May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, established in 1978 through a joint Congressional resolution to pay tribute to generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched the history and culture of the US. It commemorates two important historic milestones: May 7, 1843, when the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States, and May 10th, 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed, with monumental contributions from Chinese immigrant workers.
May is an opportune time to celebrate the leadership of many others with Asian heritage, such as Larry Itliong, a Filipino-American labor organizer who organized West Coast agricultural workers in the 1930s. Memorial Day is also a reminder that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have been serving in the United States military since the War of 1812 and are proportionally overrepresented by 249 percent in U.S. Army service compared to their current representation in the U.S. population. Protests against migrant detention at Ft. Sill, Tacoma, and other locations have been led by Japanese-American survivors of World War II internment camps. These are only a few examples of historic contributions from individuals of Asian heritage over multiple generations.
Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been hundreds of anti-Asian incidents across the country and around the world. Verbal harassment and abuse, scapegoating, bullying, physical assaults, denials of service, and calls for boycott of Asian-owned restaurants and businesses have been reported and documented.
A significant number of people who have been targeted are healthcare workers returning from shifts treating COVID-19 patients. The Asian American-Pacific Islander (AAPI) population is over-represented in health care: more than 1 in 5 physicians and surgeons are AAPI (195,000 individuals), and 1 in 11 nurses are AAPI (348,000). They comprise a total of 8.5 percent of the workforce, compared to 6.8 percent of the U.S. population. Many more of these anti-AAPI incidents go unreported and undocumented.
Racist stereotyping is not a new thing. Hate speech, racist verbal abuse, social violence, and discrimination have been associated with pandemics throughout history whenever fear and pre-existing bias lead some people to blame others for events they can’t control or don’t understand. Ten years ago, there was a rash of scapegoating and anti-immigrant hate speech blaming Latinx Americans for the outbreak of the H1N1 virus or “swine flu” in Mexico, California, and elsewhere.
In 2015, the World Health Organization revised its naming conventions to avoid associating infectious diseases with locations or with people’s religion, ethnicity, or other factors that could result in stigmatization or racialization of fear, anger, discrimination, and violence. That action did not stop White House officials from using slurs such as “Kung Flu” or “Chinese virus” for the current pandemic, although their use of the term has been widely condemned.
Evidence reported by political scientists at UC-Riverside shows that racist and inflammatory language can have an “emboldening effect,” triggering some individuals to express or act on their biases. This creates hostile and dangerous environments. It should be a major cause of concern for our field – our colleagues, students, employees, and members of the communities where we live and work.
On May 8, 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” and urged governments to “act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.” We are writing this blog as a call for our colleagues to do the same: find a way to help stop normalizing structural racism and address implicit bias.
What can individual citizens do about racism and hate crimes? Does it matter whether you are sheltering in place while doing your regular job, or working on the front lines of health care and other essential services? AcademyHealth has made a public commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in all of our activities and it is one of our strategic plan’s core values, and now we are looking for ways to encourage our members and partners to increase their racial literacy and take steps outside of their comfort zones.
Maybe you’ve experienced and witnessed microaggressions in your workplace, and maybe you’ve spoken out or taken steps to make it stop. Or maybe you’re not very aware about what has been happening to your colleagues, neighbors, or friends during this chaotic time of the coronavirus. Maybe you have never had a frank discussion about race and racism and wouldn’t know how to start one.
More than 18 million people of Asian descent live in the United States, and Asian-led organizations are addressing coronavirus-related issues in a variety of ways. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCon) has created an online reporting center for AAPI hate reporting. The Japanese American Citizens League has an API hate crime response guide. Kris Mendoza, a Filipino-American film-maker, launched an initiative to produce cloth masks for health care workers, and several other Asian-owned businesses in Philadelphia donated masks for other essential workers.
Think about what called you to health services and policy research in the first place. During this time of social distancing, what more can you do as an individual to publicly celebrate your own Asian cultural heritage or to acknowledge your respect for the cultures of others? Here are some suggestions:
- At every opportunity, comment on and call out “rhetoric and behavior” that is beyond the norms of civil society.
- Every time you put together a project team or a conference panel, check its diversity and promote inclusion among all members.
- Improve your racial literacy. Check out the new RaceWorks toolkit released by Stanford SPARQ.
- Learn more about the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the Tri-Caucus calls for workforce diversity on Capitol Hill.
- Read about why American exceptionalism is counterproductive, especially now.
- Learn more about the work of these organizations: Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum; Asian Americans Advancing Justice; Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Asian Pacific Islander Advocates; and South Asian Americans Leading Together.