Since March, a coalition of Asian American advocacy groups and scholars has been collecting and documenting the alarming surge in anti-Asian racism related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The thousands of incidents, from respondents across the country, have ranged from being called racial slurs, being spat on and/or physically assaulted, as well as being denied services, experiencing workplace discrimination and other potential civil rights violations.
On Wednesday, the group, STOP AAPI HATE, laid the blame right at the feet of President Donald Trump, unveiling research that concludes Trump is by far the most influential “superspreader” of anti-Asian racism.
Throughout this year, Trump has routinely used racist slurs and epithets to refer to COVID-19. He also frequently blames China, placing an outsized focus on where the virus originated, in order to deflect from his own catastrophic response to the pandemic.
In a new report, University of Michigan professor Melissa Borja and a team of researchers analyzed tweets from all of this year’s presidential, vice presidential and U.S. Senate candidates that mentioned the pandemic or Asian Americans, from January through the end of August.
Trump is by far the “main source of the rhetoric that stigmatizes Asian and Asian American people,” Borja said during a press briefing, referring to both the frequency of his tweets and their reach and engagement.
The advocates and researchers stressed that while both parties have criticized the Chinese government and Chinese leaders’ initial handling of COVID-19, only Trump and Republicans have actively used scapegoating language, which leads to racism and xenophobia against Chinese Americans and anyone of Chinese or East Asian descent.
For example, 136 of the tweets used or defended racist terms like “Chinese virus.” All of them came from Republicans.
Members of the Asian American Commission hold a press conference on the steps of the Massachusetts State House to condemn racism toward the Asian American community because of coronavirus on March 12 in Boston.
The analysis of the tweets found that Democrats did not use such stigmatizing rhetoric. And as for any politicians tweeting support for Asian Americans facing racism during the pandemic, all but one of the tweets came from Democrats.
In September, the House passed legislation to condemn and denounce “any and all anti-Asian sentiment in any form,” and to urge federal, state and local officials to document, investigate and collect data on any reports of anti-Asian hate incidents.
But what lawmakers thought would be a bipartisan issue, especially given that the resolution was nonbinding and largely symbolic, became a divisive one. The vote was largely along party lines, and instead of quickly moving to pass the resolution, lawmakers spent more than two hours debating it on the House floor. Republicans repeatedly dismissed the magnitude of the issue and claimed the legislation was simply meant to attack Trump.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) claimed the bill wasn’t “really about” racism, but “Democrats ignoring the real issues plaguing Americans just for the opportunity to criticize President Trump.”
And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed “there is no kitchen in America that thinks this is the priority.”
But the numbers and the stories from Asian Americans tell otherwise. At Wednesday’s press briefing, STOP AAPI HATE’s founders said that since March, they have received reports of more than 2,700 racist incidents from 47 states and Washington, D.C. The number is likely an undercount because the data is self-reported and voluntary.
Many of those incidents involved the assailants using racist rhetoric like Trump’s. And in 46 incidents, they actively invoked Trump, according to San Francisco State University professor Russell Jeung, who read off some of the reported incidents.
“I agree with Trump. Fuck China!” one incident report said. “It’s because of you, the Chinese, that we have to wear a mask.”
Another incident report read: “A man sitting on the corner shouted: ‘Go back to your fucking country! Go Trump!’”
The racist rhetoric has many other political and economic effects. Jose Ng, the immigrant rights program manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action, said that many of the Chinese immigrants his organization serves have been fearful of seeking economic assistance during the pandemic — not just from the government, but from community organizations like his.
For example, he said they have provided gift cards to help immigrants facing economic hardship to pay for their groceries and other needs.
“Our team had to explain to them that receiving the gift card would not jeopardize their immigration status,” Ng said.
Connie Chan, who is running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, recounted incidents of racism she has faced during her campaign — noting that even in a progressive city like San Francisco, which has a robust Asian American community and many Asian American elected officials, she feels that racism is “absolutely increasing today.”
She also worries that racism against elected officials and community leaders like her could discourage everyday Asian Americans from civic engagement.
“They’re thinking: ‘How can I voice my support … when I could be under the same attack?’” Chan said. “That’s an attack on our democracy.”
At the same time, STOP AAPI HATE’s founders hope the wave of racism will galvanize Asian Americans to speak out and take action. For those eligible to vote, voting in this year’s election is crucial, they said. In addition, Asian Americans should also get involved in organizations advocating for immigrant rights and working to dismantle structural racism across all communities of color.
“As it’s been said over and over again, COVID has exposed the preexisting conditions of structural racism that’s always just below the surface,” Cynthia Choi, the co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said. “For Asian Americans, it is a constant reminder of our conditional status. So just as then and now, we have used, as a community, every means available to us to fight back and to use our voice.”
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