American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

The Nativist Fault Line and Precariousness of Race in the Time of Coronavirus (Asia and Asian America)

Jennifer Lee, Columbia University, Monika Yadav, Columbia University

As fears and insecurities about the coronavirus mount among Americans, so too have attacks on Asian Americans who have been stabbed, beaten, bullied, spit on, pushed, harassed, and vilified based on the false assumption that they are to blame for the spread of COVID-19.

Faulting China for the origin and spread of the coronavirus, the current U.S. president flagrantly dubbed it as the “Chinese virus,” and then turned a blind eye to the rise in coronavirus-related hate incidences against Asian Americans. In one fell swoop, the coronavirus—and Trump’s blithe description of it—reanimated a century-old racist trope that Asian Americans are vectors of filth and disease and exposed the precariousness of their status.

In the absence of government intervention, Asian American and Pacific Islander civil rights groups created a website where victims can report such hate incidences. Within the first 24 hours of the website’s launch in mid-March, more than 40 incidents were reported. A month later, the number has exceeded 1,500. While most incidents are verbal attacks and harassment, some are far more serious.

In Texas, for example, a man stabbed a Burmese American family—a father and two young children (ages 2 and 6)—because he thought they were Chinese and were infecting people with the coronavirus. In Brooklyn, a man poured acid on an Asian woman while she was taking out the trash from her home, severely burning her head, neck, and back. And in midtown Manhattan, a Korean woman was grabbed by the hair and punched in the face.

The racist and xenophobic reactions directed at Asian Americans are not unlike those experienced by Muslim Americans who were falsely accused of terrorism against the United States after September 11th. However, there is a crucial difference between 2001 and 2020. Then, President George W. Bush immediately condemned attacks against Muslim Americans. The current president has failed to do the same for Asian Americans.

Trump’s blatant disregard was on full display when he doubled down on his use of the label “Chinese virus” before finally conceding under pressure to let go of the ethnic and racial slur. But by the time he relented, the damage had been done. 

This moment should be a reckoning for Asian Americans—regardless of political persuasion—that native-born status, U.S. citizenship, elite degrees, and professional jobs are no shields against xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating. 

“Being a model minority always felt like a double-edged sword,” commented Charlotte Wang, an Asian American graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia. “Scholastic success doesn’t always translate to social acceptance. This moment is a reminder that our privileged position is ultimately not about how hard we (or our ancestors or parents) worked, or how well we learned American social norms, but about how those in power decide who is a threat, who can be targeted.” 

This stance, however, fell on deaf ears when former presidential candidate Andrew Yang advised Asian Americans to respond to the coronavirus pandemic by proving their American patriotism. We disagree. Asian Americans have nothing to prove.

As sociologists, we recognize that this most recent wave of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. has deep-seated historical roots that include the relocation and incarceration of more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. The decision not to do the same with Americans of German descent laid bare the country’s nativist fault line that divided Americans of European descent from all others. Proving their patriotism did not shield Japanese Americans from internment during WWII, just as proving patriotism will not shield Asian Americans from anti-Asian hate today.

But moments of crises also present opportunities. May was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), which offers a time to revisit our history and champion solidarity, not only with other Asian ethnic groups but also with other minoritized groups. Realizing the precariousness of their racial status should make Asian Americans acknowledge the precariousness of the status of all minoritized groups, each of which could be a victim to America’s fault line at any time. 

Tiffany Huang, another Asian American graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia agrees, “A greater collective understanding of Asian Americans’ history and place in the United States would go a long way towards building solidarity to combat not only anti-Asian racism, but racism against other groups that is stoked in part by stereotypes about Asian Americans.”

The coronavirus pandemic can be a defining political moment for Asian Americans to recognize that the lines that divide us pale in comparison to the threats and opportunities that can unite us.