The Same Hate That Targeted Muslims Is Turning on Asian Americans Now
As Trump talked about a ‘Kung flu,’ Asian Americans have been spit on, yelled at, attacked, and made into scapegoats for a virus that has no ethnicity, religion, or ideology.
Earlier this week, House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy used the House floor to falsely blame Democrats for trying to cancel and “outlaw” Dr. Seuss, a dead author whose best-selling children’s books are still available to read. The decision to stop publishing six of his old, racist books was in fact made by the publisher and his estate, which admitted the books “portray people”—including Asians—"in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
Still, the rage of frenzied masses who are still mourning the loss of Potato Head’s pronouns but are fine canceling democratic elections had to be satiated with another straw man to shoot.
Unfortunately, some of them are aiming at Asian American communities across the country, who are enduring a stunning spike in violent attacks. I didn’t hear McCarthy rage about more than 3,000 incidents that have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian American Pacific Islanders, or the 150 percent increase over the previous year in anti-Asian American hate crimes in 16 of the country’s most populous cities in 2020.
Sen. Tom Cotton promised to “take a very hard look” as to why we are giving visas to Chinese students. I haven’t heard Cotton plan to “take a very hard look” at what compelled a man to almost stab to death a father and his two young boys a year ago in a grocery store in Midland, Texas after he falsely accused them of being from China. The man, who is now visibly scarred, is from Myanmar.
You might be wondering why I, a Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants, am using my column to discuss hate against another ethnic community. It’s because I’ve been through it. In 2021, my Muslim and South Asian communities are still told to “go back to our country.” We just endured a Trump administration that ran on and enacted a “Muslim Ban.” Twenty years after 9/11, our acceptance is still conditional and under permanent surveillance. To some, we are perpetual suspects and villains, “invaders” on a caravan along with undocumented immigrants, who will “replace” and cancel real American culture, which apparently includes racist children’s books. Hate doesn’t require logic, it feeds on fear, misinformation, and anger.
When I read about the elderly Thai man recently killed in San Francisco, I remembered Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first victim of a post-9/11 hate crime. He was a bearded Sikh man who wore a turban and ran a gas station in Arizona, whose murderer boasted that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.” Bigots and white supremacists are not nuanced in their hate, and all of us who will never achieve whiteness will always be in their target sights.
“After 9/11, Muslims in America knew what it felt like to wear an Away jersey in their Home country. Now in the aftermath of COVID-19, we are seeing racial discrimination, targeting, bullying, and a rise in hate crimes towards our Asian American brothers and sisters,” comedian and actor Hasan Minhaj told me. He believes Muslim communities have a responsibility to look out for and protect Asian Americans who currently “feel terrified, scared, and vulnerable to go out in public.”
President Trump and his federal officials repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or the “Kung Flu.” Since then, Asian Americans have been spit on, yelled at, pushed, and attacked since the beginning of COVID-19. They’ve been made scapegoats for a virus that has no ethnicity, gender, religion, or political ideology.
However, graphic novelist Thi Bui, who came to America with her family as a refugee from Vietnam, said what’s being lost in the current conversation is that this hate isn’t a new phenomenon. “I guess I’d like to remind people who are newly sensitized to anti-Asian violence and want to do something about it that there is a long and documented history of anti-Asian violence in the U.S., going back to the angry mobs and exclusionary immigration policies of the 1800s,” she told me.
In fact, one of the first immigration laws to be passed in this country was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited all legal immigration of Chinese laborers due to the “economic anxiety” of white workers at the time and the promotion of dangerous myths and stereotypes that portrayed Chinese and Asian immigrants as a “Yellow Peril” who would replace and conquer Western civilization.
Bigots aren’t original thinkers and often recycle the same material in the 21st century. These same gross stereotypes and fears persisted and were used to imprison nearly 120,000 innocent American citizens of Japanese descent in “relocation centers” across the Western states under the pretext of national security. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, these fellow Americans without whiteness became “them” overnight. “Jap hunting licenses” began circulating around the country, and in a 1944 opinion poll, 13 percent of the public was fine with exterminating all Japanese people.
Actor Kumail Nanjiani, originally an immigrant, empathizes with what’s happening to Asian American communities. He said Trump’s hateful “rhetoric does not happen in a vacuum. It affects the lives of actual people,” mentioning his Pakistani family members are viewed as suspects by neighbors who’ve known them for 20 years. He’s also critical of Hollywood's representation of Asians and South Asians in general that has mainstreamed these villainous stereotypes. Historically, he told me, “we are either sexless/non-threatening nerds or murderous terrorists with nothing in between. We either play the model minority or the worst of humanity.” In If I Ran the Zoo, one of the six Dr. Seuss books that will no longer be published, an illustration depicts a white boy holding a large gun while standing on the head of three Asian Men. Subtle.
The model minority myth that Nanjiani mentioned has been one of the enduring and harmful tools used by white supremacy as a wedge to divide communities of color. It flattens the ethnic diversity and economic challenges faced by Asian and South Americans, in particular, and instead elevates us as the ideal immigrant and American minority that should be emulated by all others. We allegedly work hard, don't complain, succeed through grit, pursue academic and economic excellence, and never complain, all while being politically neutered and smiling through the pain. We are used to enforcing systemic racism and discrimination against Blacks and Latinos. America asks, “why can’t they be ‘models’ like us?”
It should come as no surprise that the corrupted Department of Justice under Bill Barr used Asian American candidates to attack affirmative action in their case against Yale University, which has since been dropped by the Biden DOJ.
Megan Black, who heads the Common Good program at the Western States Center, told me it’s “heartbreaking but unsurprising” to see that some of the assailants of Asian Americans have been Black and people of color. She told me the recent spike in anti-Asian violence tracks a similar rise in anti-Semitic violence. “Blame the Jew,” she said, becomes a “disturbingly effective decoy tactic that has a track record of successfully distracting and dismantling racial solidarity efforts, leaving the actual perpetrators of white supremacist power untouched while putting Jews and Jewish communities at risk.” She says “Blame China” rhetoric, which has become so prominent in our political discourse over the past few years, is simply following the same playbook with the same results.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is not having any of the divide and conquer tactics, and instead urges communities of color to stand in solidarity with Asian Americans. Omar is a Black Muslim woman who wears a hijab and is a former refugee, and as such has emerged as the ideal bogeyman for the right-wing and a frequent target of their hate. She was also told by President Trump to go back to where she came from. “There is a concerted effort by white nationalists to target and divide minority communities by pitting us against each other,” she told me. “We must remember that our destinies are tied. An attack on one community is an attack on all.”
Bui agrees, but she believes that in order to truly address the violence, we have to speak out about root causes and name them. For her, this includes white supremacy, “the common foe” of all our communities, but also chaotic political leadership, income inequality, and a meager social safety net that creates conditions where people of color, who should be allies, turn on each other. With this divided Congress that can barely pass a stimulus package during a crippling pandemic, that’s a tall order. Still, in a welcomed relief compared to Trump’s persistent racism, President Biden in late January signed an executive action asking the Justice Department to combat xenophobia and hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
But in the end, as always, it’s up to us. All of us. At the very least, we have to do our part to stand up and speak out against this rising, organized hate, which has Republican champions in Congress and on Fox News, and work towards creating an America where an Asian American child and senior citizen can walk the streets and be fully seen and embraced as “us.”
Don’t take my word for it. Since America is currently obsessed with Dr. Seuss, maybe it’ll be more helpful if you just listen to the Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”