Is A Virus: How Can We Prevent Anti-Asian Xenophobia and Discrimination during the COVID-19 Pandemic?

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Historical Context:

Chinese Exclusion Act (1882):

An 1870 political cartoon depicts a “Chinese Wall” around the United States preventing immigrants from entering (Nast).

In the mid-nineteenth century, anti-Asian racism first appeared in the United States with an increase of Chinese immigrants arriving as laborers in the United States. Driven by the promise of gold in California, Chinese immigrants flocked to the West Coast (Wellborn 50). However, as the number of Chinese immigrants increased, so did anti-Asian prejudice, since employers often preferred hiring Asian immigrants who were willing to work for lower wages (Wellborn 50). Anti-Asian sentiment grew as white laborers channeled their xenophobia and anger around job competition onto Asians, creating the concept of “Yellow Peril”, the idea that Asian immigrants would “invade” America, steal American jobs, and “disrupt” Western society (Asian Immigration: The ‘Yellow Peril’). Legislators also propagated the idea of “Yellow Peril” by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prevented Chinese immigrants already in the United States from gaining citizenship and more immigrants from entering the United States.

Wong Chin Foo, one of the first naturalized Chinese immigrants, firmly believed ethnicity should not determine immigration status, and testified in congress against the renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1892. When the Chinese Exclusion Act was eventually repealed in 1942, it to remove “an unfortunate barrier between allies” during World War II (Roosevelt), instead of a realization it was unjust. Unfortunately, the same year President Roosevelt repealed an anti-Asian legislation, he also began a new era of anti-Asian discrimination with Japanese-American internment.

Japanese-American Internment Camps (1942):

Dr. Seuss Comic
A 1942 political comic mirrors people’s perspectives of the time, depicting racist caricatures of Japanese-Americans carrying explosives, which suggests they are preparing to attack the mainland on Japan’s orders (Seuss).

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in World War II, American society associated, even blamed, Japanese-Americans for the attack. The federal government supported this narrative and suspected Japanese-Americans of foreign espionage, despite having little evidence. In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (United States), which was used to imprison over 120,000 people of Japanese descent in camps, ostensibly to “protect [America] against espionage or sabotage”(Aiken 60). While the United States was also at war with the other axis powers, Germany and Italy, the majority of people selectively incarcerated in internment camps were of Japanese descent.

The Japanese-American Citizen League (JACL) “urged their people to cooperate with the government’s plans for mass imprisonment”, in order to better prove their loyalty to the United States. However, some Japanese-Americans challenged the Executive Order, against the JACL’s wishes (Spickard 148). In Korematsu v. The United States, Fred Korematsu argued it was unconstitutional to imprison people without a fair trial and due process of law, but in 1944, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the Executive Order, maintaining its constitutionality, despite only commenting on the validity of excluding Japanese-Americans from military zones, not the actual internment camps (Aiken 62). As the war came to a close in 1945, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Ex parte Endo that citizens “acknowledged by the government to be loyal to the United States”(Aiken 62) should not be detained, therefore declaring Japanese-American internment camps unconstitutional.

Infographic made by Gabrielle (Works Cited)

Current Day Problem:

In late 2019, a novel coronavirus case was reported in Wuhan, China, which spread globally over the following months, killing millions of people (“WHO Timeline – COVID-19”). Instead of criticizing the federal government that arguably failed to protect the American public from the virus, many people channelled their fear and anger towards Asian-Americans, blaming them for the spread of COVID-19. 

President Trump only worsened the situation by using racist rhetoric in tweets and press conferences, such as “kung flu” and “the Chinese virus”(Wise), deflecting the unchecked rise of COVID-19 in the United States onto China (Neuman). Following references to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus”, Twitter showed substantial increases in the use of Sinophobic slurs in late January 2020 (Chen). After Trump’s tweet, there was a significant increase in anti-Asian content associated with #chinesevirus (Hswen). It has proven much easier for the Trump Administration to blame an “enemy” of a different ethnicity than to acknowledge its own failure to mitigate the virus as it spread through America. By April 2020, 30% of Americans blamed Chinese/Chinese-Americans for the spreading virus (Strochlic).

 

Current Responses By Others:

Compassion in Oakland:

A group of volunteers with Compassion in Oakland! (Compassion in Oakland)

While instances of anti-Asian violence have happened all over the nation, attacks on elderly Asian-Americans have been especially prominent in the Bay Area. On March 9th, Pak Ho, a 75-year-old Chinese man, died from head injuries after he was violently pushed to the ground and robbed in Oakland (Lim). Less than two weeks later, Xiao Zhen Xie, a 75-year-old Chinese woman, was assaulted in San Francisco (Fortin). In response to the attacks, Oakland native Jacob Azevedo founded Compassion in Oakland, a volunteer organization that accompanies elderly Asian-Americans and other pedestrians in Chinatown safely to their destinations (“About Us”). While Compassion in Oakland is a helpful organization to aid vulnerable elderly Asian-Americans, it is focused on protecting the victims, rather than fixing the root problem. It would be more beneficial to change racist attitudes towards Asian-Americans, rather than preemptively prevent violence.

President Biden’s Statement:

President Biden released a statement in late January 2021 addressing the federal government’s role in “furthering [anti-Asian] xenophobic sentiments”, specifically through “references to the COVID-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin”, and also affirmed that his “administration condemns and denounces acts of racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against AAPI communities”. While Biden’s statement was inspiring considering the previous administration’s use of anti-Asian rhetoric, his action-steps were vague and included tentative phrases such as “consider issuing guidance” and “explore opportunities” (Biden).

COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act:

In contrast to Biden’s passive statement in January, there is a recent piece of legislation advancing through the Senate that aims to proactively address anti-Asian violence. On Wednesday, April 21st, the Senate is scheduled to vote on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill that “would create a new position at the Justice Department to expedite the review of hate crimes related to the coronavirus pandemic, expand public channels to report such crimes, and require the department to issue guidance to mitigate racially discriminatory language in describing the pandemic” (Edmondson). However, this bill is still in the voting process, making it difficult to determine if it will make significant change.

My Response:

The Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese-American Internment camps, and even the present COVID-19 backlash, are all linked by a key theme: the alienation and scapegoating of Asian-Americans. In each instance, Asian-Americans are first “otherized” or alienated, making them easier to blame or discriminate against. Because of this, many of my responses to COVID-19 related anti-Asian racism below focus on preventing the alienation of Asian-Americans.

Infographic made by Gabrielle

Conclusion: 

Ultimately, Anti-Asian racism is a very complex issue that will require significant societal change to make improvement. While policy changes on a federal level are fundamental to the solution to Anti-Asian discrimination, social change will require the average individual to recognize it, step up, and contribute.

Feedback:

Thank you so much for visiting my page! I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions. Feel free to start a discussion in the comments.

  • What are your thoughts on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act? Do you think it will bring substantial change? Does it seem simply performative?  How  well do you think it might work in practice? (For more information check out this New York Times Article.)

 

  • Media representation is vital in painting an accurate portrait of Asian-Americans. What accurate portrayals of Asian-Americans have you seen in media? Have you seen any stereotypical portrayals? 

 

  • Have you observed or experienced any COVID-19 related anti-Asian discrimination? How did it make you feel? Have there been any instances of it in your community?

Works Cited: 

Here is my Works Cited.

1 Comments
Gabrielle_73

Gabrielle_73

Student at Head-Royce School, Oakland, CA USA.

1 comment

  1. Hi Gabby,
    Your project is so informative & relevant! You did such a good job of outlining past instances of oppression of Asian-Americans as well as the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a partially Asian-American person, your micro & macro solutions (especially redefining “American” and increasing Asian-American representation in the media) really resonated with me. Overall, amazing job!

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