by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor
Some people may have forgotten that former president Donald Trump and other Republican leaders called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” over two years ago, but Asian Americans are still feeling the impact of those words today.
Research over the past two years has shown that Trump’s rhetoric has made Asian Americans scapegoats for the pandemic. A new report by Stop AAPI Hate, a non-profit organization that has been researching and recording anti-Asian hate incidents since the start of the pandemic, details the impact of that racial scapegoating.
“The Blame Game: How Political Rhetoric Inflames Anti-Asian Scapegoating” examines incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate that deal specifically with racial scapegoating. The study found that 20% (2,255) of the total incidents (11,467) reported to the organization involved language that scapegoats Asian Americans. During these incidents, Asian Americans were wrongfully blamed for “COVID-19, espionage on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, or economic insecurity.”
In September, President Joe Biden declared that the COVID-19 pandemic was over, and many Americans began to relax the use of pandemic-related precautions. But the scapegoating of Asian Americans has not ended.
“That sense that Asian Americans are to be blamed for COVID-19 has not subsided, even though Americans don’t wear masks, don’t get vaccinated. In fact, the number of Americans who believe Asian Americans are to be blamed for COVID-19 has doubled since 2020,” Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and a professor of Asian Americans at San Francisco State University, said during a virtual press conference.
Asian Americans are not just being blamed for COVID-19. The report found that four percent of all scapegoating incidents accused Asians or Asian Americans of spying for the Chinese government. In one incident, a California resident recalls a cashier telling her she believed her neighbor, a Chinese postdoctoral engineer, was a “5G China spy.”
That type of racial scapegoating has existed for decades. In the 1990s, the federal government arrested Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese American scientist, believing he was a spy for the Chinese government, despite being Taiwanese. He was held for 278 days before the Justice Department dropped the charges against Lee over lack of evidence.
The Justice Department began to take a harsher look at Chinese researchers in America under the Obama administration. The unjust scrutiny intensified during the Trump administration with the creation of the China Initiative.
The report also found that one percent of scapegoating incidents labeled Asians and Asians Americans as economic threats. An Asian grocery store worker reported that a man once called threatening to rob the store because “Asians steal jobs and send all U.S. dollars back to China.”
Researchers at Stop AAPI Hate believe politicians from both parties have contributed to this form of racial scapegoating by claiming that China is an economic threat to the U.S.
Leaders and researchers hope that racial scapegoating may improve as Asian Americans become better represented in politics. Manjusha Kulkarni, the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council, also believes it is important to invest in Asian American community-based organizations “so that they might do the work in helping to provide resources to community members after the scapegoating happens.”
The report also asks politicians and leaders from both parties to be mindful of the rhetoric they use when speaking about Asians and Asian Americans. It notes that in 2020, one in ten tweets by politicians about Asian Americans used racist or stigmatizing language.
“Leaders like it or not are role models and we have a large platform. And so it is really important that we are careful and nuanced with the words that we use,” Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY) said at the virtual press conference for the report.
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