I live in New York City, where in recent weeks there have been some absolutely horrid hate crimes against people of Asian descent. This is happening in a year when hate crimes against people of Asian descent are on the rise, as well. These hate crimes are disgusting and uncalled for, and such hate crimes cannot be condemned strongly enough.
However, it is not enough to condemn the hate crimes. Instead, we should look at the root cause of them: anti-Asian sentiment related to COVID-19. More specifically, anti-Asian sentiment tied to the gravely mistaken idea that since the virus originated in Asia, people who look Asian are the cause of everything wrong with the situation in the United States (and around the world, for that matter) for the past year. Given that gravely mistaken, yet widespread, idea, it is no wonder that so many Asians have been victims of hate crimes in the United States.
Looking at the big picture, though, hate crimes against Asians during COVID-19 is actually the latest manifestation of a problem we seem to run into in the United States time and time again: if certain people of a particular ethnicity or religion are viewed as causing a crisis, then all too often everyone of that ethnicity or religion is scapegoated to the point of hate and violence.
Here are a few examples of this happening in the past century:
- In World War I, there was an outbreak of anti-German sentiment that targeted German immigrants, German-Americans, and even the German language. There was a great deal of suspicion about the loyalties of anyone German-related during this time period. All of this was the result of Germany being a foe of the United States in that war.
- In World War II, people of Japanese descent were moved to internment camps by the United States, once again because of questions and doubts over the loyalties of people of Japanese descent. All of this was a result of Japan being a foe of the United States in that war.
- After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Muslims and Sikhs were frequent targets of hate crimes—Muslims for being perceived as being like the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11, and Sikhs for being perceived as being Muslim (because of the turbans Sikh men wear). Some of these crimes happened in my neighborhood in Queens. All of this was the result of a group of Muslims attacking the United States on September 11, 2001.
And now, yet again, people of a particular group are being scapegoated, in the form of people of Asian descent being scapegoated to the point of hate crimes as a result of COVID-19.
Sometimes, history does repeat itself in bad ways.
But what are the implications of the fact that this history does repeat itself in bad ways?
At a personal level, I think it reminds us that this is not a new phenomenon—that of scapegoating groups perceived as being the cause of our problems. It is an issue that has existed for many years, even before many of us were born, and what we see now is the latest manifestation of that old phenomenon.
For policymakers, a start would be to not have rhetoric and/or actions that further fan flames that result in the scapegoating of certain groups. Former President Donald Trump’s calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” could be cited as an example of this problem, but Trump is far from being the only major leader to have made this mistake. For example, the way President Woodrow Wilson spoke unapprovingly of “hyphenated Americans” did not help the cause of German-Americans during World War I, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Japanese internment camps did not help the cause of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This is not to say that the current situation for people of Asian descent would be perfect if Former President Trump had no “China Virus” rhetoric, but words and/or actions like those certainly do not help. More needs to be done than simply our leadership avoiding the scapegoating themselves, but it’s a start.
Unfortunately, history has repeated itself. However, what we can do is learn from our dealing with hate crimes against people of Asian descent and strive to be better in the future.