“A litany of lament.”
That’s what Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, and his colleagues saw when they launched a website for Asian Americans to report incidents of anti-Asian hate and discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jeung, who founded the platform Stop Anti-Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, spoke at Northeastern University on Monday as part of a new lecture series exploring the troubling rise in anti-Asian bigotry sweeping the country. The wave of hate and xenophobia has been fueled by, among other things, rhetoric used by former president Donald Trump, and repeated by other politicians, blaming the pandemic on China, Jeung said.
But Asian American racism is not a new phenomenon. It has been present throughout our national history, Jeung said, stretching all the way back to the late 19th century when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 amid widespread paranoia that Chinese immigrants were displacing white American workers.
There’s a name for this legacy of xenophobia and racism, Jeung said: “Yellow peril,” referring to the ways white Americans had traditionally viewed Asian and Pacific Islanders as unclean, disease-ridden or unfit for citizenship, and more broadly to anti-Asian paranoia that has permeated Western culture since the Enlightenment.
“That’s been our history, and so we knew when COVID came the same would happen,” Jeung said. “We wanted to be ready this time.”
Stop Anti-Asian American Pacific Islander Hate launched in March of 2020, at the onset of the pandemic in the U.S. The group would receive thousands of self-reported hate crimes and hate-related incidents in the weeks and months to follow—a period of “collective racial trauma,” Jeung said, that continues to play out in communities across the country, even now.
“We see these incidents occur again and again,” he said.
The violence the Asian American community has experienced of late conjures up the trauma of the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II, Jeung said, when the U.S. government forcibly detained tens of thousands of Japanese Americans, relocating them in internment camps following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
And, today, such violence has taken many forms, from online harassment and verbal name-calling, to coughing or spitting, shunning, and physical assaults. It reached a crescendo this past March, when a white man went on a shooting spree in several Atlanta spas, killing eight people, six of whom were Asian.
There was a strong wave of support for the Asian American community that circulated in the aftermath of the shooting, and the issues facing it were brought to the foreground. Jeung noted that racialized trauma has resulted in higher rates of depression, anxiety, and hypervigilance among Asian Americans compared to other groups.
And as a result of pandemic-related impacts, Asian American communities have the second highest rate of unemployment after Black communities, Jeung said. Some of those economic impacts, particularly on Chinese businesses, were undoubtedly made worse by the hateful rhetoric espoused by Trump and others, he said.
Jeung posited that what people are looking for is not individual redress, but a sense of “collective justice.”
“We don’t just want to stop racism, we want to build a movement of resistance,” he said.
Now that conversations are underway about how to overcome anti-Asian racism, Jeung urged students during his lecture on Monday to “translate their distress into actions,” to work to overhaul the narrative about who we are as a nation.
“We need to change the story of who belongs to America,” he said.
Monday’s talk was the first lecture to kick off the inaugural Asia America and the World speaker series at Northeastern, hosted by the university’s Asian Studies Program. Apart from directing attention to the issues facing the Asian American community, the lecture series will also help further President Joseph E. Aoun’s call for more campus-wide diversity and inclusion programming.
That call really began in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after a former Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, said Karl Reid, Northeastern’s chief inclusion officer and senior vice provost, who spoke during Monday’s lecture.
“We’re going to continue to listen … and we’re going to grow as a university, ultimately to become more of an inclusive campus and an inclusive community,” Reid said.
Philip Thai, director of Northeastern’s Asian Studies Program, said Jeung’s talk did well to connect the past and present harms associated with anti-Asian hate.
“Every time there have been pandemics, when there are times of economic stress, or geopolitical tensions and outbreaks of war … Asian Americans are often targeted and singled out,” Thai said.
The next lecture will take place on Oct. 7 and will be delivered by Jane Junn, associate chair in the social sciences at the University of Southern California. The title of Junn’s talk is “Amidst Pandemic and Racial Upheaval: Where Asian Americans Fit.”