Between March 16th and March 30th of 2020, twice-impeached former president Donald Trump used the phrase “Chinese virus,” more than twenty times. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, called it the “Wuhan virus.” That language morphed into the “China Virus,” and in moments of cruel humor, the “Kung Flu.” Members of the Trump administration would go on to use this toxic nomenclature for the remainder of the Trump presidency. On March 10th, 2021, Trump issued a bizarre, pathetic statement, saying, “I hope everyone remembers when they’re getting COVID-19 (often referred to as the China Virus) Vaccine, that if I wasn’t President, you wouldn’t be getting that beautiful ‘shot’ for 5 years, at best, and probably wouldn’t be getting it at all. I hope everyone remembers!”
Many Americans joined their leaders in espousing this hateful rhetoric. Language matters. The effects were immediate—in 2020, there was a 150% increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 cities—physical and verbal harassment, and sometimes, much worse. A woman in Queens, NY is spit at while holding her baby. An 84-year-old Thai man is knocked down in San Francisco. These incidents have created a climate of fear in Asian communities across the United States. The targets of this violence have, disproportionately been older people and women, the most vulnerable members of vulnerable communities.
Anti-Asian violence and discrimination are nothing new in the United States. For more than a century, our laws have codified this brand of bigotry. The Page Act of 1875 banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States to protect the labor market and to coddle a moral panic around prostitution. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a broader application of the Page Act, and included men, placing a moratorium on Chinese immigration for a decade and the Chinese immigrants who were in the country could not become citizens. This ban on Chinese immigration became permanent in 1902 and became the blueprint for disallowing the immigration of other groups of people to whom the U.S. wanted to close its borders. These laws remained in place until 1943, but immigration was still severely restricted for decades longer. As an aside, Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration was simply building on anti-Asian legislation and so were other government efforts to restrict the movement of Asians within the United States.
Japanese Americans were held in internment camps from 1942 to 1945 by way of Executive Order 9066. These camps only closed because of a Supreme Court decision stating the obvious, that imprisoning people for no good reason, was illegal. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the American government apologized for this atrocity and made reparations to interned people who were still alive. A GOP memo from 2020 included a justification for calling COVID-19 the Chinese virus. “In fact, everyone was referring to this as the Wuhan virus before China decided to push its propaganda. Whatever you want to call this virus, China is responsible. It's more important to hold China accountable and prevent this from happening again than it is to be politically correct.” This is how state-sanctioned racism functions. Anything is justifiable and the oppressed are responsible for their own oppression.
On Tuesday, March 16th, a 21-year-old terrorist went to three massage parlors in Georgia and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. I am not going to say his name because his name does not deserve to be spoken. I do not care about his name at all. It goes without saying that he was taken into custody alive, because he is a white man and that is a privilege they are afforded, even or, perhaps, especially when they commit horrific crimes. For four years, people of color, mostly, said there would be consequences for Trump’s unchecked racism and the cultural climate that allowed it to flourish. And now here we are. There is no call for surprise as to how this has all played out. If you are surprised by any of this, keep it to yourself. This was inevitable. When it comes to addressing racism or even acknowledging the extent of it, white people and people of color are having two different conversations in two different universes that are very far apart. Let’s just admit that because pretending we’re having the same conversation is an absolute waste of time.
Already the media is reporting on this hate crime in Georgia, the same way they always do every single time a young white man is the perpetrator. There is an inexplicable refusal to engage with hate crimes as hate crimes. There is no explication of the context surrounding these crimes, or an examination of their origins. Instead of using language appropriately, instead of identifying domestic terrorism and racism for what they are, there are milquetoast headlines and quotes from people who knew the perpetrator, and his church. We hear about his family and how he was nice and quiet. We learn about his interests and whatever he has going on with his Facebook page and internet browsing habits. Before long he is “misunderstood,” or he is a “lone wolf.” The story is written before it is written.
The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department, which arrested the terrorist, gave a press conference where, exactly as expected, they explained the terrorist’s motivations as anything but racism. He confessed but said he struggled with “sexual addiction,” and he couldn’t bear the temptation of the massage parlors. They said the man had a “bad day,” as if that were a justification for mass murder. They said that the terrorist told them his attacks were not racially motivated as if his word is all the word we need. This is the playbook, time and again. There is a systemic refusal to acknowledge racism as racism and it is killing us.
Meanwhile, we know little to nothing about his victims beyond their victimhood. Thus far, only four of the victim’s names have been released—Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. The people who lost their lives because of a white man’s bad day are not extended empathy because empathy, seemingly, is a finite resource only extended to white men. As the discourse proceeds, people will try to derail the conversation by talking about the nature of the women’s work in the three massage parlors where they were murdered as if their lives somehow matter less if they are sex workers. Sex work is work. Their lives matter. We have to stand up for them. We have to learn all their names. We have to do everything we can to ensure that this wave of violence ends here and now. And, while we’re at it, we need to protect sex workers with more than empty, self-serving rhetoric about human trafficking as if all sex workers are trafficked and merely saying the phrase “human trafficking,” is activism. It is not.
President Biden recently issued a memorandum condemning anti-Asian violence but a memorandum is not enough. Language matters but it will not bring an end to racism. This rise in anti-Asian violence has to stop, the same way police brutality against black and brown people has to stop. But saying that will not make it so. It is up to our elected leaders to do more than offer their absolutely useless thoughts and prayers and tepid directives. There have to be consequences for racism. We need more than hashtags. We need more than symbolic gestures on Instagram. We sure as hell do not need people turning their avatars into yellow squares. We need more than allyship. We need to intervene when we see or hear anti-Asian discrimination in ourselves, with our friends and loved ones, in our communities. If we do not hold this line, if we do not take this stand, we will lose more ground to white supremacy than we already have. All of us need to condemn this violence and we need to do so in specific terms. A hate crime was committed. It was vicious, gendered, and racially motivated. It was about class, the fetishization of Asian women, and men feeling entitled to sex. To eradicate this kind of moral rot, we need to name every part of it.
I have been re-reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and really sitting with what he has to say, a lot of which is challenging but necessary. I’ve been considering the phrase, “This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it.” I take those words as a reminder that all of us who want to be here belong here and have every right to call this country home. We have every right to be safe and to be happy and to live our lives as we choose. White supremacy is fighting to keep us from what is ours and where we belong. That’s nothing new. But we cannot be moved. We will not be moved.
As a side note: Today, 172 Republicans voted against the Violence Against Women Act. They made this vote, knowing what happened in Georgia. That’s where we are at, which is to say we are nowhere.