May typically marks the start of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month—a month filled with festivities that honor the histories and heritages of AAPI communities. This year’s AAPI Heritage Month feels much more somber, however, as the nation enters its fifth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of over 88,000 Americans and impacted the livelihoods of millions more.
“This is a multi-layered crisis: a public health crisis, but also an economic and political crisis that is amplifying racism that was already present in society,” says Timmy Lu, executive director for AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund (AAPICE-EF) and AAPI-Force. The FBI reports that anti-Asian racial harassment and violence has surged since January. In a recent survey, 60% of Asian Americans and over one-third of all Americans now say they have personally witnessed an episode of anti-Asian racial harassment. Spurred by the complexities of this crisis and its growing impact on marginalized AAPIs and other groups, Asian American activists have rapidly responded with numerous campaigns that address the current climate of racial violence or provide aid for vulnerable populations.
A core initiative for Asian American organizers focuses on creating a record of how this pandemic has impacted AAPI individuals and groups. Many organizations have created online hate crime trackers—including the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council’s Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center and Asian American Advancing Justice-Los Angeles’ (AAAJ-LA) Stand Against Hatred website—to document the recent rise in anti-Asian violence. Federal hate crime data often fails to capture the full picture of racial violence that targets communities of color. Community-based tracking tools can provide an alternative for those who aren’t comfortable approaching law enforcement directly. AAAJ-LA has historically performed this role during periods of heightened racism: They tracked hate crimes for two decades following the 1982 hate crime murder of Vincent Chin, and again following the 9/11 attacks. Stewart Kwoh, founder of AAAJ-LA, says that hate crime data collected during COVID-19 will help reveal the scope of current anti-Asian violence, particularly if compiled in partnership with other groups to form a national database. AAAJ-LA is also working on in-depth analysis of each report to identify those victims to whom they can offer pro bono legal services.
Racism following a major disaster is, unfortunately, nothing new, says Dr. Vivian Shaw, a sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University whose work focuses on disaster responses worldwide.
“Racist responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are a new iteration of the same issue that has been going on for awhile,” she explains, citing as an example the stigmatization of Black and gay communities during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. “Racism after disaster is actually a very common story; what we’re trying to do is show these linkages between what is happening now and that history.”
Shaw is the lead researcher of the AAPI COVID-19 Project, a multidisciplinary team of scholars who have come together to document the impact of COVID-19 on AAPI communities. “Anti-Asian violence is a huge part of the story,” says Shaw. But, she adds, it is also just one aspect of how COVID-19 has affected the everyday lives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The project plans to conduct detailed interviews over the next few years with hundreds of community members from diverse backgrounds to explore the complex impact of this disaster, particularly on vulnerable groups—such as undocumented immigrants and survivors of intimate partner violence—for whom racism and economic insecurity can exacerbate existing insecurities.
Many Native Hawaiian, Southeast Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities face poor rates of healthcare access, and those with economic or housing insecurity may lack the basic resources needed to protect themselves from novel coronavirus infection. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 mortality rate among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders is more than 2.6 times the national average. Despite these alarming statistics, public health resources have yet to be specifically directed toward Southeast Asian American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander communities, or to other Black and brown populations—all of whom make up a sizable proportion of our country’s essential workers and yet face high rates of novel coronavirus infection.
“This whole situation is only compounding the impact of existing [economic and racial injustices] on these folks,” says Lu.
AAPI groups have created a variety of mutual aid efforts to address the needs of marginalized AAPIs and other communities. Collectively, this response evokes the history of Asian American community organizing to build labor unions, fight gentrification, preserve low-income housing, protest police brutality, and provide care and resources for struggling residents of Asian American ethnic enclaves. Organizations within the AAPICE-EF network, for example, have developed outreach, language support, and care package donation programs for vulnerable Southeast Asian American and Pacific Islander community members. Outside of AAPICE-EF, other groups have organized initiatives including meal donation and emergency CSA programs to ensure continued food access during the COVID-19 crisis.
Still others have built informal sewing circles to meet the pressing need for face masks that can slow the spread of the novel coronavirus within vulnerable populations. One such effort is led by Kristina Wong, a performance artist and writer who started the Auntie Sewing Squad, a group of over 600 volunteer seamstresses and support teams that mostly include Asian American women. The group formed through Facebook at the start of the pandemic and has now produced over 20,000 homemade, reusable face masks a week for donation exclusively to at-risk communities, including ICE detainees and frontline essential workers. When I spoke with Wong for this article, she was busy preparing an order of over 800 masks to deliver to the Navajo Nation, where there are more novel coronavirus cases per capita than in any U.S. state.
“We are literally building armor right now,” says Wong, who is also working on a one-woman show based on this experience. “We are stepping in for the complete failure of the federal government.”
For many Asian Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a deeply politicizing experience that has helped reveal how structural inequities impact AAPIs alongside other communities of color. Community organizer Gregory Cendana saw this as an opportunity to build “an important intervention that not only centers the experiences of anti-Asian racism but that also builds cross-racial solidarity with other marginalized communities.” Earlier this year, Cendana partnered with organizer and DJ Kuttin Kandi to found the People’s Collective for Justice and Liberation, which is one of several groups to host digital town halls, bystander intervention trainings, and online panel discussions addressing issues raised by COVID-19 in the Asian American community. Drawing upon a vast network of grassroots organizers who work across multiple communities of color, The People’s Collective has developed a year-long program of town halls that will comprehensively explore how AAPIs can work in partnership with other communities of color in the wake of COVID-19 to dismantle structural racism.
In addition to providing a bridge for individual AAPIs with their local community organizations, Kandi emphasizes the importance of cultivating cross-racial conversation between AAPIs and other people of color, both historically and in the current moment. Recent town halls have explored how anti-Asian racism connects with racial violence experienced by other communities, and have discussed how to support families and educators in broadening our definitions of learning to include a wide social justice framework.
“Collective liberation in this moment of crisis is more than just solidarity,” says Kandi. “It is learning how to love each other when white supremacy has taught us so much how to hate—to hate ourselves and to hate one another. We work with our Asian American communities to talk about the ways in which we perpetuate anti-blackness and xenophobia because we can’t do solidarity work if we’re not doing work within our communities and in tandem with other communities.”
“The pandemic is showing us the gaps in the system, and revealing how white supremacy divides and conquers our communities,” adds Cendana. “This makes it even more important for us to create spaces and provide interventions for the Asian American community to feel loved and nurtured, alongside allies and co-conspirators in other communities of color.”
Activist responses to COVID-19 have taken on many different forms, yet Cendana, Kandi, and other organizers each emphasize a shared vision: to find a way to work, build, and heal together as Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other communities of color, and to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis united in a reenvisioned future where all people affected by this crisis can finally be empowered and thrive.
Jenn Fang is a proud Asian American feminist, scientist, and nerd who currently blogs at Reappropriate.co, one of the web’s oldest AAPI feminist and race activist blogs. She has previously contributed her writing to Teen Vogue, Change.org, Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, Asian Americans for Obama, The Nerds of Color, Quartz, and Angry Asian Man. Fang can currently be found at Reappropriate, as well as on Twitter at @Reappropriate, and on Facebook.
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