Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Putting an end to anti-Asian hate, equity and the American Rescue Plan, the cost of lost schooling, and more, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 45. March 24, 2021

Putting an End to Anti-Asian Hate 

As Covid-19 cases began their relentless rise last spring, so did instances of anti-Asian harassment and attacks. The former president’s insistence on blaming the pandemic on China gave a green light to overt, often violent, expressions of age-old prejudices. A new report by Stop AAPI Hate analyzes 3,795 instances of harassment and violence from March 2020 through February 2021. Two out of three were targeted at women.  Stand Against Hate has tracked hundreds of personal accounts of verbal attacks, physical assaults, harassment of Asian American children, and more.

The shooting spree in Atlanta last week that killed eight people, including four women of Korean descent and two women of Chinese descent has galvanized Asian Americans and allies to demand an end to the toxic mix of racism, white supremacy, and misogyny. In this interview with Covid, Race, and the Revolution, Stewart Kwoh, president emeritus and founder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles and co-executive director of The Asian American Education Project, describes the roots of anti-Asian hate and explains why the solutions lie in government action, multiracial solidarity, education, and organizing.

CRR: Briefly explain the historical context for the anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic.

Stewart Kwoh: Asian Americans have been historically scapegoated for different problems. They were scapegoated especially after the building of the railroads in the 1860s and ’70s for taking jobs and economic opportunities from Whites. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first that explicitly banned an ethnic group from coming into the United States. Then it was extended to other Asian groups so by the 1930s all people from what they called Asiatic countries were barred from immigrating to the United States. These bans were lifted during World War II but practically used until 1965, when the Civil Rights Movement removed this stigma. And during World War II almost the entire population of Japanese Americans in the continental United States — more than 120,000 — were incarcerated in concentration camps, even though they were US citizens. It was another instance of blaming Asian Americans and seeing us as foreigners. 

What’s really at stake is multiracial democracy. There have been so many  episodes where Americans and politicians did not care to differentiate Asian Americans from Asians or lumped us all together. So as long as we looked Asian we were the enemy or the adversary. Now it's coming to bear again amid the rhetoric of the so-called Chinese virus. It’s a test of multiracial democracy.

CRR: What exactly is being tested?

SK: Whether we will actually incorporate Asian Americans as Americans, not as the perpetual foreigner, not as the model minority used as a wedge against other minority groups, but as Americans who have many of the same challenges as other people of color in the United States. As Asian Americans are seen as the other, not fully American, we have bonds with other people of color, who similarly are not treated as real Americans. We are also testing whether the lives of Asian Americans will be valued and families supported, and whether a genuine and thorough investigation will be done to unveil the racial and/or gender motivation of the killer. 

CRR: The new administration has condemned the harassment and attacks and moved away from blaming China for the virus. How might that relieve tensions?

SK: What’s going to be crucial going forward is whether politicians will keep playing out the relationship with China in totally negative terms. That becomes the larger picture when the US and China are vying for global influence. Diversity, equity, and inclusivity will be severely tested, and Asian Americans may become collateral damage. President Biden’s visit to Atlanta is welcomed and his statement that hate must end is a beginning.  But the long-term nature of this problem will take Asian Americans and our allies years to speak out and condemn scapegoating.

CRR: What should be done to change the tone and fight the hate?

SK: Cities and counties should establish ad-hoc task forces to look at the problem and deal with how various agencies and institutions should address it. These task forces must be community led. Communities have a lot of questions and suspicions about police departments. It’s important to debate that in every local area.

It will also be important for multiracial coalitions to come together and address anti-Asian bias in the context of the broader conversation about racial justice. Asians need to support Blacks in the struggle for racial justice. They need to support Latinos and Native Americans. And other people of color need to support Asians at this crucial period in time. Obviously all Americans should support Asian Americans at this time but there’s more unity and similarities of experience to other people of color. 

There also should be widespread use of a curriculum on Asian Americans and other people of color. In California, the state board of education just passed a model curriculum to teach ethnic studies in schools.  That's a long-term opportunity to teach about multiracial democracy and the particular struggles, contributions, and challenges of Asian Americans. 

Finally, I urge people to speak up. They should be outraged by politicians and others who constantly blame Asians for the problems of the pandemic. 

CRR: What inspiring examples do you see of multiracial activism and organizing to stop anti-Asian hate?

SK: In LA County, the LA vs. Hate multiracial coalition has been focusing more on Asian Americans recently. Last week they had a rally of about 30 multiracial civil rights and community groups to support the fight against anti-Asian violence. Oakland has had a number of initiatives where Asian Americans participate in mutual aid and escort initiatives for safety. Even before the Atlanta shootings, initiatives were percolating. Now there’s even more interest.

CRR: You’ve been doing this work for a long time. What gives you hope?

SK: This time around, people are really, really upset, angry, and saddened by the killings in Atlanta. I think it’s awakened the Asian American community. In the past, Asians were able to go to court, they tried to go to the legislature, but that took a long time and they didn’t always see the fruits of their advocacy. So many people are activated now. Raising our voices and linking our struggles with other people of color is the way to go.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

Gender, race, and a push for policy change

The Atlanta killings reflect America’s long, intertwined pattern of racialized and sexualized violence against Asian women. Karen Leong and Karen Kuo, associate professors of Asian Pacific American Studies at Arizona State University, trace the history of this poisonous mix,  beginning with the first US immigration law based on race, the 1875 Page Act, which prevented Chinese women from entering the country for “immoral purposes” — the assumption was that they were prostitutes, though many were wives hoping to join their husbands.

New York Times reporter Brian X. Chen wonders whether the Atlanta  massacre will inspire solidarity among the vastly diverse and rapidly growing population of Asian Americans — immigrants or descendants from more than 20 countries who speak different languages and have the largest wealth gap in the US. “The endless list of disparities and nuances has made solidarity elusive for Asian-Americans, even as activist groups demand that our issues be recognized.”

Novelist Gish Jen explores whether the shootings and the public outcry will mark a turning point for Asian American justice and inclusion, as George Floyd’s murder awakened the nation to police brutality against Black Americans. “Will this country own the racism and misogyny behind the gunman’s targeting of Asian women? Will Americans finally see these problems as everyone’s problem?” 

In a blog posted a month before the shootings, which has become even more urgent now, Grace Nicolette of the Center for Effective Philanthropy calls on funders to stop erasing AAPI voices and perspectives in conversations about equity. “AAPIs are often viewed as being ‘white adjacent,’ which paints us as a monolith instead of a multicultural group.” Distinctions that go to the heart of racial inequity are often overlooked, she says. “For instance, according to the COVID Tracking Project, through February 14, 2021, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were most likely of any racial group in the US to have contracted Covid-19. But I have not seen this data point discussed anywhere.”

AAPI leaders in Georgia are channeling their anger over the killings into political action, Politico reports. They’re demanding a national database that accurately tracks race-based violence and changes in the way hate crimes are monitored, and they’re also gearing up for a big push on voter turnout to increase AAPI political representation statewide and nationally.

As news spread Tuesday of yet another mass shooting, this time in Boulder, Colorado, Ishena Robinson of The Root captured the feelings of many people across the country: “As we begin to cautiously hope for the winding down of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, we are also beginning to see the resurgence of another fatal sickness ailing America.”

In the new round of federal relief, a focus on equity

As it begins to distribute $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief funds, the Treasury Department is proceeding with a racial equity review of its programs and policies, the New York Times reports. The action follows President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring all federal agencies to advance racial equity, starting with an assessment of their own operations. The Treasury move is especially important to ensure that relief money, which was slow to reach people and communities of color under the previous administration, is disbursed fairly and prioritizes those in greatest need. 

The federal cash infusion can’t come quickly enough. The pandemic has worsened  long-standing debt problems for American consumers while limiting access to legal remedies, ABA Journal writes. Federal relief legislation and other policies temporarily stopped certain evictions, foreclosures, and student-loan repayment. But private debt such as credit cards and auto loans are subject to company policies and state regulations — and only some states have taken emergency steps such as suspending car repossession. Americans carry a lot of consumer debt, but nobody bears a heavier burden than Black Americans — in no small part because they are charged higher interest rates and slapped with excessive fees for late payments and default.

The pandemic pushed 9.8 million more people in the US to the brink of hunger — or over it in 2020, according to new modeling by Feeding America and University of Illinois Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics Craig Gunderson. The increase brought the total food-insecure population to 45 million, a third of them children. Food insecurity was more than twice as high among Black people than among Whites before Covid, and while the new federal relief plan will ease the problem, food insecurity is projected to fall much more slowly among Blacks than Whites. Bottom line, Gunderson writes in The Conversation: “Food insecurity was a huge issue for the US before Covid-19; it was a huge issue during the pandemic; and it will continue to be so after. And, in particular, those who are most at risk of food insecurity will continue to be especially vulnerable.” 

The cost of lost schooling

New York City public high schools reopened Monday. The Los Angeles Unified School District will begin reopening elementary schools in mid-April and plans to bring back secondary school students by the end of the month. Chicago Public School students and parents rallied last weekend in Millennium Park, demanding the reopening of high schools.

Much has been written about the impact of remote learning on students of color and low-income students who may have limited access to technology or live in crowded homes without quiet space to study or have parents who aren’t home to monitor learning because they’re juggling two and three jobs. Now research is revealing the consequences for economic growth. The Brookings Institution estimates that just four months of lost education would hurt future US earnings by $2.5 trillion, or 12.7 percent of the annual output, Bloomberg reports. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development projects that four-month school closures could slow a country’s gross domestic product by an average of 1.5 percent over the rest of the 21st century. 

Black funerals in the age of Covid

As coronavirus fatalities surged in Detroit last spring, funeral directors from across the state banded together to care for the dead and grieving families — many of whom lost multiple members and never got to say goodbye, the Detroit News writes. The experience “really changed me,” said Steve Kemp, a Black funeral director in Southfield, Michigan, who handled overflow from overwhelmed Black-owned funeral homes in Detroit, 15 miles away. “I felt like I was triaging in a war zone.”

A new Frontline documentary goes inside two of the oldest Black-owned funeral homes in New Orleans as the staff tries to reimagine traditional cultural mourning rituals in an era of lockdowns and social distance, and to comfort a city that at one point had the nation’s highest per capita Covid death rate.

Continuing to educate the public

Stay Covered Together, a national public education campaign created by the Harlem Children’s Zone, aims to drive awareness about the importance of wearing masks to stay safe from Covid and protect one another. The NAACP, StriveTogether, and PolicyLink, along with respected community organizations across the country, are partners in the effort to protect communities most impacted by the devastating effects of the virus — communities challenged by poverty and economic insecurity — by enlisting everyone to play a part. 

Covid, Race, and the Revolution will not publish next week. Look for our next issue April 7, and thank you for reading.

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We hope you find this series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.