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Is Asian American Discrimination during COVID-19 a Partisan Issue?

by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor

In January 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic had fully reached America, a woman called Peter Zhao’s wife a “Chinese diseased b*tch” on the street in Flushing, New York City. Zhao’s wife, who is actually Korean American, confronted the woman. The woman in return punched her hard enough that Zhao’s wife had to get four stitches on her head. 

Zhao wanted his wife’s story heard. He had planned to put together a rally and seek a pro bono attorney, but his wife wanted to keep her story fairly private. 

“But this was her experience so despite I want this and that, the best course of action is to do what the victim feels the most comfortable,” Zhao said.

In March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic in America, a Burmese American family was stabbed by a young man at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas. The suspect, Jose Gomez, said that he stabbed the family because he thought they were Chinese infecting people with coronavirus.

The pandemic has inspired a surge in hate crimes and poor behavior. Many Asian Americans have reported that people have coughed and spit on them.

“It’s a response to the fear of being infected so people want to reinfect us,” Russell Jeung a sociology professor at San Francisco State University. 

Jeung added that the facemask has become a “racialized object of scorn” for Asian Americans.

“If you’re Asian and wearing a mask, then you’re profiled as being a disease carrier,” Jeung said. “If you don’t wear a mask, you’re profiled as being a disease carrier and negligent. Whereas a White person wearing a mask is just seen as being protective of themselves.”

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic discrimination against Asian Americans has risen rapidly. The stories of those hate crimes have appeared in newspapers and on television news channels throughout the country. STOP AAPI, which was established during the pandemic said in May that it had received nearly 2,000 reports of hate and discrimination against Asian Americans. 

But many Americans, according to a survey, remain oblivious to the discrimination Asian Americans face because of COVID-19. According to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll, less than half of Females (45%) and Males (46%) think hate/discrimination towards Asian Americans has risen. 

Around 55 percent of Whites say they are concerned about Asian American discrimination related to the pandemic, while 67 percent of African Americans and 65 percent of Hispanics said they were concerned. The poll found that 75 percent of Asian Americans surveyed said that they were concerned about the increasing discrimination. 

Russell Jeong teaches at San Francisco State and chairs the Asian American Studies Department

Jeung says it’s not unusual that non-Asian Americans aren’t aware of the discrimination Asian Americans are facing. 

“If they’re not experiencing it first hand they obviously don’t know what’s going on with Asian Americans,” Jeung said. “It doesn’t make sense to ask non-Asians if they’re aware because they’re sheltering in place hopefully.”

Gilbert Gee, a a professor of Community Health Studies at UCLA, says that Americans who are oblivious to discrimination may also live in areas where there are few Asian Americans.

The poll’s results also revealed that concern about discrimination against Asian Americans may be a partisan issue. President Trump and Republican leaders have been widely criticized for encouraging discrimination and hate by referring to the virus as the “Chinese virus.”

“I firmly believe Trump is the catalyst in the recent waves of discriminatory and racist attacks,” Zhao said. 

Around 61 percent of the Democrats surveyed and 31 percent of Republicans surveyed felt hate/discrimination towards Asian Americans has risen since the COVID-19 outbreak. More than half of Republicans said they did not feel discrimination had increased and more than half said they were not concerned about the discrimination. 

Gilbert Gee says that some Republicans may believe that stories of anti-Asian violence may be fake news “put out there by Democrats as a political sort of ploy.” 

Jeung says that Republicans may get their news from “market segments” that have not been covering the increase in hate crimes and discrimination. He added the lack of concern from Republicans reflects a lack of empathy.

“The fact that Republicans aren’t concerned about discrimination against Asian Americans sort of demonstrates the lack of emphathy and compassion they have towards other groups,” Jeung said. “I think that goes in line with their anti-immigrant rhetoric and their policies to mass detain, mass deport and mass incarcerate.”

UCLA Photo: Gilbert Gee

Gee added that some Americans who blame China for the virus may feel that Chinese people are “getting what they deserve.”

“Nobody I’ve read has outright said the hate crimes are justified but it is kind of part of clustering with people who were saying go back to where you came from,” Gee said. “The people saying that they Chinese and Asians in general shouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Asian Americans are often labelled as the model minority who have been accepted into White American society. Could the model minority myth contribute to a lack of awareness and concern?

“I think the current state of anti-Asian hate dispels this notion that we’re a model minority who has been accepted,” Jeung said. 

Although some Americans remain unaware and unconcerned, the Asian American community remains hyperaware. Jeung says he feels encouraged by the number of Asian Americans speaking out. 

“We’re getting non-English speaking people and elderly Asian Americans reporting in large percentages,” Jeung said. “Groups you wouldn’t think would want to report are reporting these incidents.”

Some Asian Americans have expressed frustration over the lack of concern from non-Asian Americans, but Jeung and Gee say they’re impressed by the collective effort being made to stop discrimination against Asian Americans. Gee pointed out that several documented instances of hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans are receiving news coverage. 

“It wasn’t just one or two articles and then it was done,” Gee said. “The conversation continues to go on from various outlets, both from Asian American media outlets, but also broader outlets like the New York Times. That’s been really interesting and impressive and heartening in some ways.”

Jeung noted that while some Asian Americans may feel ignored, many people are speaking out against the hate and discrimination Asian Americans are facing. In March, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent a letter to Congress condemning the use of language that associated the virus with China. Asian American celebrities have created awareness campaigns aimed at ending hate and discrimination towards Asian Americans. 

“Our congressional and legislative leaders, elected officials are standing up against Republican rhetoric,” Jeung said. “Our celebrities and athletes are doing social media campaigns. Our community organizations are galvanizing and organizing our communities.”

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