The Pandemic Within the Pandemic: COVID-19 and Anti-Asian Racism
by Alana McDonough
Racism against Asian Americans has been an unfortunate part of our nation’s history going back to at least the 19th century, but the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the problem and caused a significant spike in Asian hate crimes throughout the country. One of the main reasons for this spike in violence and harassment over the past couple of years is that Asian Americans have been blamed for the pandemic, a view that was fueled by racist terminology by people in power who often referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus,” “Wuhan Virus” and the “Kung Flu.” This type of racist language, and the feelings behind it, has led to Asian Americans being spat on, verbally harassed and physically assaulted. For example, in March 2022, a 67-year-old Asian woman in New York was punched in the face more than 125 times, stomped on, spat on and called racial slurs by a man while she was entering her apartment building. Numerous studies have exposed the shocking rise in Asian hate crimes throughout the county, with a recent study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism showing a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes of 339% in 2021 compared to one year before. Hate crimes have impacted the Asian American community in significant ways – some are afraid to leave their homes or engage in normal everyday activities in public spaces, many more have experienced mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. For older generations, including my grandmother who was born in a Japanese internment camp during WWII, the rise in racist treatment against Asians brings back sad memories of feeling rejected and hated by their own country. While the statistics and stories of victims are heartbreaking, there are things we can do as a country to help combat racism and protect our Asian friends and loved ones.
Asian Americans have been subjected to racism in this country since at least the 19th century, sometimes at the hands of the government itself. When America first began accepting Asian immigrants, after a long period of only accepting white immigrants, citizens considered them a threat and referred to them as the “yellow peril.” When Asian immigration started to increase, groups began to spread racist propaganda about Asians saying they are unclean and untrustworthy. These views became so widespread that in 1882, President Chester Arthur signed into law The Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigrants from entering the country for 10 years and declared Chinese immigrant’s ineligible for naturalization. This was the first time – and so far, the only time – that the United States banned a specific ethnic group from immigrating to this country. The Chinese Exclusion Act was extended for 60 years before it was repealed in 1943. But the law that replaced it only allowed a quota of 105 Chinese immigrants a year.
Japanese Americans were also subjected to racism at the hands of the government. In February 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered anyone considered a national security threat to be sent to “relocation centers” located mostly in the interior United States. Over 100,000 Japanese Americans, most of them United States citizens, were rounded up by soldiers, forced to leave their homes and placed in internment camps. The government justification for this law was that Japanese people were national security threats and could conspire with Japan to attack Americans so they should be moved from the coastlines to the interior of the country where it would be more difficult to carry out another attack like Pearl Harbor. The camps had limited running water or plumbing, and the prisoners had to sleep in army barracks surrounded by barbed wire. Prisoners were told they would be shot if they tried to escape. My grandmother was born in a Japanese internment camp in Amache, Colorado. Her mother (my great-grandmother) was forced to leave her home in Los Angeles, California and could only bring what she could carry in one bag. She was kept in a filthy horse stall at the Santa Anita Racetrack for more than a week until being put on a train to Colorado. At the time my great-grandmother was imprisoned, her husband (my great-grandfather) was fighting in the U.S. Army in Europe and risking his life for this country. He was a member of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the most decorated in U.S. military history for its size and made up of almost entirely soldiers of Japanese ancestry. When my grandmother and great-grandmother were released after 4 years of imprisonment, they had no home, no belongings and no job opportunities – landlords didn’t want Japanese tenants and employers didn’t want Japanese workers. Even though the internment of the Japanese and the exclusion of the Chinese occurred many decades ago, the racist feelings that caused these actions are still present in this country. The treatment of Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic shows how deep these racist feelings run and how much still needs to be done to make this country safe and welcoming for the Asian community.
When it was first revealed in early 2020 that COVID-19 originated in China, it fueled racism toward Asian Americans in the United States and was used as a justification for verbal and physical attacks. In the early stages of the pandemic, people began to use derogatory terms for COVID-19 as a way of blaming the Asian community. President Trump frequently used the terms “Chinese virus,” “China virus” and “Kung Flu” during his press conferences and on social media platforms like Twitter. Once racist terms for the coronavirus were seen as acceptable, verbal and physical attacks on Asians soon followed. Research shows that anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339% in 2021 compared to the year before. And the number of anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 was 124% higher than in 2019, which is especially surprising because hate crimes decreased by 7% overall in the United States in 2020.
Examples of Asian hate crimes include the following: In February 2020, an Asian woman was assaulted on a New York subway and called a “diseased b****” while her attacker kicked and punched her. A few months later, in July 2020, an 89-year-old Chinese woman was slapped repeatedly in the face and set on fire by two men in Brooklyn. In November 2020, a Chinese shop owner in Washington D.C. was pepper-sprayed by a customer who shouted “Chinese!” and “Covid-19!” In March 2021, four teenage girls assaulted a 51-year old Asian woman with an umbrella on a bus in the Bronx and accused her of spreading the coronavirus; she needed multiple stiches in her head. In March 2021, a 68-year old Asian man was punched unconscious while riding the subway in NYC; witnesses said the attacker called the man a “mother******* Chinese” as he repeatedly hit him in the head. In March 2021, a Filipino woman in Los Gatos, California was shoved to the ground from behind and told to “go back to [expletive] China!” In February 2022, a man punched, shoved and elbowed seven Asian women over the course of one evening in Manhattan, one of whom was knocked unconscious. These are just a few examples of what the Asian community has faced over the past 2 years. The physical impacts of these crimes on victims are obvious but not many people know about the deep mental and behavioral impacts on the Asian community, including mental health struggles like depression and anxiety, sleep problems, isolating themselves from society, and no longer participating in activities in public spaces for fear of being attacked.
A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in April 2021 shows that 1/3 of Asians in this country feared being attacked based on their race. The Pew study also found that 40% of Asian Americans reported that other people were visibly uncomfortable being around them since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Personally, I have seen how my grandmother became afraid to go out in public places after a racist incident she suffered early in the pandemic. While visiting a doctor’s office, a man in the waiting room glared at my grandmother when she entered the room and made a comment to her about the “China virus.” Even though he did not physically attack her, the incident made her feel very embarrassed and afraid for her safety. There have been several times since then that we have gone to public places as a family and she has been nervous about people verbally or physically attacking her. When we visited New York City over winter break, she even wore a hat and sunglasses when we walked around so she could “look less Asian.”
Experiencing these types of encounters, and constantly fearing that you will experience these types of encounters when you leave your home, have significant impacts on mental health and general enjoyment of life. Dr. Justin Chen, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said “It makes everything feel unsafe . . .. You start to feel at any moment danger could happen. And that’s a huge detriment to quality of life.” According to one survey released in May 2021 and discussed in the Boston Globe, one in three Asian Americans in the country had significant symptoms of depression and anxiety, and one in four was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The study also found that Asians who experienced pandemic-related prejudice were three times more likely to have symptoms of PTSD compared with those who did not. According to a survey by the organization Stop AAPI Hate, 72% of Asian Americans who experienced pandemic-related prejudice felt that anti-Asian discrimination was a greater source of stress than the COVID-19 pandemic itself. Another study (called the National Anti-Asian American Racism Survey) conducted by psychology professors at Wheaton College found that Asian Americans who experienced some form of discrimination were more likely to suffer depression (155% increase), stress (94% increase), anxiety (93% increase) and physical symptoms (78% increase) than those who did not.
According to a July 2021 article by the American Psychological Association, a factor that makes mental health problems devastating for Asians in this country is that they are less likely to access mental health services than any other racial group. This is because of cultural views on therapy and prescription medication by older generations, which have historically been viewed as “undignified” or a sign of weakness. This makes Asians uncomfortable talking about mental health and unwilling to seek treatment. They also fear that seeking therapy will distract them from jobs or school. In addition, a lot of Asian Americans struggle to find therapists who speak their language or understand their cultural backgrounds.
As the Asian community continues to suffer racial discrimination and abuse on a daily basis, there are still many who either don’t believe it is really happening or who don’t believe that racist language contributes to violence and harassment. According to a poll by Leading Asian Americans to Unite to Change (LAAUNCH) in April 2021, 24% of white Americans don’t believe that anti-Asian racism is a problem that should be addressed. This poll also showed that 37% of white Americans say they are not aware of an increase in hate crimes and racism against Asian Americans over the past year, even after the reporting of numerous violent attacks on the news and the release of studies showing the significant rise in the number of hate crimes.
In addition, people have justified using racist terms like “China virus” and “Kung Flu” on the basis that the COVID-19 virus originated in China. It is true that other diseases in history have been named for the geographic locations they originated from. For example, the Spanish Flu, West Nile virus, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), Zika and Ebola were named for places they are thought to have come from. Scientists and scholars say this practice should be stopped because the names are often inaccurate and can lead to negative consequences for people from those places. Following President Trump’s March 16, 2020 Tweet referencing the “Chinese virus,” the number of COVID-19 Tweets with anti-Asian hashtags rose significantly, according to a study by UC San Francisco. Words can influence people’s viewpoints and behavior towards particular groups, and it is important that we don’t use racist terms for COVID-19, or for any future disease or virus. John Yang, the president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, has argued against using geographic terms to name viruses and diseases and said, “Yes, it is true that other terms were used in the past, but we all know that language evolves,” and that “just because something was used in the past doesn’t make it right.”
Even though the Asian American community has suffered a lot over the past few years, there is hope on the horizon and things we are doing as a society to help victims of anti-Asian attacks. For example, it appears that the stigma against mental health treatment may be changing and we can encourage Asian Americans to seek out help when they need it. Some mental professionals have reported that more and more Asians are seeking mental health assistance over the past year. An article in the New York Times suggests that the shooting of six Asian women in the Atlanta area in March 2021 was the final straw that convinced many Asians who were suffering to finally get help. One therapist, Satsuki Ina, has said that some older Japanese Americans have come to see her because the hate crimes brought back memories of the internment of the Japanese during World War II. Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital are working with Stop AAPI Hate to develop mental health resources specifically for Asian Americans who have experienced racist treatment. These resources will be culturally sensitive and utilize mental health professionals who speak the native languages of the victims.
Another way to help victims of anti-Asian hate is creating spaces where they can report hate incidents.
Organizations like Stop AAPI Hate and NAPABA (National Asian Pacific American Bar Association) encourage Asian Americans to report racial incidents and help connect them to culturally appropriate resources to help them with injuries or trauma. NAPABA has also launched a Hate Crimes Task Force that offers legal resources to victims free of charge. Studies have shown that when victims feel heard and feel safe to report incidents, they suffer less long-term trauma. Being able to safety report hate crimes is especially important for Asian Americans because they have traditionally been reluctant to contact law enforcement about racial incidents for a variety of reasons, including language/cultural barriers, distrust of police, or fear of repercussions for their immigration status if they aren’t U.S. citizens.
Maybe the most important way we can combat racism against Asian Americans is one of the easiest – learning about the contributions of the Asian community to our country and society. Learning about the accomplishments of Asian Americans can help people see us as belonging here and not deserving of hatred and violence. According to an April 2021 study by LAAUNCH, 42% of Americans can’t name a single famous Asian American. The second and third most common answers were Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee; only 2% of those surveyed named Vice President Kamala Harris. This study shows that more can be done to highlight the many Asian Americans who have achieved great things and made contributions to society. May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and would be a great time for people to learn more about who we are and the ways we have enriched this country.
Even though anti-Asian sentiment has been present in this country for many decades and has gotten worse with the COVID-19 pandemic, I am hopeful that things are starting to change. People are talking and writing about the problem of anti-Asian racism more than ever before and are dedicating new resources to helping victims recover and heal. Something that everyone can do, including school-age children, is to take a little time to learn about an Asian American person who has made contributions to our country. I am excited to learn more about Asian-American artists like the Chinese-Indonesian painter Gabrielle Widjaja, whose work I really admire. Even though this seems like a small thing to do, if enough people use the month of May to learn about an Asian-American that has contributed to society, maybe there will be less hate and more acceptance. I would love to be able to walk around a city with my grandmother and have her feel safe and confident.
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