In April, a Brooklyn woman suffered second-degree burns after a man attacked her while she was taking out her trash. Investigated as a possible hate crime, it is one of many incidents challenging the safety of Asian Americans during the COVID-19 epidemic. In March, the FBI warned that hate crimes against Asian Americans were likely to increase based on the assumption that the “US public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.”
Not only are Asian Americans harassed in grocery stores and on public transportation, racist confrontations frequently involve violence. One Texas family was targeted and stabbed at a restaurant by a man who claimed that his motive was to stop the family from spreading COVID-19. American University junior, Xufan Hu, reflected on his friend's experience saying, “one of my friends, she went into the supermarket with a mask, and when she wanted to go back, she called an Uber car. When the driver saw her wearing a mask, he said he wouldn’t let her in his car and drove away.”
American University senior, Matthew Lieberman, explained that he experienced harassment in New York due to his Korean descent. “During our spring break I was taking the One train and had this one guy come up to me. He was screaming at me and threatened to kill me,” Lieberman said. While Lieberman was on his way home, a white woman harassed him for not wearing a mask, which were in high demand in New York at the time. When he asked why she was only harassing him and not the other passengers she said, “Your people are the ones coming to this country and spreading everything. I hate the Chinese.”
Lieberman also faced harassment at his town grocery store. “I was at the grocery store, and this white girl, seven years old, just pointed at me and was staring. Then she looked up at her mom and was like, ‘Mommy, is he one of those people who are spreading this disease?’ and she just went like “Yes, sweetie, the Chinese people come to this country and spread it, they eat all those nasty animals and infect the world. Never trust the Chinese.” The woman then picked up her child and ran out of the store.
People in Wuhan, China, are also experiencing discrimination. Wuhan residents have been shunned by hotels and neighbors in the face of unwavering stigma. Those who could not return to Wuhan because of the lockdown reported being rejected from housing in mainland China.
Hu explained that, “In main China, people have negative opinions about people from Wuhan.” Hu also said that international students who returned to China also face discrimination.
“They potentially have the virus, so they have been discriminated against. People in China think they might have the virus and think ‘why are you bringing this to us?’” Hu said. Whether international students decide to stay in the U.S. or go back, they face discrimination. As hate crimes increase due to fear regarding COVID-19, one is reminded of the history of discrimination against Asian Americans in the United States.
There is a historical pattern of fear surrounding Asian Americans and Asian immigrants in the United States. Immigration quotas, marriage laws, segregated education, and Alien Land Law restrictions in 1913 and 1920 directly affected the daily lives of Asian Americans in California and around the U.S. In 1906, San Francisco prohibited interracial marriage, and Asian Americans were required to go to segregated schools. During internment in WWII, Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and possessions behind. When returning after internment, they found that their neighbors had taken all their possessions, and they no longer owned their property. Japanese Americans that relocated often faced vandalism and sometimes arson at their new homes. The period of Japanese American internment was a time of significantly higher hate crimes due to fear regarding foreigners. A United States Department of Defense report at the time confirmed that fewer than three percent of Japanese Americans might actually pose a security threat. In 1942, Curtis B. Munson, the naval intelligence officer who authored the report, argued that Japanese Americans were being targeted primarily because of their physical characteristics. It was even clearer that internment was racially charged when the Army General in charge of the coast, John DeWitt, wrote that “A Jap is a Jap. They are a dangerous element, whether loyal or not.” A few days later, FDR issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized DeWitt to relocate Japanese-Americans in California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona.
Throughout history, Americans have been taught to think about a certain group of people in ways that are beneficial to a policy agenda when white Americans are in distress. Newspapers ran articles titled “How to Tell Your Friends from the Japs” and cartoons supported racial stereotypes while dehumanizing the Japanese. In "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," a cartoon that aired in 1944, Bugs Bunny addresses the Japanese characters as “dirty, idiot Japs” and calls them bow-legged, monkey-faced, and slant-eyed. Dr. Seuss also published a series of print cartoons that specifically targeted Japanese Americans. One photo showed a group of Japanese Americans from California, Washington, and Oregon lining up to get explosives and looking for a sign from their Japanese friends abroad. Thankfully, a blatant assault on Asian Americans due to the pandemic has not occurred. Still, the development of social media has opened the door for bigotry and racial slurs regarding the virus. People of Asian descent have reported experiencing hate speech on Platforms such as Tik Tok, Facebook, and Twitter.
When Trump called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus” in early March, it did not help the tension surrounding COVID-19 and Asian Americans. The new nickname encourages a similar historical reaction. In addition to Trump’s remarks, CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang tweeted that a White House official called the virus “Kung Flu to her face.”
“Trump’s remarks exacerbated and sort of reinforced in people’s minds that China was to blame,” said Dr. Russell Jeung, a professor in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. However, hate against Asian Americans started long before Trump nicknamed the virus, and many states issued stay at home orders. The immediate negative response toward Asian Americans indicates that there is an implicit bias embedded in U.S. history regarding Asian Americans.
Racism against Asian Americans is not exclusive to times involving widespread fear. Reflecting on his years at American, Lieberman recalled several times where he was treated differently because of his appearance.
“It’s funny to me because people always automatically assume that Asians are foreigners, even at AU,” Lieberman said. Students have called Lieberman racial slurs at AU frat events and other student gatherings, “I’ve had it said to my face three times, and then I’ve heard someone say ‘oh, who’s the Chink over there.’” At AU, Lieberman also said white students challenged him for raising concerns about racism towards Asians and anti-Asian sentiment in class. “People would kind of just shut me down at AU. Like, mainly the white kids. They would say things like ‘well you’re not black.’” Although racism has spiked since COVID-19, racism towards Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. has always been there.
Fear is not an excuse for racism; it was not an excuse for racism in the past and is not an excuse now. A history of xenophobia ostracizes people in a time when humanity needs to work together to beat a greater challenge. People’s safety should not and can not be determined by their appearance. Historically, using fear as an excuse for unequal treatment has led to human rights abuses, and the COVID-19 epidemic is no different.
Lana Green is a second-year Journalism and Political Science double-major in the School of Communications and the School of Public Affairs. She is the Managing Editor for the Agora.
Image courtesy Yichuan Cao, Creative Commons