If there is anything that can be more callous, more vicious, and more capable of gripping and crushing people’s hearts during the pandemic than the COVID-19 virus, hate crimes and xenophobic violence against racial minorities and vulnerable groups are definitely at the top of the list.
Anti-Asian violence has surged in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic and the trend has yet to show any significant signs of abating. A large number of verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans have been reported, especially since last year. The most notorious example was the mass shooting in Atlanta on March 16, when Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, killed eight people, of which six were Asian women. In a news report covering this cold-blooded shooting, Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) said the shooting brought new urgency to the outrage against former President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric against Asian Americans, and particularly Chinese Americans.
According to the Pew Research Center, Chinese Americans are the largest Asian origin group in the U.S., making up 23 percent of the country’s Asian population, or 5.4 million people. Asian Americans are projected to be the nation’s largest immigrant group by the middle of the century.
But now anger, fear, uncertainty, and loss are gripping many Asian American communities in the United States. According to another Pew Research survey in April 2021, 32 percent of Asian adults who participated in the survey say they have feared being threatened or physically attacked, while 81 percent say violence against Asian Americans is increasing. One in five U.S. Asians cites former President Donald Trump as the main reason for the rise in violence against Asian Americans.
On many issues, including immigration and race, Donald Trump has ignited intemperate anger in many Americans, some of whom seem to hold very xenophobic or even extremist stands and viewpoints. Alejandro Mayorkas, the U.S. secretary of homeland security, claimed that domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to the United States today. The brutality and the widespread fear it created in many Asian communities in the U.S. suggest that hate crimes in the form of random, unprovoked, and undifferentiated violence against Asian Americans should be considered a part of the threat Mayorkas mentioned.
In the present reality, if you are an ethnic Asian who happens to live in the United States, you may need to watch over your shoulder even when going out jogging or shopping.
“Hate crimes were on the rise even before COVID,” Dr. John Merrill, a non-resident scholar at George Washington Institute for Korean Studies, George Washington University, told The Diplomat in an interview. “A large part of the blame was Trump’s habitual use of racially charged expressions.”
Many have cited former President Trump as one of the top reasons for the widespread and rapid growth of violence against Asian Americans, especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a recently released report by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of the largest U.S. cities increased 145 percent in 2020. Quoting FBI data, the report indicates that anti-Asian hate crime incidents surged notably during the Trump administration after an overall and continuous drop since the mid-1990s.
Even though the World Health Organization has made it clear that place-specific disease names could provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities and may bring serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods, Trump and several members of his administration repeatedly used very racist terms in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. That did not happen in a vacuum: U.S. domestic xenophobic resentments had been on the rise even before the pandemic, especially since Trump took office. As Angela Gover, Shannon Harper, and Lynn Langton pointed out in a paper published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, the prejudiced attitudes and actions on the individual level may be significantly reinforced by institutional-level support during times of crisis or great change, including the coronavirus pandemic.
A peer-reviewed journal, the American Journal of Public Health, has also published a study on the association of Trump’s racist tweets with anti-Asian sentiments. The study, which was conducted by a group of scholars at the University of California San Francisco, claims that “When comparing the week before March 16, 2020, to the week after, there was a significantly greater increase in anti-Asian hashtags associated with #chinesevirus compared with #covid19.” According to the study, Trump’s tweet about the “Chinese virus” on that date “was directly responsible for a major increase in anti-Asian hashtags… and the use of terms like ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘kung flu,’ which Trump publicly said at a rally in June (2020), have come alongside a rise in racist sentiment toward Asians in the U.S.”
Also, Elliot Benjamin, a scholar at Capella University at Minneapolis in Minnesota, examined the relationship between Trump and the coronavirus pandemic in the context of xenophobia against Asian Americans. Benjamin pointed out that many of the statements and policies by Donald Trump are “completely antithetical to the basic premises of humanistic psychology that involve engaging in empathic, authentic relationships with people.”
Trump himself, predictably, resisted any responsibility, as the following exchange, from a press conference in March last year, reveals:
Question: What’s the concrete measure that you’re taking to combat the hate crimes against Asian (Americans)?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t know. All I know is this: Asian Americans in our country are doing fantastically well.
How could Trump’s words and deeds, particularly his name-calling and finger-pointing amid the pandemic, lead to such a shocking rise in Anti-Asian hate crimes? Trump’s comments must be seen in the context of his embrace of white supremacy as a weapon in his war against everything and everyone he dislikes, including the non-white immigrants and minority racial groups.
In an analysis for CNN, Vivien Tsou, national field director for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, argued that Asian Americans “did not face distinct peril but were targeted by the same forces of hate endured by Black Americans.” As Tsou said, “it all stems from White Supremacy.” The analysis also pointed that “even though Trump is no longer in office, much of the Republican Party can’t shake its relish for raising the specter of outsiders – often people of color – while hinting that they threaten majority White American culture.”
“[H]ate crimes against newly arrived immigrants have been around for a long time. Over the years, different minorities were targeted – whether they were Chinese, Irish, Italian, or Jewish-American,” Merrill told The Diplomat. “When there were fears about a new contagious disease and if the public perceived an association with a specific ethnic group, existing prejudices were exacerbated and hate crimes increased. In recent years, we’ve seen this happen with AIDS and Haitians; SARS and Chinese; and Ebola and West Africans.”
As a maverick political figure with a sizeable popularity base, Trump’s words and deeds, even when they shock the conscience, often generate lasting consequences. For example, amid all the finger-pointing at China and allegations that the Chinese are stealing American jobs, Trump and his administration started an unprecedented trade war with China. This has yet to bring many jobs back to the United States, however, as it is U.S. companies themselves, driven by the force of market competition, that are “stealing” American jobs.
More recently, by constantly blaming China for the pandemic, using racist terms like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” Trump reignited and further aggravated the long-held and deeply entrenched xenophobic resentment in U.S. society, which he and his party could use for various political ends. It’s notable that, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution in September 2020 to denounce anti-Asian racism, including terms like the “Wuhan virus,” 164 Republicans voted against it, and only 14 voted in favor. More recently, Congress overwhelmingly passed new legislation addressing the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Every single vote against the bill came from Republicans.
For now, it appears that Trump has left Biden with an overall acceptable blueprint and framework for approaching relations with China, now perceived as the United States’ primary peer competitor. But with respect to fighting the pandemic and especially dealing with the surging domestic racial conflicts and hate crimes, including those against Asian Americans, Trump has left the Biden administration a complete mess. The big problem is how to fight rising attacks and harassment against racial groups amid cresting white nationalism and domestic extremism. To note, the number of hate incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate, an organization created in 2020, increased significantly from 3,795 to 6,603 during March 2021.
Merrill was encouraged by the recent legislation, calling it “a good first step in reducing Anti-Asian hate crimes.” But he expressed concern that “the current wave of anti-Asian violence will end only when the pandemic is over.”
“Conceivably, it could even get worse before it gets better, especially if the lab-leak theory of COVID’s origin gains more traction,” Merrill added.
Indeed, even as I was working on this article, my cellphone suddenly alerted me that a 55-year-old Chinese woman had been “knocked out in unprovoked attack in NYC’s Chinatown” on June 1.