Asian American lawmakers sound the alarm on coronavirus-related discrimination
WASHINGTON — Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., fears for his safety when leaving his home to get groceries, he told USA TODAY in a recent interview.
Lieu said he had pepper spray and was considering bringing it with him when he left his home.
"Now, I think about if I'm going to go to the grocery store, I wonder if I should carry this on me. And no one should be thinking about that," said Lieu, who represents a Los Angeles-area district.
"Especially when we're dealing with a health pandemic, we should all be working together trying to figure out what's the best way to solve this crisis and keep it from spreading."
Amid a rise in anti-Asian American sentiment, many Asian Americans have reported an uptick in discrimination and hate crimes. Lawmakers are no exception, and several have raised their concerns over the current climate surrounding coronavirus.
Gregg Orton, the National Director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, a coalition of over 35 national Asian American advocacy organizations, said there was “no question” the number of discriminatory incidents and attacks against Asian Americans had increased since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Over the last month, there has been a steady increase (in incidents) and as COVID-19 conditions intensify, we are concerned that these kinds of anti-Asian attacks will only continue to go up,” he said.
He noted the number of incidents was likely to be even higher, “since victims may be reluctant to come forward.”
In recent press conferences and on Twitter, President Donald Trump, top administration officials, and his allies have repeatedly called the coronavirus “Chinese virus,” despite fierce criticism from Asian American advocates and public health advocates amid broader concerns about an increase in anti-Asian American sentiment and attacks.
"It's not racist at all, no," Trump told reporters at a coronavirus task force news conference last week when asked about his name for the virus. "It comes from China. I want to be accurate." Trump told reporters then he was not concerned about Chinese Americans' concerns about racism, either.
But in a Twitter post Monday, Trump said it was "very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States."
"They are working closely with us to get rid of it," he said.
He also declined to call coronavirus the "Chinese virus" in Monday's coronavirus task force briefing, calling it the "virus" instead and echoing the message from the tweet, saying, "The spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way shape or form."
"It seems like there could be a little bit of nasty language toward the Asian Americans in our country," Trump said when asked why he commented on Asian Americans.
Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., told USA TODAY Trump's response was "not at all sufficient" coming from someone who "played a large role in setting the fire and now wants people to praise him" for trying to extinguish it.
Meng told USA TODAY the current atmosphere was one of the first times she "felt the hostility very personally," being made to feel like an "outsider."
This is part of the “foreignness” Asian Americans experience, explained Grace Kao, chair of the Yale University Department of Sociology.
Kao, a scholar of race, ethnicity, and immigration, noted that Italy had large numbers of coronavirus cases, but "there isn't a fear of Italian Americans on the street."
"The association with being foreign and being part of one's country of origin, no matter how many generations it's been, it's unique for Asian Americans," she explained.
"As a Chinese American myself, I'm a little bit scared to go outside," she noted. "You don't know what people are going to say or do."
Both the Chinese and American governments have traded blame for the origins of the virus, though most researchers believe the virus originated in China. The Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, disavowed the claim that the virus had originated in a U.S. military laboratory in a recent interview with Axios, calling the claim “crazy.”
Tensions flared on Capitol Hill Tuesday as Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., introduced a resolution in the House that would condemn the Chinese government for claiming the virus came from the U.S. and argued the Chinese government's initial response made the pandemic worse.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said she called Banks afterward and "told him in very clear terms that introducing this resolution now, as anti-Asian coronavirus hate crimes are on the rise, would be extremely hurtful to the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community."
Banks, in response, told USA TODAY in a statement, "no one should make the mistake of believing that members of the Asian American community or Chinese citizens are responsible for or associated with the Chinese government's lies. Anyone not able to make that distinction would be guilty of discrimination."
The potential danger is not just limited to Chinese Americans, noted Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who is of Japanese descent.
“In America, often is the case that how you look, you're just Asians. It doesn't matter what kind of Asian you are, you're just going to feel the effects of a tense moment,” he said, recounting how Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death by two laid-off auto workers in Detroit in 1982. The workers had mistaken Chin for a Japanese American and had blamed him for the loss of their jobs.
Takano, also the first openly gay person of color elected to Congress, told USA TODAY he was reminded of the early name given to AIDS – GRID, or "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency."
Takano recalled facing and hearing about anti-gay sentiment related to the term in the 1980s, and “this kind of stigmatization leads to all sorts of dehumanization and humiliation,” Takano said.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who is of Chinese Thai descent, said the current environment was “like the good and the bad of being Asian American.”
Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost both legs after her helicopter was shot down in the Iraq War, told USA TODAY the situation made her think of how “my whole life, you know, it's almost like you're always an ‘other’ and you're on the frontlines fighting for the nation and protecting and defending the nation and the Constitution.”
She called Trump’s continued use of “Chinese” virus "frustrating" and "not helpful at a time when we as a nation should be uniting and finding strength in one another and helping one another."
The result of the rhetoric against China and Asians, Duckworth said, was that “I feel like right now, you know, it's almost like it's OK to be racist against Asians.”
Those concerns and others are why Lieu said Trump has a "responsibility to ensure that all Americans feel safe and protected. And it's completely irresponsible for him to use unnecessary language that then puts a target on the backs of Asian Americans."