A recent spate of high-profile violent attacks on Asian Americans has drawn increasing attention to the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans over the past year. On Feb. 9, the Stop AAPI Hate Coalition released data documenting more than 2,800 incidents of bigotry, harassment, and violence between March and December of 2020.
The rise in harassment and violence against Asian Americans during 2020 accompanied the often bigoted and stigmatizing rhetoric of former President Donald Trump and his right-wing political allies in response to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
As early as mid-March of 2020, when fewer than 200 Americans had died from COVID-19, Asian Americans were reporting a rise in harassment and violence as Chinese-owned restaurants saw business evaporate and Chinese Americans were stigmatized. By late July, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC President John C. Yang said it had tracked 2,300 incidents of violence since late March. Human Rights Watch sounded the alarm in May.
Trump gave bigotry a national platform and called into question the loyalty of Chinese Americans at a White House news conference last May. When CBS correspondent Weijia Jiang asked Trump why he considered testing for the virus a global competition (more than 80,000 Americans had died from the virus at the time), Trump responded, “Maybe that’s a question you should ask China,” adding, “Don’t ask me. Ask China that question, OK?”
Trump’s rhetoric did not become more responsible as the election approached and U.S. policy failures became more evident in the rising death toll. Last March, White House aide Kellyanne Conway responded to news reports of a White House staffer using the term “kung flu” by calling it “highly offensive” and challenging a reporter to publicly name the staffer. A few months later, Trump himself used the term at the Tulsa, Oklahoma rally that served as a re-launch of his campaign.
In July, when Trump appeared before right-wing students at a Turning Point Action event in Phoenix, people in the crowd started shouting “kung flu,” which he repeated for the cheering crowd. In August, Trump told right-wing broadcaster Hugh Hewitt, “China will own the United States if this election is lost by Donald Trump. If I don’t win the election, China will own the United States. You’re gonna have to learn to speak Chinese.”
Trump had plenty of company. Many of Trump’s right-wing activists portrayed the virus as an act of biological warfare unleashed by the Chinese Communist Party in an effort to destroy Trump’s presidency.
During the first week of the Biden-Harris administration, the White House released a memo acknowledging the role that the federal government had played in fostering xenophobia and putting Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals, families, communities and businesses at risk. Biden ordered federal agencies to ensure that official statements and actions do not contribute to racism and intolerance.
Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus hosted a press conference on the topic last week. California Rep. Mark Takano noted that the press conference was taking place on the Day of Remembrance commemorating the unjust internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He said that “scapegoating and mass blame” has a long history in the U.S. and was made worse over the past year by political leaders who spread “fear, misinformation, and racist rhetoric” to cover up their incompetence and advance a political agenda.