This has been the most divisive year in the history of our nation since the Civil Rights Era. We have experienced an upswing of all the phobias and ‘-isms’, such as racism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and many others. Will it end with the final outcome of the election in three weeks? Will it magically end on midnight, 31 December? No, of course it will not. It may be years or even decades before we recover from the effects of this election.
African-Americans, Latinos and Middle-Easterners are not the only ones to feel the sting and slap of racism in the U.S. Although not as prevalent as some forms of racism, Asians still experience racial discrimination and have noticed an increase in recent months. Here is a letter from a young Chinese-American, Michael Luo, who is a Harvard graduate and an editor for the New York Times. The letter speaks for itself:
Maybe I should have let it go. Turned the other cheek. We had just gotten out of church, and I was with my family and some friends on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We were going to lunch, trying to see if there was room in the Korean restaurant down the street. You were in a rush. It was raining. Our stroller and a gaggle of Asians were in your way.
But I was, honestly, stunned when you yelled at us from down the block, “Go back to China!”
I hesitated for a second and then sprinted to confront you. That must have startled you. You pulled out your iPhone in front of the Equinox and threatened to call the cops. It was comical, in retrospect. You might have been charged instead, especially after I walked away and you screamed, “Go back to your fucking country.”
“I was born in this country!” I yelled back.
It felt silly. But how else to prove I belonged?
This was not my first encounter, of course, with racist insults. Ask any Asian-American, and they’ll readily summon memories of schoolyard taunts, or disturbing encounters on the street or at the grocery store. When I posted on Twitter about what happened, an avalanche of people replied back to me with their own experiences.
But for some reason — and, yes, it probably has to do with the political climate right now — this time felt different.
Walking home later, a pang of sadness welled up inside me.
You had on a nice rain coat. Your iPhone was a 6 Plus. You could have been a fellow parent in one of my daughters’ schools. You seemed, well, normal. But you had these feelings in you, and, the reality is, so do a lot of people in this country right now.
Maybe you don’t know this, but the insults you hurled at my family get to the heart of the Asian-American experience. It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American. It’s one of the reasons that Fox News segment the other day on Chinatown by Jesse Watters, with the karate and nunchucks and broken English, generated so much outrage.
My parents fled mainland China for Taiwan ahead of the Communist takeover. They came to the United States for graduate school. They raised two children, both of whom went to Harvard. I work at The New York Times. Model minority, indeed.
Yet somehow I still often feel like an outsider.
And I wonder if that feeling will ever go away. Perhaps, more important, I wonder whether my two daughters who were with me today will always feel that way too.
Yes, the outpouring of support online was gratifying.
But, afterward, my 7-year-old, who witnessed the whole thing, kept asking my wife, “Why did she say, ‘Go back to China?’ We’re not from China.”
No, we’re not, my wife said, and she tried to explain why you might have said that and why people shouldn’t judge others.
We’re from America, she told my daughter. But sometimes people don’t understand that.
I hope you do now.
That letter was published last week, October 9th, and since then the response from other Asian-Americans sharing their own stories, has been overwhelming. Clearly many others related to the incident. Why is open racism against Asian-Americans suddenly on the rise? An article by Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Hastings, Dr. Frank H. Wu may answer some of the questions surrounding this issue.
According to Dr. Wu, even though some Asian-Americans can trace their ancestry all the way back to the Mayflower, they are perceived as perpetual foreigners. The establishment of Japanese internment camps during World War II, where fully 2/3 of the Japanese-Americans interred were actually born in the U.S. and were American citizens, added to the ‘anti-Asian’ sentiment. Dr. Wu also posits that since the Civil Rights Era and subsequent legislation, discourse and awareness has focused primarily on African-Americans, while Asian-Americans are largely forgotten or overlooked. “In a contest of suffering, their grievance cannot be as great — never mind that their suffering might well be real. It is dismissed in the abstract. Being neither black nor white means not counting, not quite, as minority or majority.”
Racism, as I have said before, is alive and well in the United States. It always has been, but not, since the 1960s, to the extent we are seeing today. While Donald Trump has not openly appealed to the masses to discriminate against Asian-Americans, he has indeed incited his followers to hatred toward African-Americans, Hispanics, and Middle-Easterners. The rhetoric in this election has turned into a contest about the very meaning of American-ness, and about the anxieties of a country learning to define ‘being white’ as being American. No group should be stigmatized because of ancestry, heritage, race or culture. Just because we do not hear as much about Asian-American racism does not mean it doesn’t exist. Obviously, it does.
In February, members of New York’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the New York Police Department (NYPD) expressing concern over what they say is a rise in crime against Asian Americans. “The rise in crime against the Asian-American community is very troubling,” said U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), who represents Queens where one-in-four residents is of Asian descent.
Last Thursday, Fox News aired a segment referred to in Mr. Luo’s letter, in which a correspondent conducted a series of mocking interviews of Asian-Americans in New York City’s Chinatown that critics said trafficked in stereotypes and veered into racism. Mayor Bill de Blasio called the segment “vile.” And Councilman Peter Koo said in a statement: “Passing off this blatantly racist television segment as ‘gentle fun’ not only validates racist stereotypes, it encourages them. The entire segment smacks of willful ignorance by buying into the perpetual foreigner syndrome. How is it, that in New York City in 2016, this is still O.K.? Short answer: It’s not, and it is unfortunate that Fox News needs to be reminded of that.” This is a new low even for Fox News, but more to the point, it is a sign of the times … a very ugly sign.
Prior winner of the Idiot of the Week award, Ann Coulter, however could not resist spreading doubt about Luo’s story, writing in an incendiary tweet that he lied about the whole encounter: “Me after church just now: I hope Michael Luo doesn’t lie about a woman telling him to go back to China again.” Now I remember why she was an Idiot!
The election will be over in some 20 days, and it is to be hoped that Trump and his hate-spewing will no longer be the main topic of discussion in the media. But the scars of this year will remain for a long time, I fear. Let us, as humans, rise above the rubble that will recede into the annals of history eventually. Let us remember the principles on which our nation was founded. Let us seek to regain the kindness, the caring for our fellow human beings that we once had, regardless of ethnicity, religion, race, or any other of the meaningless criteria. Let us once again ‘live and let live’, let us re-discover our humanity.