Coughing is now a doubly serious concern for Asian Americans. Like everyone else, we’re afraid of contracting the coronavirus. As a racial group, we have an additional fear: being profiled as disease-carriers and being maliciously coughed at.
After news of the coronavirus broke in January, Asian Americans almost immediately experienced racial taunts on school campuses, shunning on public transit and cyber-bullying on social media. When President Trump insisted on labeling the coronavirus as the "Chinese virus” in early March, these attacks became more virulent and common.
The FBI now warns of an increase of hate crimes against Asian Americans, but we’ve already experienced a surge. Since the Stop-AAPI-Hate website, a project of the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action, launched on March 19 to track anti-Asian harassment, it has received more than 1,000 reports from people in 32 states detailing verbal abuse, denial of services, discrimination on the job or physical assaults.
Several people have reported others coughing at them, including this frightening incident: “A white man on open sidewalk approached and stepped directly in front of me and coughed in extremely exaggerated manner in my face — loudly, mouth wide open, about 2 feet from my face, said 'take my virus.'"
In Texas, the FBI is investigating the stabbing of a father and two children from Burma by an assailant who blamed them for the pandemic. This case harks back to the 1982 murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin, whose killers believed he was Japanese and responsible for the decline of the American auto industry.
Sadly, this kind of racist resentment is a recurring pattern in American history, particularly during health crises or in wartime.
When the bubonic plague arrived in 1900, the San Francisco Health Department quarantined that city’s Chinatown with barbed wire and ropes. While white citizens were allowed to leave, 30,000 Chinese were segregated and confined. During World War II, fear and racist hysteria led to the unconstitutional relocation and imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.
The current vilification of Asian Americans is reminiscent of the scapegoating of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians after 9/11. Hate crimes against Muslim Americans surged in 2001 and remained elevated above pre-9/11 levels years later. Ethno-religious groups, like Sikhs from India, also suffered attacks and discrimination after 9/11.
Immediately after 9/11, President Bush denounced those who intimidated Muslims and called on the nation to treat this American community with respect. In contrast, Trump repeatedly used the term the “Chinese virus” despite warnings that this would incite racist threats against Asian Americans. His tepid retreat on that rhetoric last week did little to stem the harm. The damage is done.
Republicans in Congress continue to blame China as the source of the virus, rather than focusing on how to control the spread of Covid-19. Trump’s language, along with media coverage of his remarks, have framed how Americans view Chinese people, and correspondingly, Asian Americans. Even the face mask has become racialized, with some Asian Americans fearing that wearing one in public would draw attention and make them targets for physical attacks.
American history repeats itself in another way. Asians in the U.S. have always fought the discrimination they faced. Chinese Americans filed lawsuits against the Chinese Exclusion Act and engaged in mass resistance to unjust government policies. Japanese Americans won reparations for their wartime incarceration. Muslim Americans are gaining political power and have run for office in record numbers, with two recently elected to Congress.
Last week, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) introduced a resolution calling on all public officials to condemn anti-Asian bias and on federal law enforcement officials to collect data to document and investigate hate crimes tied to COVID-19.
State leaders like Gov. Gavin Newsom should form a multi-agency task force to coordinate efforts to combat racial bias spurred by the pandemic. They should notify stores to provide safe access to their goods and warn employers about workplace discrimination. And schools and colleges need to provide culturally competent mental health services to Asian American students and other affected communities.
This pandemic requires us to stop the spread of both COVID-19 and racial hatred. Asian Americans need allies who will intervene when they see racial profiling happening. We need to learn from American history and have the courage and leadership to counteract fear and anxiety in this time of crisis.
Russell Jeung is chair of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. Manjusha P. Kulkarni is executive director of Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council. Cynthia Choi is executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.