In Brown Type: History repeats as Asians bear the brunt of coronavirus rage

When it comes to race relations, history does not offer a playbook for guidance or avoidance. It just lays markers that we seem to come back to again and again.

Take the wave of blame that’s targeting people of Asian origin. You’d think we’d have learned from so many of our past lessons: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Bellingham riots against Sikhs in 1907, the Japanese internment from 1942 to 1946, the murder of Vincent Chin in 1980 and persistent, pervasive Islamophobia since 9/11.

These events were sparked by declining wages, economic distress, war and terror attacks. In all cases, the impact was felt by immigrant communities who came to represent the face of the enemy.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus is fast becoming another trigger for widespread hate mongering.

At an Ethnic Media Services briefing, Manjusha P. Kulkarni, the executive director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), said they began working on identifying and recording instances of hate against Asians in early February when a child at a middle school was “physically attacked and verbally assaulted because he’s Asian American.” Another student at the school accused him of harboring the coronavirus and asked him to go back to China. When the Asian student protested that he was not Chinese, the bullying student “proceeded to punch him 20 times in the head on the school yard.”

A3PCON, with the help of Chinese for Affirmative Action and San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies department, set out to create the Stop AAPI Hate website in order to document hate incidents across the country. In the first seven days after launching, over 700 incidents of hate were recorded.

About a hundred reports are coming in per day, said Kulkarni, and most among them are verbal harassment incidents. According to the latest Stop AAPI Hate press release, within the first six weeks of launching on March 19, there have been over 1,700 incident reports including verbal and physical assaults. More than a third of the incidents have occurred in public places like parks, grocery stores, streets and transit.

From being sprayed with cleaning solutions to being spat upon and yelled at, the incidents correspond directly to the frustration and economic worry that’s building up across the nation, inevitably finding a release in misdirected targets.

Asian businesses are reeling under the double whammy of shelter-in-place and a shunning of Asian enterprises. An ABC News report quoted Eva Lee, with the San Francisco Chinatown Merchants Association, saying that foot traffic was down and many restaurants empty even before the shelter-in-place ordinance was issued. It is because of this that hundreds showed up to march in Chinatown on the last day in February calling for a stop to Asian xenophobia.

This is the moment that any leader would be best served by calming the populace and building cohesiveness. Instead, President Trump’s rhetoric has been disastrous as he continues to fuel the suspicions of people. “Don’t ask me, ask China that question, OK,” shot back the president when CBS reporter Weijia Jiang pushed the president to explain why he compares America’s coronavirus testing with other countries. The comment was a snide dig at the reporter’s Asian American roots.

“There is a direct correlation when the president and other elected officials talk about this issue,” said Cynthia Choi, executive director for CAA, on the KALW radio show “Your Call” with host Rose Aguilar. “The general public is not immune to conspiracy theories or efforts to deflect and blame and again it’s really hard to reel back this misinformation and efforts to try to pinpoint China or the Chinese government or its people and we know that there’s a conflation with that Asians and immigrants will bear the brunt for that type of propaganda and misinformation.”

While there are movements and lobbies in place for developing better anti-hate policies, this isn’t a problem that will be solved only with legislation.

Government involvement and legislation tends to remove individual responsibility, even for sympathizers and supporters. In the past, even as I was deeply saddened to read or hear about instances of hate against my own tribe, be it related to gender, religion, race, culture or country, I confess to thinking that someone else — an activist, the government, the police, a politician — is better suited to handle it and there was no need to get personally involved.

That reasoning is deeply flawed. It relocates the bridge between problem and solution to some other entity, person, place or time.

Our best defense against the virus of animosity is to participate in and present a collective front, in defiance of division, whether we are Asian or not.

An essential part of empathy is to put oneself in the place of the person victimized and to give each threat urgency and currency. If we were able to feel the depth of each slight, each curse, each glare, each assault, we would be more clearly and openly committing our support.

If most of these incidents occur in public places, it’s likely that one or two of us are witnesses to such displays. Perhaps we will be able to stanch the vitriol if bystanders speak up, correct the flow of misinformation and intervene, if necessary.

“To now be fearful of your neighbors, your coworkers, colleagues, is morally reprehensible. This is the time to be our better selves and hope that communities will come together,” advised Kulkarni.

Let’s seize this moment of history to tell the world that hate is not part of San Francisco’s lexicon. #BuyAsianAmerican

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

Jaya Padmanabhan

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