Asian-Americans and the coronavirus

It feels we’re being sent backward in various ways — and that’s painful

Shahid Javed Burki April 07, 2020
Let us begin with history and some numbers. Although Asians have been in the United States since the 17th century, large-scale migration did not begin until the mid-19th century. However restrictive laws during the four-decade period between 1880s and 1920s kept out various Asian groups, eventually prohibiting all people from that continent from entering the US. Those in power wanted their country to remain white. Immigration laws were reformed during the 1940s and 1960s, abolishing national origin quotas. In the 1960s those who were already in the US were allowed to bring in their family members, a provision that the Donald Trump administration calls “chain migration”, and would like to do away with. According to the information provided by the 2010 census, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic minority in the US. The 2020 census now underway is likely to confirm that trend.

In 2017, Asian-Americans comprised 5.6% of America’s population. Including multiracial Asian-Americans, the percentage increases to 6.9%, or 22.41 million Asian migrants. There are several areas of concentration with the largest number, 5.6 million, living in the state of California. The next four areas of concentration are New York, with 1.6 million; Texas with 1.1 million; New Jersey with 795,000; and Hawaii with 781,000. There is a significant diversity of religions among the Asian migrants. Christians with 42% constitute the largest group followed by Buddhists with 14% and Hindus with 10%. Muslims make up 4% of the Asian migrant population and Sikhs 1%.

The Asian presence in the US has not been free of tension. The American investors building the trans-continental railways imported tens of thousands of workers from China. Some of the Chinatowns in the country date back to that period. Once the railway tracks were laid, there was an effort to send back the workers to China and when that was found not to be feasible, the country was formally closed to the entry of the Chinese. The Sikhs met the same fate. They were brought in to settle land in the country’s western states. They too were not welcome to stay once they had introduced agriculture to the virgin lands in the area. Rather than move back to India, a significant number of Sikhs went across to Canada and settled in the Vancouver area.

By calling the coronavirus that hit the world in the early weeks of 2020, the “Chinese virus” and by persisting with that definition, President Donald Trump brought to the surface some of the sentiment that lay not far below the white American population. There was unhappiness on the part of many about the role played by the countries of origin of the Asian-Americans in keeping “middle America” impoverished. Among those who were angered by the President and the anti-Asian sentiment he had was Grace Meng, a Democrat, who represented a large multi-cultural community in New York State. “I have at times felt helpless,” she said. “ Hearing stories consistently from around the world where people are being harassed and assaulted really reminds me that often times we are, as a community, still viewed as outsiders.”

In his coverage for The New York Times of the anti-Asian feelings in the US, Matt Stevens reflected on the distance the members of the community had traveled over the years. “After enduring decades of exclusion and discrimination that include some of the darkest chapters of American history, Asian-Americans entered 2020 with reason for optimism on the political front. A wave of second-generation Asian-Americans had come of age, sparking hope that they could help break voter-turnout records in the fall. And three people with roots in the diaspora had run for the country’s highest office during the same cycle with one of them, Andrew Yang, energising Asian-American voters in a fashion seldom seen before.” And then along came Donald Trump who had built his political career in part on dividing the American population into two classes: those who belonged to America and those who had forced themselves into the country. His base was made up mostly of angry white men and women — mostly men — who were poorly educated, lived in the large expanse of land those on the country’s two coasts called the “flyover space” and had done poorly in economic terms. During his campaign for the presidency, Trump had convinced this group that their economic woes were largely because of China. Many industries that had employed them had moved to China and that country was stealing the American future by copying the latter’s technology. This story was bought and turned this segment of the American population into what came to be called “Trump’s base”.

Stevens continued the story he titled “For Asian-Americans, taunts are painful echo of ‘outsiders’ status” by referring to the many interviews he conducted with Asian-American politicians, academics and leaders of non-profit groups. They “denounced the racial animus that has shown itself during the crisis, vowing to speak out against it and to protect their community even as they personally acknowledged feeling angry, fearful and unsettled.” Speaking of those who had joined Trump in denouncing China and the American-Chinese, Representative Judy Chu, Democrat of California, singled out Republican politicians who were expressing the same sentiments as the President. “They are doing this because they have certain political motives and they are not taking into account the effect of their actions on other huge groups of people including Asian-Americans.” The racist abuse that surfaced brought back painful memories going back almost a century and a half. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment in the 1940s are events that contributed to the perpetual foreigner and “Yellow Peril” myths that promoted the idea that people with Asian features were disease carriers, a threat to the American nation and could never become truly American.

Some in the Asian community believe that there were strong echoes of the period after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, when “anyone who was brown was equated with being a terrorist,” said Kathrick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science at University of California, Riverside. Even when Trump was persuaded to give up the “Chinese virus” name for coronavirus, he did it in terms that suggested an “us and them” approach. “They are working very closely with us to get rid of it,” — “it” being the virus — he tweeted.

Andrew Yang, the candidate for the US presidency said that over the period when the virus arrived in the US, he had experienced sudden moments of self-consciousness while in public. And he had been acutely reminded of the sadness and anger he felt as a child when he was one of only a few Asian-Americans at his school. “It’s been a real uphill battle over my lifetime and it feels like we’ve made really dramatic progress. And then it feels we’re being sent backward in various ways — and that’s painful.”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2020.

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