Seattle resident Kari was at her local grocery store in mid-March when another shopper told her own child she couldn’t be in the same line as the Korean American. She would get them sick, the shopper said. A week later at the same store, a cashier refused to check her out, saying she was going on break.
The encounter is one of hundreds of racist and xenophobic incidents that have been reported over the past week, new data reveals. The online reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate shared exclusively with NBC Asian America that since its inception March 18, it has received more than 650 direct reports of discrimination against primarily Asian Americans.
“We live in a scary world, but it’s unbelievable that this is happening,” said Kari, who didn’t want to use her last name to protect her identity as well as that of her children.
People have reported being coughed at or spit on and being told to leave stores, Uber and Lyft drivers refusing to pick them up, verbal and online harassment and physical assault, according to the site, which was launched by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) and Chinese for Affirmative Action.
“It shows how pervasive and widespread these anti-Asian cases are occurring,” said Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University who compiled the data.
Jeung’s earlier research, which was based on media reports of racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans, revealed more than 1,000 cases between Jan. 28 and Feb. 24, a period during which coronavirus cases were first reported in the United States.
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President Donald Trump tweeted March 16 using the phrase “Chinese virus” and received swift and immediate backlash, with many saying he was fueling anti-Asian American sentiment.
John C. Yang, president and executive director of the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAAJ, said he believes Trump’s phrasing has an impact.
“The deliberate use of terms like “Chinese virus” has definitely fanned the flames of racism toward Asian Americans in this country,” he said. “We have seen people associate the virus with Chinese people as they are assaulting them. It’s outrageous for any elected official to have been dismissive when the evidence of racist attacks continues to climb. Words matter and they often hold more weight when spoken by our politicians.”
On Monday, Trump tweeted that people should “totally protect our Asian American community,” adding that the spreading of the coronavirus is not their fault. He did not condemn racist and xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans in recent months.
Experts say this is just the latest chapter in a long history of anti-Asian racism in the U.S., from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the stereotype of Asian Americans as the perpetual foreigners.
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It’s also part of a long tradition of blaming immigrants and racial minorities for the spread of diseases, which has been used as a rationale for exclusionary and discriminatory policies, said Merlin Chowkwanyun, an assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. Irish immigrants were blamed for cholera and Italians for polio, he said, while Chinese, Japanese and Mexicans were scapegoated for tuberculosis and small pox outbreaks. During the HIV/AIDS crisis, Haitians were demonized and denied entry to the U.S.
“I’ve always viewed disease as a mirror for society,” he said. “When there’s larger social anxiety against immigrants, that boomerangs back into the disease conversation.”
Chinese people specifically have been characterized as bearers of contagious disease, said Erika Lee, professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota and the author of “America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States.” It’s a trope that dates back to the 1800s. During an outbreak of the bubonic plague in San Francisco in 1900, she said, Chinatown was blocked off and its residents were barred from leaving after the first case was traced to a Chinese immigrant living there. An outbreak of the plague similarly led to the quarantine of Chinatown in Honolulu.
“There is something very particular about the stereotype of China, Chinese people and Chinese faces as being unsanitary, teeming with millions of people living in crowded and dirty conditions, the weird habits that no civilized people would deign to follow, and Chinatowns as places of disease and contagion,” Lee said. “Those stereotypes were used to justify quarantines and also immigration enforcement.”
While this racist imagery is more than 100 years old, it still lingers in the American imagination. And it’s not just the coronavirus that has led to its resurfacing, but also rising anxiety in recent decades over China’s growth as a global economic power, experts said.
“These strains run alongside the model minority image, but they’re easily tapped into and reawakened,” said Madeline Y. Hsu, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. “There’s a latent discomfort, then something like this allows people to act on it.”
There’s still some cause for hope. Unlike in the 19th and the early 20th centuries, other communities of color and marginalized groups are showing solidarity in the face of hate.
Yang said organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have issued statements condemning anti-Asian racism in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. He said this solidarity is in part the result of recent years of communities of color organizing together with Black Lives Matter, protesting the travel ban from predominantly Muslim countries and other anti-immigrant policies.
“Unfortunately, we’ve all been there,” he said. “Whether it’s African Americans, Jewish Americans, Latino Americans, the LGBTQ community, all of us have been victims of hate at some point, and it’s important for all of us to stand up for each other.”