Aligning Public Policy with Fighting Anti-Asian Xenophobia

In a surprise homage to their dedicated fans, South Korean boy band BTS performed a cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You” on an episode of MTV Unplugged on Tuesday, Feb. 23. Any plaudits of the show were quickly overshadowed by outrage over German radio host’s Matthias Matuschik’s racist response to the performance, including comparing the group to COVID-19 by describing them as “some crappy virus that hopefully there will be a vaccine for soon as well.” Calls for an apology for the incident were met by a statement released by radio network Bayern 3 claiming that Matuschik was “[expressing] his opinion in an ironically exaggerated manner.” 

Let us be clear: racism is not an opinion. Bayern 3’s decision to first downplay Matuschik’s bigoted comments are just one example of the perpetuation of misinformed stereotypes that seek to tie Asian people as inseparable from COVID-19. While the network eventually sent out a second apology, the comments echo some of the dangerous rhetoric used by former President Donald Trump to criticize China that stoked the flames of anti-Asian sentiment. During his rallies, Trump referred to COVID-19 as “kung flu” or the “China flu,” and promoted the idea that the novel coronavirus originated from a laboratory in China without offering any evidence. 

Comments linking Asians to COVID-19 are not a joke as they have had real consequences on the livelihoods of those who have been scapegoated over the past year and stem from a long history of racist rhetoric. A report released by the UN Human Rights Council in October showed that experts were concerned with the “contribution of the President of the United States in seemingly legitimizing these [physical and verbal attacks on Asian Americans].” With the reported surge of attacks on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, there is a need for public policy to align with long-term efforts to combat it. 

Growing anti-Asian sentiment due to overall scapegoating of Asian Americans in the past year has manifested itself into a spike of hate-fueled attacks on the community. For example, 84-year-old Thai American Vicha Ratanapkdee succumbed to his injuries two days after being violently attacked while taking a stroll in San Francisco. 

Stop AAPI Hate, a hate tracker created in 2020 by several Asian American groups, has recorded more than 2,800 incidents of racism and discrimination targeting Asian Americans between March and December 2020. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic began making headlines in January of last year, media tabloid networks such as the Daily Mail seized upon “revolting footage” of a woman eating a bat, which many viewers latched onto as a demonstration of “dirty” Chinese eating habits and as the cause of the virus. However, the video was not even set in China. Instead, it was taken by an online travel show host named Wang Mengyun who was eating the dish in the Pacific Island nation of Palau. 

While many of the more recent attacks on the AAPI community are byproducts of the pandemic, the rhetoric echoes longtime historical tropes. Ellen Wu, a history professor at Indiana University, notes that the stereotype that Asian food is dirty or disease-laden dates back to the 1850’s when white American workers sought to scapegoat Chinese people for their economic woes by spreading the false notion that they eat rat or dog meat.

“To white Americans, these new immigrants were different in a threatening way, and there is fear of the ‘other,’ of difference,” Wu said.

There are a number of immediate actions that can be taken on a public policy level to combat the attacks on the AAPI community. The Biden Administration’s new memorandum condemning racism against the AAPI community is a good first step as it acknowledged the harm that inflammatory and xenophobic language during the pandemic has caused and pledged Federal support in the effort. The logical next step should be for the government to pass the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act, which seeks to promote better hate crime data collection and encourage states to reform laws to better recognize, document, and report hate crimes to law enforcement. 

Localized AAPI community organizers have also taken the lead in organizing efforts to assist victims in reporting, providing resources for interracial solidarity, training residents in bystander intervention, and offering to escort elderly AAPI’s on their walks. At the same time, many of these activists have warned against increased police presence as a solution because it may escalate tension and conflict in minority communities, and hinder solidarity with the Black community. 

These efforts are important, but they can not substitute the long-term public policy that needs to be instituted to reverse a long history of anti-Asian racism. This first requires the strengthening of partnerships between the AAPI community and other groups such as African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans. The June 2020 protests in response to the murder of George Floyd most recently showed the importance of solidarity between the AAPI and the Black communities in combatting structural racism, a partnership with a long history stretching back to the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.

One arena that is critical in shaping the fight against racism is reimagining community thinking  within our school districts. Promising research shows that schools can lead the way in implementing evidence-based intervention that can reduce bullying, hate speech, and harassment in schools. 

This also includes debunking the “model minority myth,” a 1960’s notion that seeks to present Asian Americans as academically and economically successful. In doing so, it thereby paves over the diversity of heritage, religion, immigration and socio-economic backgrounds within the community and the myth has been historically been used as a cudgel to invalidate other groups’ concerns of racist mistreatment. The concept of AAPI’s having a dual identity as “perpetual foreigners” and “model minorities” creates continued challenges in the community’s sense of belonging and thus enhances perceptions of racial divisions.

The long term changes that the AAPI community needs to combat the strains of racism and xenophobia in the United States require an overall restructuring of how we view government, society, and language. It is only through continued advocacy and racial solidarity that public policy can align with said goals.

Art by Kalo Grimsby for the UC San Diego Guardian.

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