As the coronavirus rages on in New York, another, less obvious epidemic runs in parallel to it – a rash of prejudice and even hate crimes perpetrated against Asian and Asian-American communities.
In an attempt to raise awareness of growing anti-Asian prejudice in New York and across America, CUNY’s University Advisory Council on Diversity released a petition calling on state and local officials to condemn racist words and actions taken against Asian-Americans, who have been falsely and unfairly accused of causing or spreading the coronavirus.
The petition notes that while COVID-19 is only months old, the language of disease being weaponized against Asians and Asian-Americans is a tradition that stretches back for centuries.
“The stereotypes of the Chinese in particular and Asian Americans in general as dirty, sickly, and prone to spreading disease is part of [the] United States’ racist history,” the petition reads, going on to trace the history of viral metaphors from the early days of Chinese immigration to San Francisco in the late 19th century to the 2002 SARS epidemic. “The very language of viruses as pathology, uncontrollable and dangerous, is being used to mark people as the problem. It is a dangerous discourse that puts Asian Americans in precarious situations.”
Perhaps the largest obstacle to overcoming this prejudice is that one of the largest culprits in spreading this prejudice has one of the largest pulpits – the presidency of the United States.
“A lot of it has been fueled by the current administration, who have essentially branded China as an enemy,” said Joyce Moy, the executive director of CUNY’s Asian American/Asian Research Institute and one of the petition’s signatories. “Trump’s language, calling this the ‘Chinese virus,’ has only heightened people’s focus […] Things like that heighten people’s xenophobia that you’re seeing perpetrated against Asians.”
Another factor negatively affecting Asian-American communities has been media coverage. In particular, the petition singles out news outlets which “constantly [depict] the spread of the virus and its impact by using images of Asians with face masks” for unintentionally making Asians and Asian-Americans into the “face” of the epidemic.
Moy notes that the use of face masks predates the coronavirus, and has been common in Asia and in Asian-American communities as a means of self-protection for decades.
“The use of masks is something very familiar to this community,” Moy said. “Part of this is that there was tremendous pollution in countries like China; also, particularly among East Asians, you wear the masks in winter to keep the air that you breathe in warm, because there’s a belief that cold air can damage your lungs.”
Ignorance of this context has led to a spike in hate crimes against Asian-Americans in New York – including, Moy says, against those who have been going above and beyond to help mitigate the effects of the virus.
“There was a police sergeant of Asian heritage who was found dead on the street an hour after he was diagnosed positive,” Moy said. “There was an MTA worker who was punched in the face on the front lines. There are small Asian-owned grocery stores that stay open and serve the community at the cost of their own lives.”
“I worry that if one of my grandchildren step out, they will be attacked, simply because they’re Asian.”
In recent weeks, city officials have denounced bias crimes and anti-Asian hatred, in part due to pressure from groups like the University Advisory Council on Diversity. Moy points to an April 6 press conference from Mayor Bill de Blasio as one fruit of her community’s labor.
“There’s been in the midst of this crisis, another crisis that we’ve all seen and we’ve all been disgusted by it, which is discrimination and hatred directed at our Asian-American communities, particularly our Chinese-American community,” de Blasio said. “We want to find the perpetrators of these crimes. We want to find anyone who’s discriminated and throw the full weight of the law at them.”
The CUNY petition ends on a simple plea – “don’t be racist, wash your hands instead” – but scrubbing our country of racism may be easier said than done. Still, Moy doesn’t let anti-Asian prejudice dissuade her.
“People are attacking us as if we are the virus, or because they think we brought the virus here,” Moy said. “My family’s been here six generations. I don’t see a need to prove I’m more American than anyone else after that.”