It has been a year since the outbreak of COVID-19. While Patient Zero’s identity has yet to be verified, the World Health Organization first tracked the viral pneumonia back to Wuhan, China in December 2019. By March 2020 the virus had spread, bringing the entire world to a halt.
As medical experts scrambled to find a solution, the source of the pandemic soon became racialized. The infectious disease was colloquially referred to as the “China virus.” Former U.S. President Donald Trump even used the misnomer during interviews and on his now-deactivated Twitter account. Those of Chinese descent were blamed for the dilemma, and those who looked remotely Asian were also indiscriminately accosted. In light of these crimes, the UN reported that Trump’s comments revived the country’s history of violent xenophobia.
Elderly Asians assaulted and attacked in broad daylight
With Lunar New Year celebrations underway, anti-Asian crimes have spiked. Several elderly Asians were physically assaulted and, in many cases, brutally shoved to the sidewalks. The most recent case went viral when prominent actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered rewards to anyone who could identify the perpetrators who had attacked the elders in Oakland’s Chinatown. The duo offered $25,000 for information on the suspects.
These attacks have been hotly contested due to a key issue. The San Francisco Mayor London Breed said, “Sadly the perpetrator in most cases has been African American. And as an African American woman, as the mayor of your city, I am here to hold everyone accountable.”
Consequently, John C. Yang, president and CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, also emphasized that more policing might not be the solution.
We worry about over-criminalization of communities… We could develop community-based solutions—assistance for the victims, assistance for the businesses that are damaged.John C. Yang
A community divided
While many in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community agree on the viciousness of the attacks, the community remains split in their reactions and search for answers.
In the Facebook group, Subtle Asian Traits (SAT)—a page dedicated to discussing the experiences of Asians in the west—member Stephanie Tang made a post highlighting the recent attacks. She wrote, “The problem is that this issue is not put into light by mainstream media.” She prefaced her post with a disclaimer, urging SAT members that these tragedies are meant to bring the AAPI community together—not excuses to be anti-Black.
However, some felt that Tang’s disclaimer took attention away from the real problem. In the comments, David Chu wrote, “If your first reaction to seeing a 91 year old be almost killed is making sure none of us are saying anti-[B]lack rhetoric, you’ve prioritized another community’s needs over your own.”
Seeking justice in a broken system
Kevin Lim*, 24, is a Santa Clara county resident who received his M.Ed from the University of California, San Diego. As a longtime advocate for intersectional environmental justice, Lim weighed in on the fraught issues plaguing both communities.
“The police as a historical institution is genuinely anti-Black but it’s, unfortunately, the only system of law enforcement that we have,” he said. “It’s a broken system and needs reform. However, telling someone not to call the police when a crime is actively being committed seems like bad advice.”
Lim acknowledged that whether or not the perpetrator would receive fair treatment in custody was a different issue. He conceded that until just solutions are created, calling the police is the only viable way victims can seek some semblance of justice.
The source of conflict
Despite its claim to fame as a melting-pot society, the United States is not a paradise of racial harmony. America continues to be governed by a white majority. Their control over its multicultural populace has striking similarities to the ways European imperialists dominated their colonized subjects.
In a 1973 study published by Science & Society, Richard Morrock detailed the “divide and rule” strategy. Western colonialists would create differences within conquered populations, exaggerate and exploit those divisions, and then politicize the differences so that they could exist even after decolonization.
The most haunting example of this approach is the German-Belgian colonization of Rwanda. Both countries followed a policy that favored the minority Tutsi group. Compared to the majority Hutu tribe, the Tutsis enjoyed more opportunities for education and status. Before colonialism, the Hutus and Tutsis were indeed separate tribes but their differences were economic rather than ethnic. By following the “divide and rule” strategy, the Germans, and later, the Belgians, were able to funnel Hutu resentment toward the Tutsi minority.
The Rwandan genocide is largely due in part to Western colonial strategies in dividing people and diverting blame from the actual perpetrator.
The myth of the ‘model minority’
Like their European counterparts, white Americans subjugate communities of color with the same divisive strategies.
Asian Americans have long been heralded as the ‘model minority.’ Where other races like Black and Latinx populations struggled to achieve mobility, Asian Americans were the hardworking minorities who “deserved” to succeed. Despite the privileged position that Asian Americans supposedly inhabit, the recent rise in anti-Asian crimes reveals how easily “otherness” can be cast out.
In 1999, Claire Jean Kim published a study entitled “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans.” Kim details how different racial groups in the United States are pitted against one another. In the chart shown below, Kim explains how Asian Americans are seen as more superior in society (i.e., socioeconomic mobility) but, unlike Blacks, are outsiders—foreigners whose cultures remain perpetually alien. On the flip side, Black people are considered “insiders” by white society but are deemed inferior.
Oppression isn’t a competition
While the oppression the Asian American and Black communities experienced were starkly different, it was—and still is—oppression. Like the European imperialists dividing their colonies, white structures of power in America benefit from communities of color blaming one another.
On Twitter, the Anti Police-Terror Project posted an article quoting Sam Lew: “Every time there is an act of anti-Asian violence, I wonder how we will be used once again as pawns to advance a pro-police agenda, despite the fact that police have not kept us safe.”
Overall, Asian American and Black communities have collectively experienced more discrimination since the pandemic began. A Pew Research Center study found that 3 in 10 or more U.S. adults think racist views about Asian and Black Americans have increased since before the outbreak.
Those in power—those who have a duty to protect all communities—are doing nothing. Asian Americans, Black communities, and other minority groups in the United States need to band together. We are the experts on what is best for our neighborhoods. Instead of relying on a government deeply entrenched in racially harmful policies, we can create our own sustainable and intersectional initiatives. We can save ourselves.
The divisive tactics currently employed are affecting the ways each community views each other, allowing anger and outrage to generalize an entire people.
It was the government that declared the Black Lives Matter protestors as rioters and looters. It was the government that deemed any Asian American as a virus. We are needlessly taking out our rage at one another while the actual sowers of chaos remain safe, and in power. If we do nothing, we are spinning a never-ending wheel of misfortune.
We may be culturally different, but we are each other’s neighbors, friends, and co-workers. We have been used by others and against each other. We vacillate from victim to victimizer as national narratives constantly change. Despite our differences, our struggle for dignity unites us all. We are stronger together than we are apart.
**Name has been changed