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Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19
Violence against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants has surged in response to COVID-19. Anti-Chinese rhetoric and racist misinformation spews from the top leaders of the U.S. as Asian communities are vilified as scapegoats for Trump’s “Chinese virus.” Racial health inequities, leading to disproportionate deaths in communities of color, intensify with each passing day. All of this is occurring amid a backdrop of pre-existing structurally racist policies fueling and deepening public health crises, including the state-sanctioned police violence which continues to terrorize and Black lives every day, with the recent examples being the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
Several articles by Asian American writers have thoughtfully detailed the history of anti-Asian racism in the U.S., and others have come forward with stories of what happens when that history invades their present. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang wrote about his experience and misguided search for solutions via respectability politics in his now widely criticized op-ed. Actor John Cho experienced racism as part of his daily life growing up, but through success acquired a sense of “raceless-ness” before COVID-19 brought explicit verbal and physical violence back to the surface. For some Asian Americans, the coronavirus pandemic may have ushered in their first experiences of hearing hateful anti-Asian slurs, or feeling deeply traumatized by an atmosphere of palpable racial hostility. A whirlwind of pain, fury and fear is blowing through Asian American communities, and many are expressing a deep sense of shock that this is happening.
At the same time, Black journalists and other writers have shared stories highlighting the systemic inequities that COVID-19 lays bare. The virus disproportionately impacts Black, Brown and Indigenous communities for a multitude of structural reasons, namely the institutional racism embedded in our health care system, discriminatory housing, and labor and marketing policies, among countless other factors rooted in historical injustice.
Both perspectives are dedicated to denouncing racism, yet they stop short of a unifying message that links our oppression. Few articles from an Asian-American point of view, for example, focus their outrage on COVID-19’s impact in other communities of color, or on the pre-existing, everyday racism that laid the very foundation for today’s inequities. Why do these two streams of discourse, criticizing different facets of the same problem, feel alienated from each other, and reluctant to cross racial lines? Why is there a disconnect between recognizing that a coronavirus-fueled violent attack against an Asian family and state violence against Black and Latinx families are part of the same system of oppression?
Asians can and should take time to grieve and process the trauma of what we’re experiencing. But it’s also time to push our collective racial consciousness forward, past insular self-awareness and toward cross-racial solidarity. We need to contextualize this current moment as part of the larger story of American racial oppression. The tactics used against us today are familiar ones, wielded throughout history against people from all racial backgrounds.
The idea of Chinese people as disease vectors or as perpetually foreign is not new; it’s just a modern example of a long history of pathologizing communities of color. HIV/AIDS and Ebola have been racialized and used to enact discriminatory policies toward Black and Brown people. Anti-immigrant rhetoric continues to be weaponized against Latinx farmworkers even as they work during this pandemic to feed our nation. As Asian Americans, we need to clearly recognize and set our targets on the common enemy: white supremacy.
In a much-appreciated display of racial solidarity, the NAACP released an early statement denouncing anti-Asian racism in the time of COVID-19. It is reminiscent of Frederick Douglass’s act of solidarity in denouncing the Chinese Exclusion Act, stating, “I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.” Likewise, we, as Asian Americans, have every impetus and responsibility to support Black, Brown and Indigenous people every day.
In comparison, we have a lot of work to do in examining our complex relationship and occasional complicity with white supremacy in the U.S. Once in a while in U.S. history, Asian Americans gain seemingly praising moments of acceptance, but make no mistake, these moments are temporary, conditional and strategic — just white America playing by the age-old saying of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” most famously evidenced by the creation of the “model minority” myth in the 1960s. To this day, this harmful myth, borne out of anti-Black racism and strategic insincere flattery of Asian Americans, remains an all-too-effective wedge to divide communities of color. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how hard Asian Americans strive to perform white excellence or “prove our American-ness.” It doesn’t matter how many Oscars Parasite wins or how much people enjoy K-pop. It’s clear to us now — it’s time to let go of the fragile protection of white adjacency. It’s time to take charge of our own narrative and grab hold of our own platform in the fight against racism.
First, we need to own up to the consequences of having accepted and encouraged racism for our own benefit. For staying quiet when others have suffered; for speaking out only when it got personal. For buying into the model minority myth and not challenging our own deep-seated racism. We need to unpack what it means that Tou Thao, a Hmong-American man, participated in the police murder of George Floyd and is complicit in perpetuating a policing culture characterized by excessive use of force. We need to acknowledge and interrogate the ways in which our positions can make us vulnerable to acceptance and complicity in white heteropatriarchy. We need to examine the complexity of how our diverse intersectional experiences vary not just between Asians and other people of color, but also within our “Asian American” label, given the truly vast cultural diversity and wide socioeconomic inequities that exist between Asian subgroups.
We need to interrogate our relative privilege, then leverage it for the good of all people of color. We need to build on the work of those who fought before us and continue amplifying the lessons learned from successful historic movements coordinated with other communities of color, such as the United Farm Workers Union, Asians4BlackLives and many others. Multiple Asian American organizations have released statements calling for Asian solidarity with Black Americans in response to recent and past police violence. Powerful statements from the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), National Asian and Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), Asian American Feminist Collective, and many other advocacy groups have channeled lessons from past anti-racist leaders like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs, sending strong messages of solidarity standing up for Black lives now and always.
We need to actively organize and collectively refuse to uphold white supremacy in our institutions and in our economic and social systems built on racialized capitalism. By connecting anti-Asian violence to the other types of racism exacerbated by COVID-19, including the public health emergency that is racist police violence, we have the opportunity to help strengthen all communities through solidarity while centering those most marginalized.
Pre-existing policies that cause racial inequity have all continued, even accelerated, through this pandemic. Those in political power are trying to look like heroes, promising swift action to protect all people in this country — while simultaneously slashing Medicaid programs, continuing immigration raids, withholding support to Indigenous communities, rolling back environmental regulations and waiving affirmative action obligations in federal coronavirus relief contracts. Who is going to suffer the most from environmental racism, from being imprisoned and detained, from living in a food desert? Policies that uphold racialized capitalism and white supremacy have not only continued, but in many cases, have been strengthened during this time.
In a post-pandemic world, let us not harken back to a false sense of comfort or a “return to normalcy.” Normalcy was intentionally built on centuries of racist policies intended to harm and divide communities of color. Instead, let’s innovate, reimagine and organize toward a new normal for the future: one dedicated to dismantling systemic oppression and striving for collective liberation.
Want to help? If you have the financial ability to contribute funds, please donate to George Floyd’s family’s memorial funds, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL) which organizes in the Twin Cities area, Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective and National Bail Out.
The ideas expressed in this article are personal perspectives and do not represent the views of the institutions with which the authors are affiliated.
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