What Does It Mean To Be Asian American? A Narrative of Coronavirus, Andrew Yang, and America

On March 19th, the President of the United States gave a press briefing to the nation about a virus that was sweeping through the world, claiming and wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. On the script on his podium, the words “Corona Virus” were printed; in thick black marker, “Corona” had been crossed out. Scrawled atop it in Donald Trump’s handwriting: “Chinese.” On that same day, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council launched “Stop AAPI Hate,” an online reporting center for incidents of anti-Asian discrimination. Since then, it has received more than a thousand reports of violence and harassment.


On April 1st, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang published an opinion piece with The Washington Post, a call to action to Asian Americans. But it wasn’t a call to fight back or speak out against this wave of racism; instead, Yang argued for the very opposite.


“The truth is that people are wired to make attributions based on appearance, including race,” he writes. If the virus were controlled, Yang continues, “any racism would likely fade...I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing. But saying ‘Don’t be racist towards Asians’ won’t work.”


At first, it seems baffling that Yang, who had made his way to the top of the Democratic race for nomination and once billed himself as “the lone candidate of color” on the debate stage, would make the effort to publish a piece directly downplaying the significance of racism and advocating against speaking out against it. A wide array of writers from inside and outside of the AAPI community have condemned Yang for his piece, as they did his use of his Asian American identity during his campaign (the “Asian Man Who Likes Math,” and a variety of other quips).


It’s easy — and important — to recognize and condemn Yang’s actions, which contribute to the model minority myth and underlying white supremacy, and instead affirm the vitality of speaking out against anti-Asian racism. Racial slurs, physical violence, fearing for our safety when we go outside just for being Asian — this is racism, clean and simple; anyone can condemn it. But as far as conversations about Asian American identity and race go, the topic of Coronavirus-induced racism is an exception in its clarity, not the norm. Far more often, straightforward ideas of privilege and discrimination break down when applied to a race that is neither black nor white, or in between. Yang’s presidential campaign and the many voices that praised and rebuked it along the way are a reflection of the complexity of Asian American identity, a political identity that not only presidential candidates and New York Times contributors but also millions of Asian Americans grapple with. With Coronavirus bringing Asian American identity and Anti-Asian racism to the foreground, instead of finding the argument of least resistance and launching out rebukes as quickly and smoothly as we can, let’s take a moment to dive into the friction points of Asian American identity, drawing on history to understand what “Asian American” really means as a racial group and political identity, and how it fits into larger conversations about race and injustice in America.


The conversation about race in America is largely a Black-White one. Asians rarely figure in, with the main dialogue around Asian American racialization being centered around the model minority myth. As harmful as this myth is for the millions of Asian Americans who live below the poverty line or as undocumented immigrants, the racism that Asian Americans face is impossible to equate to the experiences of Black or Latinx Americans; Asians are excluded from the police profiling and brutality that claims hundreds of innocent lives each year, for example. Yang spoke of this disconnect in the December debate: “I grew up the son of immigrants, and I had many racial epithets used against me as a kid. But Black and Latinos have something m uch more powerful working against them than words.” There are two big ways that many people reconcile with this disconnect in conversation about Asian American identity and race.


One is to dismiss Asian Americans as a racial minority group worth talking about: for the purposes of understanding race in America, Asians are essentially white. “When I was getting really into social justice, there was a real time when I was like, oh, Asian people are not people of color, or the things we face are not as significant,” a friend told me. “I had a real rejection of my Asian American identity.” For an upcoming survey project, a school paper decided to remove the option “Asian American” from a list of ethnicities, leaving “East Asian”, “South Asian”, and “Southeast Asian”. The paper argued that, unlike identities like “African American,” “Asian American” has no cohesive meaning or heritage that matters today. Put another way, like white Americans who happen to be French or German, Asian Americans are like white Americans who happen to be Asian. This line of thinking is attractive because it gives us a way to understand Asian American identity that slots neatly into the black-white racial hierarchy. We come from backgrounds of privilege and contribution to oppression, which we must now fight against. With this mindset, it’s easy to advocate for affirmative action, equitable hiring, and a million other previously tricky issues.


The second method of reconciliation is to dismiss race itself as a political identity that matters. A friend of mine, passionately invested in his Korean heritage and Asian American identity in high school, found his freedom in college by letting go of the importance of race in his head. “Class issues are what matter,” he tells me; race, while correlated with economic issues, he says, are ultimately identifiers that get in the way of the root of the problem. While the first method of reconciliation turns Asian Americans into a kind of white American who happens to be Asian, this method turns all Americans into just Americans who happen to be whatever race they are. This is essentially the neoliberal idea of colorblindness, stating that the ideal way to approach policy and problem-solving is without consideration towards race at all. Treat each person as an individual, hindered perhaps by poverty and exploitation, but never by race as a root cause, as racism is but a circumstantial construct that rises and fades with time and other political factors. Yang’s campaign exemplifies the former approach, while his editorial exemplifies the latter, waiting for this episode to brush over so he can return to treating his Asian American-ness with apolitical placidity.


But both of these understandings of Asian American identity and racism quickly fall flat in the face of the Coronavirus situation. While not facing the same kind of systemic oppression as other racial minority groups, Asian Americans are clearly “othered” in a way that White Americans are not. Our “privilege” is at once undeniable and yet just beneath the surface, fragile and vulnerable to attack. How are we to understand this? Unlike the Coronavirus, Asian American identity and anti-Asian racism are nothing new or novel, so now we turn to history for our answer.


Some of the first Asians to come to the Americas (British West Indies, Cuba, Peru) came as replacements for African slaves in the 1800s. In technicality, they were free indentured servants; but in reality, they were often deceived or coerced into their contracts. Upon their arrival on sugar plantations, they worked in the same conditions as and sometimes alongside African slaves, with the terms of their contract often not honored by plantation owners. Driven by colonialist exploitation and poor economic conditions at home, hundreds of thousands more Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and South Asian laborers emigrated from their home countries in the 19th century. In the States, they took up jobs deemed too dangerous or lowly for White Americans: building the Transcontinental Railroad; building California’s agriculture industry from undeveloped land; doing “women’s work” by running restaurants and laundromats for California’s mostly male Gold Rush era population.


From their arrival, Asians in America faced widespread discrimination. Chinese prospectors were murdered and driven out of Gold Mines en masse; an 1870 federal law prohibited Chinese immigrants from naturalizing as citizens, and in 1882 the immigration of laborers from China was banned altogether. Japanese immigrants south to escape the same fate by differentiating themselves, joining in attacks on Chinese immigrants as inferior, filthy, and uncivil, but this was unsuccessful. In the eyes of White Americans, Chinese and Japanese — and later Filipinos, South Asians, and all other Asian immigrants — were seen as homogenous “unassimilable immigrants,” allegedly bringing filth, disease, and corrupt moral values, representing an “Oriental” threat against Western civilization and White American society. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Asians were targeted in widespread lynchings, with entire Asian populations rounded up and driven out of many towns. More than a dozen states passed “Alien Land Laws” that prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land, forcing established farmers and business owners to become struggling migrant laborers. 1905 saw the formation of the Asiatic Exclusion League with chapters all along the West Coast, who successfully advocated for students “of the Mongolian race” to attend a segregated “Oriental School” in San Francisco, and for the passage of diplomatic agreements and legislation in 1908, 1917, and 1924 that effectively formed a blanket ban on Asian immigration.


WWII marked a turning point in the racialization of Asian Americans. Until WWII, Asians in America were seen as a homogenous, foreign threat. This attitude certainly manifested itself with the mass internment of Japanese Americans based on no criteria but race, allegedly for the purpose of homeland security, but known even by authority figures then to be motivated by racial fear and without actual benefit. As Japanese Americans were demonized for their race, however, the homogeneity and blanket rejection of other Asian American groups began to break down. With China, the Philippines, Korea, and British India becoming American allies in the war, members of their diaspora in America came to be thought of as “Good Asians,” their participation in the workforce welcomed and celebrated. 1943 saw the repeal of Chinese immigration exclusion and allowed Chinese immigrants to naturalize; 1946 saw the same for Filipinos, and with a newly democratic post-war Japan, Japanese immigration was permitted in 1947 and naturalization in 1952. WWII also saw the birth of the model minority myth. Asian Americans were held up as an example of American democracy and multiculturalism: hardworking, family-oriented model citizens, who had overcome racial discrimination to achieve prosperity. This idea was quickly turned by white supremacists on Black Americans and the Civil Rights Movement, with character and cultural inferiority being blamed for their struggle rather than systemic oppression.


The late 60s marked another key time period in Asian American history: the creation of the term “Asian American” itself. At UC Berkeley in 1968, Yuji Ichioka founded the Asian American Political Alliance, coining the term in the process. Replacing terms like “Oriental”, “Mongolian”, and “Asiatic”, the term “Asian American” was created with two key qualities in mind. First, it was meant to build a pan-ethnic coalition, including Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and all other Asian Americans. Secondly, it was explicitly political, uniting Asian American activists already involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-War Movement, and Black Panther party. The AAPA at Berkeley and an organization of the same name at San Francisco State participated in the Third World Liberation strikes of 1968-69, advocating for the creation of schools of ethnic studies on each campus, and a larger ideology of self-determinism and national liberation. Though these organizations introduced the term “Asian American” into common use, the idea of a pan-Asian identity was largely rejected by communities in Chinatowns and other areas away from college campuses.


This changed in 1982 with the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese auto worker in Detroit. Angered by layoffs due to competition from Japanese auto manufacturers, two white auto workers mistook Chin for being Japanese, confronting him and eventually beating him to death. His two murderers pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to a $3,000 fine and three years probation, with no jail time. This light sentence outraged the Asian American community, and the crime made it clear that there was a need for advocacy across a pan-ethnic Asian identity. In Detroit and around the country, Asian Americans came together across national lines to organize protests and demonstrations. Though Chin’s murderers were ultimately acquitted on appeal and never served any jail time, the case was a turning point for Asian American engagement with activism; the Pan-Asian identity and coalition organizations created then continue to advocate against injustice today.


The history of Asian America has many important lessons to teach us.


The first lesson is simply that Asian American history exists, and it is integral to Asian American racialization and identity today. The claim, or at least the thought, that there “is no Asian American heritage,” is a common one, reflecting a widespread ignorance of Asian American history: everyone knows the names Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, but very few know of Yuji Ichioka, Fred Korematsu, or Vincent Chin. Yet, Asian American history shapes today’s Asian American experience just as much as African American history shapes today’s Black American experience. Regardless of whether you’re East, Southeast, or South Asian, whether you’re a ninth-generation American or a first-generation immigrant, the work of Asian American activists is why you are a citizen or are eligible to become one, why you don’t fear being lynched or driven out of your home just for being Asian, why there exists a pan-ethnic Asian American label and identity at all instead of just a scattering of ethnic subgroups externally labeled “Oriental” or “Mongolian.”


The second lesson is that race is defined by much more than immediate social and material privilege. Returning to the shifting racialization of Asian Americans during World War II, a relevant quote demonstrates this well. In 1943, referencing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Missouri Representative William Elmer remarked, “All at once we discovered the saintly qualities of the Chinese people. If it had not been for December 7th, I do not know if we would have ever found out how good they were.” This quote lays starkly clear just how circumstantial Asian Americans’ racial status really is. When Asian Americans are perceived as posing a threat to the white racial order, we are demonized, lynched, our rights legislated away; only when we offer an opportunity to reinforce the white racial order are we raised up (the idea of Interest Convergence from Critical Race Theory). Asian “privilege” has only come about when convenient for white Americans: it was convenient during WWII as part of the war effort, it was convenient for Cold War propaganda, and it remains convenient as a way for white supremacists to attack Black and Latinx Americans and dismiss the systemic oppression that they face.


Lastly, history offers a critical takeaway on how to understand and combat Anti-Asian racism today. The force that drives the model minority myth and Coronavirus-related racism is the same force that drove the exploitation of 19th-century immigrants, that drove Yellow Peril and Asiatic Exclusion, mass lynchings, blatantly segregationist laws, Japanese internment, and the murder of Vincent Chin. This is no special anti-Asian racism; it’s the same racism that drove African slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the KKK, that drives police brutality and continuing discrimination against Black and Latinx Americans today. This racism stems from the forces of colonialism and capitalism present at the creation of this nation and embedded all throughout its history and into the present day. Racism would like to form a rigid hierarchy, where each group oppresses the group below it, keeping the dominant group in power; the purpose of activism and discourse is to break out of this hierarchy, build coalitions across groups, and together fight against the oppression of the dominant group. We understand Asian American identity, then, not in an isolated snapshot of today’s world, with median incomes and poverty rates. Rather, Asian American identity is part of a long and ongoing narrative of discrimination and struggle, a narrative of racism and white supremacy, a narrative of fighting tirelessly for justice and freedom. This is not the narrative of Asian America; this is the narrative of Black America, of Latinx America, of Native Americans; this is the narrative of all of the people of America, and of America itself.


So, no, Andrew Yang, racism is not just “people [being] wired to make attributions based on appearance,” and without Coronavirus it would not “likely fade.” Apolitical, individual excellence and avoidance of identity politics will not solve any problems. We must recognize Anti-Asian racism for what it is, taking every opportunity to understand the history from which it comes and then fight against it, and do so not in isolation, but in coalition with all other oppressed peoples. Fighting for justice for Asian Americans means fighting for justice for Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Indigenous people of the Americas, and for all who suffer from oppression, racism, and white supremacy.


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