Confronting the anti-Asian backlash in the wake of the pandemic

Panelists in virtual town hall sponsored by the Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition

By Martha Bezzat

Anti-Asian racism has been on the rise since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, something that Dr. Jean Yu-wen Wu, a Tufts University professor and diversity leader, calls “a kind of terrorism.”

“It’s about controlling us, telling us we’re not wanted, telling us we don’t belong,” said Dr. Wu during a virtual town hall meeting May 14 sponsored by the Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition (GMAACC), an organization launched by Malden residents to dismantle historical bias and racism against Asians and Asian Americans. More than 250 people attended the meeting to hear three specialists and a college student speak about their experiences.   

Dr. Wu called the current anti-Asian bias a “virulent strand” of racism in the United States. She said that while the pandemic didn’t create this racism, it revealed a racism “that’s been deeply embedded in U.S. history and U.S. nation-building.” 

“It’s important to speak up about racist incidents to increase awareness because the history of Asians in the U.S. is not taught, and so newcomers in the community may not be aware of, or prepared for, racist incidents,” Dr. Wu said.  She also identified what she saw as “incitement” of anti-Asian violence and racism by politicians’ actions, such as when President Trump called COVID-19 “the Chinese virus.”

Andrew Leong, JD, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, spoke about Asians’ arrival in this country, beginning when the Chinese came to California during the 1850’s. Because “Asians couldn’t own property, couldn’t naturalize, and couldn’t marry white people,” structural racism took root, he said. 

American studies professor Ben Railton describes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 “as among the first immigration laws to create the category of ‘illegal’ immigration explicitly based on bigotry and xenophobia.” Saturday Evening Post – (Political cartoon from 1882, Library of Congress) –

The Chinese were valuable because they were a cheap source of labor, but between 1871 and 1892 there were nine massacres targeting Chinese, “and not a single person was indicted,” according to Leong. Leong is concerned that we don’t know about these massacres; he couldn’t even find any mention of these massacres when he Googled “worst race riots in America.” 

 “We’re very much still working in a black/white paradigm,” he said. “White people kill people of color and get away with it.” 

Leong remains positive, however, saying, “We need to work against racism for all communities.” He said he took his students to protests after Trayvon Martin was killed and encouraged others to do the same when racist incidents occur.

Dr. Kimberly A. Truong of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Executive Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and also a faculty member of Harvard University’s Department of Education, spoke in support of marginalized communities.  Many Asians who experience racial incidents or harassment don’t report for “fear of retaliation, fear of being retraumatized, and distrust that things will change,” she said.  Dr. Truong recounted that when she searched racist incidents in Malden, she identified five of them, which confirmed for her that there is racism in Malden.

Her advice for Malden community leaders is to “build relationships with Asians in Malden and work with those organizations.”  

High school student Thomas Tran spoke personally about his experience growing up in Malden when he was a student at the Beebe Middle School:  “I would have felt a lot more comfortable growing and learning having a teacher of color in an environment where I knew someone knew how I felt dealing with these microaggressions from classmates.”  

GMAACC has previously hosted events that deal with anti-Asian bias and racism.  Last year as part of Malden Reads programming, the organization hosted a forum on “Asian Stereotypes,” with several local professors and professionals which brought in over 100 attendees.

The youth moderators of this event were Mandy S and Birukti T. and Youth Leaders who contributed were Yen C, Trisha O, Henry Z, and Jaelize M.

Here is a link to the event.

Follow-up resources can be found here.

Youth Moderators for the GMAACC town hall on May 14

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