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‘A second pandemic’: panelists discuss systemic racism, COVID-19

<h6>Aly Kassam-Remtulla (upper left) and panelists Keith Wailoo (upper middle), Helen Zia (upper right), Beth Lew-Williams (bottom left), and Andy Kim (bottom right)</h6>
Aly Kassam-Remtulla (upper left) and panelists Keith Wailoo (upper middle), Helen Zia (upper right), Beth Lew-Williams (bottom left), and Andy Kim (bottom right)

Four panelists explored the resurgence of violence targeting those of Chinese and Asian ancestry and the disproportionate health and economic impacts of the pandemic on Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian communities during a discussion entitled “Race in the COVID Era: What America’s History of Racism and Xenophobia Means for Today” on Monday, June 8.

The panel comprised Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), Associate Professor of History Beth Lew-Williams, Chair and Professor of History and Public Affairs Keith Wailoo, and journalist and activist Helen Zia ’73. The event was moderated by Aly Kassam-Remtulla, Associate Provost for International Affairs and Operations.

“When we first organized this panel several weeks ago, the world had not yet witnessed the murder of George Floyd,” Kassam-Remtulla opened. “Floyd’s death is deeply connected to the racial disparities exposed by the pandemic. He died with coronavirus antibodies in his blood, surviving infection, only to die at the hands of the police.”

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, as well as recent high-profile killings of several other Black individuals — Breonna Taylor, shot by Louisville police officers in her apartment two months ago; Ahmaud Arbery, chased and killed by white men in Georgia while out on a run; and Tony McDade, killed by police in Tallahassee — have spurred protests across the world

Floyd, Taylor, Arbery, and McDade were not merely the victims of racism, Kassam-Remtulla added, but also “of a ubiquitous strain of fear, hatred, and aversion to black people that is deeply embedded in our culture, in our government, and in our institutions.”

Over the course of the event, the panelists discussed the sources of xenophobia toward various racial and ethnic groups, the idea of “model minorities,” how economic disparities have translated into disparities in public health during the pandemic, and how the University should prepare its students to combat systemic racism. 

Zia, a member of the University’s first class of women who graduated amidst the Civil Rights, Anti-war, and Women’s movements, characterized the global phenomenon of hate and violence towards Chinese people — and East Asian people of all ethnicities — in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis as “a second pandemic.”

“Since many people including in the United States think that all Asians are the same anyway, the lumping-together effect has meant there is quite a lot of hostility including violence toward anybody of Asian background,” she explained.

According to Zia, stories of antagonism, vandalism, hostility, bullying, and assaults flooded the airwaves even before the pandemic hit North America. Following Trump’s xenophobia-laced rhetoric that blamed and targeted China, the rate of these incidents spiked even further. More than 1,700 reports were submitted to STOP AAPI HATE, a webpage that documents instances of racism and discrimination towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, over a span of six weeks.

Zia then went on to address the “startling” accusations that Asians are somehow only now beginning to discover racism.

“The only real reply to that is we have known about the context of Asian Americans in this country with race,” she said. “And the fact that people are unaware of it is part of the invisibility that Asian Americans have experienced and that is part of the challenge.

Lew-Williams, whose research explores Asian American race and migration, offered historical context for racial violence against Chinese, particularly in the late-19th century.

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“A lot of the stereotypes and the prejudice did center around the Chinese … as being dirty in some way or diseased, being unhygienic, being living together in crowded quarters in a clannish way, eating strange foods and having backwards medical practices” she said. “A lot of the rhetoric that we hear today about concerns about the Chinese as diseased really resonates with the earlier prejudice against Chinese.”

Many racially discriminatory health policies evolved from this prejudice, including forced inoculation, segregated hospitals, and discriminatory quarantine practices, ultimately leading to over six decades of exclusion of Chinese people and those from other Asian groups through immigration control. Although the legislation was ultimately repealed in the mid-1900s, its underlying sentiments still remain, according to the speakers.

“I think it's not a coincidence that we hear anti-Chinese rhetoric out of President Trump one moment and then plan to cut back Chinese students the next,” Lew-Williams added. “We have to think about how this anti-Asian hate can move into the government as well.”

Wailoo emphasized that how COVID-19 impacts a society is not inherent to the virus itself.

“It really reflects a great deal about pre-existing disparities, pre-existing challenges and problems,” he said. “It's kind of like the impact of the coronavirus is layered atop an accretion of previous insults.
 As a result, what you have then takes the form of multiple institutions.”

Wailoo cited many such institutions, including nursing homes — which are filled with high-risk individuals, prisons — which have disproportionately African-American populations because of policies like the War on Drugs and criminal surveillance, meatpacking factories — which are predominantly Latinx and whose conditions promote virus transmission, and elements more common to urban areas like high-rises and public transportation.

He also pointed to the example of Native Americans in the southwestern United States, where 30 percent of the Navajo population does not have access to running water.

“For a virus where we are warned from the very outset that we have to wash our hands constantly,” Wailoo said, “you don't have to think deeply and hard about why this virus has embedded itself in different parts of our world and different parts of our country.”

Wailoo also pointed out the paradox fueling Asian American xenophobia in society. Some people point to the so-called primitive Wuhan market as the virus’ origin, while others believe the virus was manufactured by a highly sophisticated Wuhan biomedical facility.

“Both of those things could be true at the same time for people and it allows them to kind of tie an anti-Asian critique to explain why we face the kind of challenges we do,” he added. “It's an insidious disease but it also opens the way of insidious blaming as well.”

Kim, the only Korean American representative in Congress and a member of the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, highlighted the need to understand systemic problems within the healthcare system, across poverty, and across other challenges.

“In Congress we need to think about this in terms of the relief that's being provided to different populations,” Kim said, adding that many minority- and immigrant-owned businesses do not have much of a connection to the banking sector and often struggle with language barriers.

In addition, Kim explained that although there is extensive data detailing deaths by race, there are only four states that collect data breaking down hospitalization and testing.

“We are missing a lot of the data,” he said. “That should be driving a lot of the actions that we in Congress and in the Federal Government are taking.”

The conversation then shifted to the concept of the model minority — a myth where a minority group is perceived to achieve greater socioeconomic success and economic mobility simply by virtue of hard work alone — which has been almost uniformly used to describe those of Asian American descent.

According to the panelists, the concept has been weaponized as a racial wedge since 1966, in what Zia described as a “Trojan horse” and a “false carrot.”

Zia explained how the model minority myth manufactures “two very clear and persistent tropes about who we are.”

“So we have the model minority, the scientist who if they behave and never complain and just do their work … they are acceptable Asians,” Zia said. “So that's then the model minority ... the evil scientist who is spreading disease ... just our physical bodies are disease carriers, subhuman,” she added.

Zia made reference to the Trump administration’s recent decision to revoke the visas of certain graduate students and researchers, and described the “double attack” that many Asian Americans are facing.

In Minneapolis, home to one of the largest and poorest communities of Asian Americans, many generalized the racism and complicity of former officer Tou Thao to all Asians in the aforementioned “lumping-together effect.”

“That very core community of southeast Asians mainly in the Twin Cities is now facing a lot of physical attacks. Their shops, their neighborhoods are getting burned to the ground actually and devastated,” Zia explained. “And the pro-Black, pro-Black Lives Matter Asian Americans are now being subject to death threats and hate because of the way their community has been targeted, too.

In light of the assumption that the “model minority” term must implicitly imply the existence of non-model minorities, Wailoo observed that such language is “explicitly articulated” and “clearly defined against the black experience.”

In addition, Wailoo highlighted Trump’s efforts to traffic the “language of dominance” in the name of white supremacy.

“He is telling [the] white working class, rural Americans — who, if they protest the governor in Michigan, because they are upset about the closing down of the economy — he sees them as a hero,” Wailoo explained. “But at the same time we should dominate urban protesters.”

“So it seems to me that he makes the language of kind of dominance in white supremacy explicit,” he added. “We really need to look at it in the context of the broader conversation about race and belonging and questions of supremacy.”

Lew-Williams described how many Asian American communities have embraced the stereotype of the model minority, which suggests cultural superiority within Asians as a culture.

This sense of superiority is what “allowed Asian Americans to succeed when African Americans have ‘failed,’” according to Lew-Williams.

“When Asian Americans embrace the idea that they have some sort of cultural superiority, that something about their work ethic, the way they organize their families, the way they study for the SAT is superior,” she explained. “they are buying into an idea not just of sort of cultural pride, but also of anti-blackness.”

Zia went on to describe how the model minority myth is intrinsic to how America was formed and the “domination that keeps systemic racism in place … whether we call it white supremacy or not.”

“This whole idea of divide and conquer [is] how a group stays in power,” Zia said. “It's something that every dominating group has learned how to play and in the United States, it's a very potent tool.”

According to Kim, the difficulty of coalescing and seeing the commonalities between different minority groups can be attributed to a “zero-sum gain” mentality, where “different minority communities are competing against each other as one's progress and the other's detriment.”

Kim emphasized the work of the Congressional Quad-Caucus — comprising the Black, Hispanic, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native American Caucuses — as being essential to resolving systemic problems and healing the deeper wounds associated with them.

“Our country is facing a lot,” he said. “New Jersey has faced a lot.”

New Jersey, which has over 12,200 reported deaths due to COVID-19 as of June 8, would rank number eight in the world for coronavirus deaths if it were a country.

“But despite all of the challenges we faced, what I have taken away going to some of these marches is the semblance of hope that sometimes I don't always carry with me,” Kim concluded. “I'm certainly going to try to make some of these changes in Congress and take forward this.

Zia added that she believes many Asian Americans are beginning to question their role in domination and systemic racism, in light of recent Black Lives Matter activism. According to her, many immigrant groups have taken active steps to combat these sentiments, including translating Black Lives Matter videos online and adding subtitles.

Kassam-Remtulla then asked the panel to address the responsibility of an “elite and historically white institution like Princeton” to advance racial justice.

Lew-Williams argued that the University should use its wealth, prestige, and base to “support and uplift community organizations,” while individuals should pledge to educate themselves, renounce privilege, fight to defund or abolish the police, and help restructure society and provide social services.

Zia explained that the University is an institution that is training its elite students to be the leaders and policymakers of the world.

“If we are going to be training the next elite to be changing the world, what is it changing it to?” she asked. “How can we train the students at Princeton and the alumni to be thinking, ‘how do we use the privilege that you have to really not replicate what was before?’”

“We can't go back to normal. Normal is what brought us here,” she added.

Wailoo described the current landscape as a moment of crisis for institutions — from governance, to policing, to healthcare, but also as a moment for the possibility of reinvention and renewal.

“Notoriously, people call [the University] the Princeton bubble,” he said. “It's as if it's kind of like ideally insulated from everything else that goes on — and at the same time, Princeton imagines itself as connected to the world. In service of the nation. In service of all nations.”

He called on students to think beyond their four-year degrees.

“What is the purpose of education?
 How do we challenge ourselves to be better? What does citizenship really mean in this moment?” Wailoo said. “We are trying to do something with regard to creating citizens that are capable of providing guidance and leadership in this moment … At the level of classrooms and institutions this is what we should all be doing.”

Lew-Williams encouraged individuals to think of race beyond a white/black binary, and that although various forms of systemic racial oppression may be different, they are inextricably linked.

“I think the pandemic has created major disruption in the world. And as a historian I know that moments of disruption cause change,” she said. “What we can hope is to make … changes deliberately. To take this moment of disruption, to think about how we want to reform society, and especially to pay attention to issues of racial justice.”

Lew-Williams added that she hopes the students she teaches are “uncomfortable with the present, always,” —  “That there is always something uncomfortable and that they put themselves in uncomfortable positions and they have uncomfortable conversations.”

“I think if we become comfortable with the status quo, there is something wrong,” she added.

Zia emphasized that the global COVID-19 pandemic cannot be cured unless “all communities join together,” including ones that are strategically isolated and diametrically opposed like the United States and China.

“Take this moment and connect the dots and see that our survival, our liberation is really all hand in hand with each other,” Zia added.“I just really look forward to the leadership, continuing leadership of the generations that are coming up now.
 Because they have to do better than my generation did.”

According to Wailoo, the pandemic “only showed people how vulnerable we all are.”

“It made us hyper aware [that] vulnerabilities manifest itself on top of inequalities,” he said.

The murder of George Floyd, once again, highlights vulnerability, Wailoo explained.

“I have actually been surprised and shocked by how many people [out in the streets] identify with him,” he said. “And identify with what happened to him. And see it as a rallying cry,” Wailoo said. “Yeah, it exists on top of a multitude of other kinds of insults and injuries to black lives.
 But it also kind of drew more people in.”

In his concluding remarks, Wailoo challenged the public to confront old tropes, to rethink ideas about race, and to embrace coalitions as the vehicle for social change. Instead of splitting minority groups, Wailoo said, we should see how their interests converge.

“In a way, I think the thing that you might do to build a better world is to realize that we are all George Floyd in some way or another or at least that we should think about ourselves in that way,” Wailoo said. “That's maybe a path forward ... to realize what our commitments are to life, humanity, and betterment in society, [and to] reconstruct institutions around that wherever you might be.

The webinar was held over Zoom at 4 p.m. EDT and was sponsored by the Associate Provost for International Affairs and Operations and the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity.