Andy Kang is the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, a nonprofit committed to building power through collective advocacy and organizing to achieve racial equity.
Andrew Yang penned an op-ed in the Washington Post about the rise of anti-Asian racism surrounding COVID-19. The ex–presidential candidate suggested that Asian Americans should “embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before” and “show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.” Reading these lines instantly made me disappointed, angry, and sad—as it likely did for many Asian Americans—because it reminded me of my own personal experiences growing up in a white neighborhood in Lake Zurich, Illinois. This “American-ness” strategy consistently failed to reduce the countless instances of anti-Asian racism I endured. Yang’s central idea, which he now alleges was miscommunicated, reinforces the painful and counterproductive idea that as perceived “perpetual foreigners,” Asian Americans bear the primary responsibility for the racism of others. We must reject this idea with every fiber of our being as this version of the toxic “respectability” politics has implications for our country’s pursuit of racial justice for all Americans.
In fact, “proving our American-ness” has historically never worked. During World War II, many Japanese Americans served in the U.S. military, with the Japanese American 442nd regiment being the most decorated unit with the highest number of casualties. Their sacrifice still did not lead to the immediate release of their families from incarceration camps back at home. Even after the war ended, Japanese American families (thousands of whom resettled in Chicago) had to wait until 1988 for an official apology from the federal government.
What history does show is that when hateful political rhetoric goes unchallenged, it always leads to violence and harmful policies rooted in racism. It was racist rhetoric and outright lies and misinformation from the U.S. military that caused politicians to lobby for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. In the late 1800s politicians blamed Chinese immigrants for the low wages and economic woes of white workers, which led to the mass violence of the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law ever to ban immigration by all members of one ethnicity or nationality.
In the 1980s, the American auto industry was severely struggling and many politicians and business leaders aggressively blamed Japan, publicly saying things like “little yellow men” were “taking over the country” and engaging in nothing less than an “economic Pearl Harbor.” This sort of rhetoric resulted in the brutal murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was celebrating his upcoming wedding in Detroit before he was chased down and bludgeoned by two white men who claimed that Americans were losing their jobs because of people like him. Most recently, we have witnessed nearly two decades of anti-Muslim political rhetoric post-9/11, with an accompanying rise in hate crimes and heavy law enforcement surveillance and spying on Muslim Americans, which includes South Asian and other Asian American Muslim communities.
This is the exact same pattern we’re now seeing unfold. Politicians have been ratcheting up anti-Chinese rhetoric around COVID-19 for months, with President Donald Trump himself repeatedly referring to the outbreak as the “Chinese virus.” He set the tone for the anti-Asian racism as the virus spread, has shown no remorse for his xenophobic statements, and has done nothing to condemn anti-Asian rhetoric being used by his administration and other politicians. U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo continued calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” for weeks, and even demanded that the G7 countries follow suit. U.S. senator John Cornyn falsely blamed China for MERS and swine flu, and even fell back on racist and derogatory stereotypes, saying COVID-19 was caused by China’s “culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” Illinois Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger repeatedly points blame at China with tweets like, “Daily reminder: you are in your home now because #Chinahidthevirus.” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson stated that “China is an imminent threat to the United States” and NRA board member Ted Nugent declared that “Asian culture” was “evil.”
Contemporaneously with this rhetoric, the violence and hate incidents against Asian Americans have already begun to rise across the country. Here in Chicago, a man yelled “F—- China!” and spat on a Vietnamese-Filipino man as he left a movie theater; in Texas, a Burmese American family, including a child, was stabbed while grocery shopping because the attacker believed they were Chinese and spreading the virus; in the Bronx, a group of teenagers assaulted a 51-year-old woman at a bus stop after saying she caused the coronavirus.
Racist rhetoric is putting Asian Americans at risk, and in order to combat this, we must hold political leaders accountable who demonize and scapegoat Asians. Call your member of Congress and urge them to support the House Resolution 908 filed by U.S. rep. Grace Meng that calls all political officials to condemn anti-Asian racism during this pandemic. Report hate incidents to our hate tracker, StandAgainstHatred.org, to aid our efforts to monitor hate incidents across the country and help strengthen advocacy efforts for hate crimes response and prevention. We will continue to engage our community partners and our governor and mayor on exploring ways to better respond to incidents together.
We need to fight for longer-term structural solutions that undo dangerous myths and stereotypes about Asian Americans, which is why Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago is launching a Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) campaign to implement a mandatory Asian American history curriculum in Illinois public schools. It is clear to me that what America’s future generations need is a deeper understanding that Asian Americans have been, and will continue to be, an important part of the American story, and that story includes our own connection to racial oppression.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created many more opportunities for us to tackle racial injustice. What is happening now has highlighted the deadly consequences of centuries of anti-Blackness and unaddressed health and economic disparities for the African American community, while at the same time flushing out the dormant anti-Asian xenophobia in our society. This is a moment for Asian Americans to actively build solidarity with Black communities to confront two sides of the same problem: the legacies of white supremacy that are hurting our communities.
Instead of showing our “American-ness” in the face of racism, Asian Americans, and all Americans, need to step up and unite around an undying commitment to achieving real racial justice in our country. I pray Chicagoans will lead the way. v