Asian Americans Continue to be Scapegoated for COVID-19

by Kamna Shastri

(This article was originally published on and has been reprinted with permission)

One mid-April afternoon, three masked men made their way through the Chinatown-International District, their faces fully covered with cloth and dark glasses. They left stickers plastered to buildings and telephone poles in their wake. “Better dead than red,” one said. Others read “America First.” All of the stickers listed a group called Patriot Front, a white nationalist hate group identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Later that same weekend, someone took the time to remove the stickers, but the incident is still under investigation by the Seattle Police Department.

The incident is one example of hundreds of racially motivated actions targeting Asian American communities nationwide. As reports of the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China, began to spread in January and February, restaurants in the Chinatown-International District started seeing a decline in business. By the time the first case in an Eastside Seattle nursing home was reported in February, business had declined by 50 percent. When the pandemic progressed into a stay-at-home order and a shuttering of the city, the Asian American neighborhood started to see more anti-Asian aggression; racial insults were hurled at people in Hing Hay Park.

Advocacy groups have been reporting and tracking a rise in racist slurs and physical aggression targeting people of Asian descent around the country. Stand Against Hatred, a national website created by Asian Americans Advancing Justice to track bias incidents and hate crimes, has collected pages worth of incidents cataloging everything from being told to “step away” from food at an Eastside Costco to people being spat on and called “disgusting” by strangers in New York. By the beginning of April, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council had received over 1,100 reports of discrimination against Asian Americans across the country.

Racism: an age-old mold

The racism Asian Americans are facing is a permutation of a centuries-old pattern. “America doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to Asian Americans,” said Ben Sung Henry, an independent consultant and a former executive director of APACE, a civic engagement organization.

Pg 5 Ben Henry
Ben Henry, former executive director of APACE. (photo courtesy of Ben Henry)

First, there was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred anyone from China entering the United States. Then, during World War II, Japanese Americans were demonized and put in internment camps regardless of their citizenship and immigration status in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened U.S. borders to all immigrants, Asian Americans quietly bore the brunt of white America’s frustrations with the war in Vietnam. In 1982, a white man in Detroit, angry about car factory jobs moving to Japan, beat and murdered 28-year-old Vincent Chin.

South Asian and Arab Americans were victims of hate crimes and reactionary surveillance measures after 9/11. Now, there’s COVID-19.

“This is in our history — this has happened,” Henry said. “How do we know it’s not going to happen again?”

Like many immigrants and minority groups in the U.S., Asian Americans may very well find their race used as a bargaining chip. Activists, community leaders and artists are bringing light to the fact that Asian Americans lie at the center of a paradox, regarded as the “forever foreigner” while simultaneously being christened a “model minority.”

Shane Baguyo, a racial equity coach for SEA Center for Racial Equity, said he has always been acutely aware of the duality between these two stereotypes. They “put us in a precarious socio-political, economic position in America. Both stereotypes shut us out from being welcome and supported in all groups in general, just because of how we look.”

That nebulous “model minority” term was coined by sociology professor William Peterson of University of California, Berkeley. In a 1966 New York Times article, he extolled how Japanese Americans had “risen above even prejudiced criticism” only 20 years after being interned. He went on to write that they were superior to all other races — including native-born whites — and succeeded in an “almost totally unaided effort.” He also wrote, “Every attempt to hamper their progress resulted only in enhancing their determination to succeed.”

Peterson glossed over the numerous institutional barriers Japanese Americans were up against. As a result of this racial stereotyping, the model-minority gimmick continuously glossed over the intricate complexity of being Asian American. The term actually comprises dozens of countries and languages and countless historical and current experiences branded under a monolithic idea of what it means to be Asian.

The myth gets its power from society’s unceasing separators and groupings, like 2017 statistics from the esteemed Pew Research Center comparing the median annual income for Asian households ($73,060) with all U.S. households ($53,600) as of 2017.

Numbers like this are often simplified and the disparity between and within Asian groups becomes invisible to the public. For example, the PRC reports that in 2015 Indian households on average made over $100,000 a year while Burmese households made $36,000. The myth’s cocktail gets stronger with stereotypes that portray Asians as nerds, good at math, quiet and, like Peterson wrote, imbued with an in-born propensity to succeed.

“That is certainly not the case for most Asian Americans,” Henry said. “Within the Asian American community, we struggle. We have butted heads with the more privileged factions of our community.” Henry said the dynamics of oppression and privilege play out even more starkly in crisis. “In a similar way that inequities are amplified in this crisis overall, so too does it amplify inequalities within the Asian American communities,” he said.

Henry provided this example: Asian Americans who work in the tech industry can work from home while those who work as frontline workers do not have that luxury. Being in public, they are more susceptible to becoming targets.

Authors Rosalind S. Chou and Joe R. Feagin write that the model minority myth creates “a racial middle status between whites and other people of color.” In their book “The Myth of the Model Minority,” they elaborate: “This protects the white position at the top by diffusing hostility towards them and sets up Asian Americans to be a scapegoat during times of crisis.”

That is exactly what is happening now. An April 16 report from The Center for Public Integrity examined how the Trump administration’s response to the xenophobia that has come out of COVID-19 lacks the kind of supportive messaging former President George W. Bush employed after September 11, 2001, to deter Islamophobic hate crimes. The Trump administration’s use of language, such as the “Chinese” virus, further bolsters the image that being Chinese — or Asian at all — is inherently connected to the virus. “That action directly results in more acts of discrimination and even potential acts of violence. It’s troubling,” Henry said.

Invigorated interest in engagement 

Figuring out how to mobilize against racism while the whole world is facing a severe public health threat is a challenge. Henry says that, as always, speaking up is important. “Name it. We need to expose it as it happens,” he said.

Racial Equity Coach Baguyo says that the disparities and discrimination unearthed by COVID-19 need to be seen as an opportunity: “It kind of casts a light; we have major issues we have to fix. But we can only change if we talk about actions moving forward,” he said. Baguyo explained that racial equity is recognizing difference and disparity to see how they play out. The gaps are in plain view at the moment and that presents a choice to move toward racial justice, which he characterizes as driving actions that work to dismantle those disparities.

Jamie Lee, the director of community initiatives for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, promotes catharsis and modes of change, similar to Henry and Baguyo. “It’s important that we tell our story,” Lee said. She also emphasized the breadth of experiences within the Asian American community and recognizing a spectrum of oppression.

The kind of fear Asian Americans are feeling currently is a daily reality for Black and Brown people. We need to “remember that and hold that as true,” Lee said.

Lee said it is important to mobilize both inside and outside the community simultaneously. “There are many of our community — immigrants, elders — that don’t understand what hate crimes are,” she said. Lee is currently part of a group working with King County Equity and Social Justice to organize better bias crime reporting, which is itself a complicated issue. There is a current effort to educate non-English-speaking community members about what constitutes a hate crime.

A week after Gov. Jay Inslee implemented a stay-at-home order for Washington, Henry Liu went to Uwajimaya and purchased 15 bags worth of fresh fruits, vegetables and buns — at about $12 a bag. He then delivered each bag to elders in low-income housing units. He documented the entire process and posted it on a Facebook group named Support the ID.

What was first just a one-person effort with Liu — who is a community organizer for InterIm Community Development Association — accrued first three staff members, then six and then grew to include volunteers who now deliver groceries to hundreds of elders in the community. Liu says he hasn’t seen any incidents of racism and hasn’t had neighborhood residents raise concerns about it. But he feels a shift in the air. The neighborhood’s attitudes towards civic engagement feel like they are changing.

Before the pandemic, most store owners and community residents who were not in social justice circles simply focused on their own survival, on making money to support themselves and family. “That attitude really shifted after the pandemic. All these businesses are closing down — the whole picture of the neighborhood that people knew is no longer there,” Liu said. “If that community is gone, is there really going to be more of this community afterward?”

That question lingers as businesses board up, and Liu says it’s a catalyst to engage.

He has heard of restaurant employees and owners who were previously not registered to vote but feel an inclination now to be civically engaged after witnessing dedicated staff lose jobs.

He has also seen increased participation by the Seattle Police Department in the neighborhood. Liu personally reached out to SPD four times to help distribute groceries to elders in the area. They showed up every time.

The Pacific Northwest has seen a growing Asian American population in the last 20 years. But even prior to that, the region has had a legacy of Asian American advocacy and activism — organizations like Asian Counseling and Referral Services and APACE and the very presence of the Chinatown-International District is testament to that.

“Our community does have a voice,” Henry said. “The more numbers behind that voice, the more powerful it is.”

Baguyo said, “Our voices really need to be heard during this because we are part of the fabric of America. This is our America, too.”

Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at Twitter: @KShastri2 

Featured image: Newcomers move into Manzanar, a California internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. (Photo belongs to the public domain)