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Scholars v. COVID-19 Racism

Scholars with expertise in Asian American studies, public health and other fields have a new urgent agenda for their teaching, research and outreach: confronting coronavirus-related racism.

April 2, 2020
 
Istockphoto.com/Tatyana Otryaskina

Jason Chang, an associate professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Connecticut, started putting together a crowdsourced document with resources on teaching about coronavirus-related racism back in January. Students, he said, are hungry for readings that help them put this current moment in perspective.

"I’ve actually had students who are asking for more assignments to expose them to more material," Chang said of students in his Asian American history class this spring. One of the assignments in the course asks students to create a zine connecting their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic with a broader theme in Asian American history

"The way that I’ve begun to teach about this is to put the racist response to the pandemic in the context of an Asian American history of 'yellow peril,'" Chang said. "I’m using a class on Asian American history to show how these cyclical patterns have echoes in our contemporary environment, giving them actual historical evidence about what things looked like to help them understand the consequences of historical narrative. I don’t always get that kind of punch in this course. I’m usually satisfied with students just acquiring new knowledge about Asian American history."

Scholars are among those confronting the rise in anti-Asian and anti-Asian American racism that’s come with COVID-19, which originated in China and which President Trump and some other prominent figures have described as the “Chinese virus” despite warnings from experts who say such terminology fuels xenophobia. Scholars are addressing this topic in the classroom, in their research -- the Journal of Asian American Studies put out an urgent call for submissions this week for a special issue on racism and the COVID-19 pandemic -- and in outreach to Asian American communities.

Russell Jeung, a professor and chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University, started a new online reporting center for bias incidents against Asian Americans in collaboration with two civil rights and advocacy organizations. Jeung said the reporting center is receiving  100 bias reports daily and has collected more than 1,200 reports total since it was launched March 19.

“You read the reports people write, and they’re harrowing,” Jeung said. “People aren’t just being yelled at; they’re being yelled at with a vehemence and a virulence that is scary.” Jeung added that people deliberately coughing at Asians in threatening and aggressive ways has become a distressing trend.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned about a likely surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans as the coronavirus crisis continues to grow, but Jeung and two co-authors wrote in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times Wednesday that it’s clear from their data that such a surge is already happening.

“We’ve got huge amounts of data,” said Jeung, who noted that the incident report form is now available in eight languages. “It’s grown from me and two grad student volunteers. Now we have 12 students and two other faculty working with me on just gathering data on coronavirus discrimination. We’re doing news content analysis, we’re doing these daily incident reports and we’re looking at social media.” Jeung said researchers are monitoring social media sites for viral racist memes and tracking how the term #Chinesevirus gets tweeted, and its impact.

Melissa Borja is among the scholars working with Jeung to analyze the incident reports and connect respondents in the Midwest with support resources. “One thing that’s interesting about this is to see how much collaboration has taken place among people who serve Asian American communities and people who research and teach about Asian American people in the United states,” said Borja, an assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan.​ "These networks have been mobilized to a degree I haven’t seen in a very long time.”

Apart from research and advocacy, Borja emphasized the work scholars can do in their roles as teachers. “I have found that I’ve changed my own assignments so students are researching issues related to Asian American hate in my upper-level writing seminars,” she said.

And beyond the curriculum, Borja said one of the most important things faculty are doing right now is simply showing up for students. "One thing that as professors we’re struggling with right now is the reality that our world has been turned upside down and our students are struggling and they’re sad and they’re vulnerable and they’re scared," she said. "This is particularly true for students who fear doing a long drive home because they might be targeted at a gas station or a grocery store. Simply being a support for students has been important for me as a professor who puts human relationships first before anything I do."

Samuel Museus, a professor of education studies at the University of California, San Diego, said he expects to see a spike in research related to discrimination against Asian Americans. He has begun analyzing discourse about the virus in the media and social media.

"A lot of the media coverage is talking about these incidents of discrimination and prejudice as emanating from the coronavirus, and in some cases talking about Donald Trump’s role in fueling it with the rhetoric that he’s used to talk about the pandemic," Museus said. "I think that makes sense given the context that we’re in and the fact that those realities do play a role, but there’s not a lot of coverage of larger context and the fact that there’s a long history of physical illnesses being weaponized against communities of color in our society and used as a way to spark fear and animosity toward immigrant populations in order to advance political agendas."

"Donald Trump is definitely saying some things that are problematic, but he’s not he only one," Museus continued. "When you take a look at a lot of the discourse that’s emerging on social media and in the media outlets more broadly, you see that there are a lot of organizations and people who are perpetuating similar ideas about how dangerous Chinese people are and sort of fueling a lot of fear and hate toward Chinese people. If you’re Asian American, you make a distinction between Chinese and Asian American, but in our society a lot of people do not."

"This is an Asian American racial profiling issue; it's not only Chinese," agreed Jeung, of San Francisco State. He said 60 percent of bias incidents being reported are coming from people who are not Chinese.

William Lopez, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said just looking at the coronavirus through a biological or medical lens risks missing the bigger societal picture. “If we think only about curing this disease but not how we talk about it, we are going to miss things like the anti-Asian violence that is coming as the labeling of this disease as the ‘Chinese virus,’” Lopez said.

Lopez is also the faculty director of public scholarship at Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity, which has put out a call for articles from authors whose “scholarship speaks to the racialization of pandemics or other public health phenomena and the social consequences that follow.” Lopez said the goal is to publish the essays the center is commissioning within a matter of weeks.

It’s important, Lopez said, that “social scientists and others who do equity work are able to move their research into the public fast enough to make a difference.”

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