For every pandemic, there’s a scapegoat.
In the 14th century, Jews were accused of starting the Black Death. In the 1950s, Italians were vilified during the polio scare. In the 1980s, gay men were blamed for the AIDS outbreak.
With COVID-19, it’s those who are Chinese —or assumed to be.
In New York, a teen yelling, “F-king Chinese coronavirus,” kicked a 59-year-old Asian man from behind and spat on him. In L.A., a 16-year-old Asian ended up in the E.R. after he was attacked by bullies falsely accusing him of having the virus. In Midland, Texas, an Asian father and two children survived being stabbed at a Sam’s Club by a 19-year-old attempting to kill the family. The case is being investigated by the FBI as a hate crime.
Over four weeks in February and March, there were 16 cases per day or 471 reported cases of xenophobia and attacks on Chinese or Asians, including 80 cases of harassment or attacks, according to Professor Russell Jeung from San Francisco State University, who tracked news reports. By contrast, the FBI reports that there were 168 anti-Asian and Pacific Islander hate crimes for all of 2018.
Asian Americans can look to previous pandemics, such as AIDS, for lessons to combat prejudice. Over fear and ignorance about HIV, gay men were ostracized, taunted and beaten. Many people called AIDS the “gay plague.” Some now refer to COVID-19 as the “yellow plague.”
In the 1970s, the view of L.G.B.T.Q. people as a danger to the American family solidified in response to the gay liberation movement and resulting visibility. Today, many in the United States see China as our greatest enemy and the biggest threat to the U.S. economy.
“Racism is a key part of party politics in modernity,” says Jason Chang, a Professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of Connecticut. He says racial violence follows a three-step progression:
The first step to racial violence, according to Chang, starts with speech and text, which provide a reason and an outline for the story of an individual’s anti-Asian sentiments.
The second step involves dog-whistling by politicians and the media. “The individual feels confirmed by public officials and feels he can take further action and is less likely to second guess themselves,” says Chang.
The third is when politicians give racism a stamp of approval through official policies and legislation that make racist acts official. “With more public acts of violence,” Chang says, “this confirms to politicians that racism is a popular idea and they can move to official acts of discrimination.”
Steven Goodreau, a Professor of Anthropology and Epidemiology at the University of Washington, says, “Viruses jumping from animals to humans, or ‘zoonoses,’ can happen anywhere. History makes it clear that terminology like the President is using, such as ‘Chinese virus,’ is the beginning that leads to violence. Official responses are important in shaping how a community responds.”
What can be learned from the L.G.B.T.Q. community’s response to AIDS-related discrimination and attacks? And, how can that be applied to preventing the coronavirus-related assaults against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders?
Tom Viola, Executive Director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, says, “Stand up for folks politically so that the press and politicians pay attention. Stand up to what is so clearly wrong being said about the Asian American community and then refute that with facts.”
“We stood up to bullies and bigots and demanded action,” says Beverly Tillery of the New York Anti-Violence Project (AVP), which started because of gang attacks on gay men in New York. “For anyone experiencing violence, know that you aren’t alone. Consider reporting violence to organizations you trust so they can develop a localized response.” She calls on allies to speak up when they see or hear any acts of hate or violence. The AVP has developed five simple steps for bystander intervention.
The Executive Director of the National L.G.B.T.Q. Task Force, Rea Carey, says unity is key. “AIDS gave us an opportunity to adapt new ways of connecting with each other. COVID-19 will too.” Carey challenges those who aren’t Asian American to be conscious of privilege. “What businesses am I frequenting? What news am I reading? What restaurants am I visiting? Be intentional and act in ways that show support for neighbors, friends and co-workers who are Asian.”
Leaders have started to take steps in protecting the Asian-Pacific Islander community. Over 200 civil rights groups, led by the National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans, have demanded Congress “take tangible steps to counter the hysteria” around COVID-19 and officially denounce racism and xenophobia. U.S. Congressmember Ted Lieu has been pressing California state officials and agencies to speak up against anti-Asian discrimination and hate, which Governor Gavin Newsome did in his press conference last Thursday. That same day, the Asian Pacific Policy Planning Council launched a website to document hate crimes and instances of discrimination against Asians.
These actions are a good start, but more needs to be done. As COVID-19 continues to spread and we see increased rates of economic toll, hospitalization and death, the message needs to be clear: We’re all in this together.
As Professor Goodreau says, “A virus is unseen, which allows people to imagine themselves as the innocent victim and others as the perpetrator. But the other person is also a victim and you are also a perpetrator to someone else.”