Asian Americans victimized in coronavirus-led racist abuse

Racial tensions in America are as fraught as they have been for decades, and the global coronavirus pandemic appears to be making matters worse by fueling anti-Asian discrimination. NHK World correspondent Mochizuki Mami interviewed two academics to explain how Asian Americans are being targeted and what they are doing to fight back.

Rising anti-Asian racism

In California last month, a Japanese shopkeeper found a note on the door of his specialty cookware store that contained racial abuse and a bomb threat.

The message included the lines: "Here is America! We don't need anything you sell," and "Go back to Japan you monkey!"

Police are investigating it as a hate crime.

Professor Russell Jeung, Chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, is tracking a rise in racism linked to the pandemic. He helped set up a website in March called Stop AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) Hate. The site records self-reported racism incidents and as of early June, it had received more than 2,000 accounts.

Professor Russell Jeung
Professor Russell Jeung is Chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University.

Jeung says there are three main types of incidents: verbal harassment, physical assaults, and civil rights violations including workplace discrimination or being denied service at hotels and restaurants.

The team behind the website noted a surge of reports after US President Donald Trump started to use the term "Chinese virus." Trump has tweeted that Asian Americans are not to be blamed for the virus, but recently described it as "kung flu". Critics say Trump is trying to distract attention from his handling of the pandemic.

President Trump
US President Donald Trump has been accused of fanning the flames of anti-Asian racism.

Jeung says people began to associate the virus with Chinese ethnicity, and he worries that as businesses reopen in the US, more Asian Americans will find themselves targets.

"People are angry now because of being sheltered in place so long, because the pandemic is still raging, and because Trump keeps on making fun of Asians," he says.

"I know a lot of the Asian American community are fearful of returning back into normal interactions with the community. People are worried about sending their children back to school."

A long history of anti-Asian sentiment

Anti-Asian sentiment has deep roots in US history and experts see a parallel with the "yellow peril" ideology that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. During World War 2, Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. After the 9/11 terrorism attacks, South Asian Americans, as well as Muslim Americans, faced harassment.

"If you look at United States history, as long as Asian Americans have been here, there's been these fault lines of xenophobia and systemic racism, and during times of crisis, those fault lines erupt like an earthquake," says Renee Tajima-Peña, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Professor Tajima-Peña, who is also a filmmaker, says the current atmosphere is reminiscent of events surrounding a notorious 1982 murder.

Renee Tajima-Peña
Renee Tajima-Peña is a professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA.

Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American who was beaten to death by two white autoworkers in Detroit, Michigan. At the time, the success of Japanese carmakers was being blamed for a decline in the US auto industry. Chin was mistaken for Japanese, accused of stealing local jobs, and fatally attacked with a baseball bat. His assailants bargained the charges and were given three years' probation and ordered to pay a $3,000 fine. The lenient sentence sparked an Asian American protest movement.

Vincent Chin
Vincent Chin was killed by two white autoworkers in 1982.

Tajima-Peña, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her documentary about Chin's murder, says racism is "continual in the US. It's baked into the society."

Asian Americans raise their voices

Professor Jeung says many Asian American communities are being disproportionately affected, such as those working for meatpacking plants and the elderly living in nursing homes, but they find themselves being racially profiled as threats, and it's fostering an understanding that didn't always exist before.

"Asian Americans can recognize how other groups are also racially profiled as threats and dangers, and so we're working in solidarity to address that," he says.

Jeung says the Black Lives Matter movement has brought the issue of racism to the fore, and Asian Americans are trying to figure out what their role is.

"Are they part of the problem or part of the solution? They need to address their own individual racism, but they also have to work to dismantle a system that's racist."

Asian Americans in BLM
Many young Asian Americans have participated in protests across the US.

Some young Asian Americans have created a social media campaign called 'Wash the Hate', designed to raise awareness of the virus and the bigotry it's fostering. It features videos of people washing their hands while sharing personal stories about how the coronavirus has impacted their lives. It has drawn the support of Asian American actors and fashion moguls.

Professor Tajima-Peña says the coronavirus serves as something of a tipping point for race relations and she believes it will impact voting in November.

She says it's clear just from looking at the streets now. "You see young Asian Americans marching alongside African Americans, Latinos, and young white Americans. You just see this incredible diversity of young Americans who are angry and they want justice and equality."

"Everything that's going on right now with the Asians for Black Lives Matter and the fight against the anti-Asian sentiment and anti-Asian targeting with coronavirus, it's really gotten people angry, it's gotten people moving, it's gotten people energized. And that's going to feed into the elections," she says.