Addressing Anti-Asian Hatred, Systemic Racism, and Anti-Blackness in a time of COVID-19

Photo Courtesy of CNN

We are almost through with 2020 and the world has been rocked with chaotic events that have challenged society both physically and mentally since the beginning of this year. The COVID-19 pandemic became public on the eve of 2020 and a lack of action from American leadership had left the country panicked and anxious as the spread of the virus continued.

As we continued to see both the COVID-19 case and death count rocket, we also saw another issue rising: anti-Asian hate. Asian Americans have been blamed for COVID-19 and President Trump’s use, including at his Tulsa campaign rally, of the term “China virus, Kung Flu,” and other similar racist terms have stoked more hatred against Asian Americans. Unfortunately, some Americans found a personal target to blame. We saw as many as 100 reported cases a day of discrimination against Asians as the quarantine went into effect. We saw an Asian father and his two sons stabbed at a Sam’ Club and another Asian woman have acid thrown on her face in front of her home. On top of the already increased hate incidents, Americans were losing their jobs at an alarming rate and children had to be home-schooled, all while trying to navigate a terrifying virus.

As we approached the end of May, another horrific event occurred, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The tragic event was caught on camera, which the whole country and world would see. A week before George Floyd’s death made national news, there were the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. For the first time, a growing majority of the country began to see systemic racism, particularly within the police force, through the eyes of Black Americans and embraced the Black Lives Matter movement.

The combination of a global pandemic, American systems failing society, a continued pattern of violence by the police, and a critical look at systemic racism and its history and pervasiveness all came to the surface. The country and Americans have reached their breaking point. Americans are demanding answers, actions, and change.

Structural racism maintains the status quo of white people continuing to have access to the majority of opportunities and success. Structural racism is alive in every aspect of our lives, it’s in the cities and neighborhoods that we live in, our access to grocery stores and healthy food, our access to health care and culturally competent services, access to schools, and much more.

For hundreds of years, even with the abolishment of slavery and end to Jim Crow laws, the Black community continues to be disproportionately affected by structural racism in many ways that many non-Black POC communities have not been.

The Asian American community’s place in the greater conversations of race relations can be complex and confusing. Touted as the ‘model minority,’ Asian Americans were assumed to be the model non-White racial group, an “example” for all other minorities to follow. Though assumed to be “positive,” in reality like all stereotypes, the term is rooted in negativity. The ‘model minority’ myth works against the Asian American community. It largely ignores the wage disparity in the Asian American community, with 15% of the community living in poverty (this number is much higher among other Asian ethnic groups) and it also dismisses the narrative of Southeast Asian refugees who were resettled in poorly resourced neighborhoods around the country. Not only does it label the community as submissive and silent (assumed to be afraid to speak up against racism, etc.), the community also becomes a racial wedge or a pawn in creating increased stress and racial tensions among Asian Americans and the Black and Latinx communities.

Essential workers of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent have been increasingly bearing the brunt of the fear and frustration that far too many are expressing. Tina Nguyên is a home care provider from San Jose California, who cares for her disabled son. She worries daily about the possibility of him contracting COVID-19 and of herself being harassed or attacked when she leaves her home.

“Now, when I leave my house to get cleaning supplies, not only do I worry about being exposed to the virus, I have to look out for racist people who want to attack me because I’m Asian,” says Tina.

As community-based and civil rights organizations, we have a duty to stand up and fight back against the growing racism and xenophobia. Our strategy encompasses unity and also resistance.

Asian Americans are caught in the crosshairs of this time. Some are essential workers, but most of the community is merely trying to survive this concerning time of a pandemic. Anecdotally, some Asian American health professionals have also said that some Asian Americans are not getting tested due to fear of a racially motivated attack or incident once they leave their home. On top of trying to defend themselves from COVID-19 racism, Asian Americans are also having tough conversations in their community addressing anti-Blackness in the midst of the growing movement for Black lives.

It is important that as organizations who have influence and power that we do our part to address the increase in anti-Asian hatred during COVID-19 and also find ways to join in solidarity and support the Black community in the fight for justice and systemic change.

The first part of this approach is the Resistance Strategy which aims to fight racism while tracking hate crimes, educating, direct legal assistance, and coalition building. Around the country, different coalitions of organizations have been created both to address the increase in anti-Asian sentiment due to COVID-19 and also in support of justice for the Movement for Black Lives. Tracking hate incidents through websites will be important to ensure that the community feels that they have a safe place to share their experiences. These include Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s hate tracker website Stand Against Hatred and Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (A3PCON) and Chinese For Affirmative Action’s #STOPAAPIHATE website. Other organizations and activists have created sign-on letters and public statements to garner support, organize, and mobilize different types of organizations across the country.

Elected officials have been helping to lead the resistance. Congresswoman Judy Chu (CA-27) who is the Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) has been building coalitions and Congresswoman Grace Meng (NY-6) has called for federal agencies to track the hate incidents. These leaders have been joined by elected officials from diverse backgrounds who have also stood in solidarity in opposition to these racist attacks. Most notably, the House tri-caucus has come together in support of increased hate tracking and resources for victims of COVID-19 hate. The congressional tri-caucus is composed of the Asian American Pacific Islander, Black, and Hispanic caucuses.

Educating and creating awareness begins with digital social media campaigns like IW Group’s #WashTheHate campaign who have collaborated with Asian American celebrities, actors, and influencers to help create more awareness about the increased hate incidents on social media platforms.

Another key part of the Resistance Strategy is building coalitions with different communities of color and different groups of allies. Solidarity will be key in this fight. It is also critical that we build this coalition with unions, who represent a large number of Asian American and Pacific Islander workers and allies. Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the second-largest union organization in the United States, has committed to fighting against racism, lifting up Asian Americans who are fighting the virus, and demanding that corporations and elected leaders to protect all workers, no matter where they are from, their immigration status, or their race. The pandemic has led many to realize that all workers are essential, and all workers should be allowed to form unions to have a seat at the table to bargain for a better life.

As we build these coalitions, it will be important to link the fight against Asian American hate incidents to the ways that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Pacific Islander, Black, and Latino communities that have continuously been denied the resources to be healthy.

The second part of the overall strategy is to Fight The Common Enemy, COVID-19. For our country and the world to fully recover, we must be united. Asian Americans are on the front lines, and their roles need to be uplifted and visible. Asian Americans represent a diverse array of essential employees including grocery workers, letter carriers, sanitation employees, nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals treating COVID-19 patients. Alongside the health professionals are Asian American scientists and researchers, like David Ho, who are leading efforts to find effective treatments and vaccines.

As personal protective equipment stock was unavailable throughout the US, various Asian groups and leaders across the globe came together to help donate funds and supplies to the United States. Groups like the Committee of 100, a group of Chinese American leaders have raised over $1 million to support over 30 hospitals across the nation.

Last May, during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, PBS premiered a five-part docuseries, Asian Americans. The docuseries highlights how Asian Americans have historically fought against racism and how they significantly contributed to the vitality of the United States. Soon to follow, an educational curriculum that will consist of 36 lesson plans will be launched. Teachers can use these lesson plans to help address the possible hatred and racism that might occur in schools.

This two-part strategy, encompassing the Resistance Strategy and the Fight The Common Enemy strategy, will help lead the next steps that the Asian American community should take in the recovery process, both economically and socially. We must continue to take time to reflect upon how in our own community we can respond to the greater call to dismantle white supremacy and stand in true solidarity with the movement for Black lives as we continue to call for justice for all the victims of police brutality. In this challenging time of COVID-19, we must unite and find ways that we can support one another so we can all come out of this stronger and together.

By: Stewart Kwoh, President Emeritus, Advancing Justice-LA
Connie Chung Joe, CEO, Advancing Justice-LA
Mary Kay Henry, President, SEIU



Advancing Justice Southern California (AJSOCAL)

AJSOCAL is the nation's largest legal aid and civil rights organization serving the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community