The Power and Pain of Being Asian American During the Coronavirus Crisis

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Janet Yang. Photo courtesy of Janet Yang.

The coronavirus has turned everyone’s lives upside down, but at the same time Covid-19 threatens us all, Asian Americans have been subjected to another dangerous epidemic: racism. Since news of the novel coronavirus began to spread in the U.S., Asian Americans have been the victims of hate crimes, verbal and physical abuse, and have even had to hear President Donald Trump insultingly call the deadly bug the “China virus” in official White House Press briefings. The targeted prejudice comes at the same time many people of Asian descent are risking their own lives on the medical frontlines to save patients with Covid-19. This week, Asian American foreign policy experts, joined by many others in their community, sounded the alarm about the rising wave of attacks they were facing, writing.

Within the past couple of weeks alone, an acid attack against a woman in Brooklyn caused her to suffer severe burns, and a man in Texas has been charged with attempted murder after attacking an Asian American family. Such stories have become disturbingly frequent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the FBI has warned that this trend may continue.

We, the undersigned, are alarmed by the severity of such hate crimes and race-based harassment against people of Asian descent in the United States — assaults that endanger the safety, well-being, dignity and livelihoods of all those targeted. We are not alone. On March 20, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights expressed concern over violent attacks against people of Asian descent. Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) leaders and organizations have condemned such bigotry and mobilized important resources and initiatives to counter racism and xenophobia.

In this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” host Robert Scheer speaks with Janet Yang, the legendary film producer of “The Joy Luck Club" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt,” among many other films, about the appalling onslaught of racism people of Asian descent are currently facing. Yang, who was born in the U.S. and has experienced discrimination since her childhood, notes the different between what she faced her whole life and the terrifying shape racism is taking today amid the unprecedented crisis. 

“It is shocking to me that at this age, in my many decades after I [was taunted as a child] on the school bus, for the first time in my life I have to worry about [going outside],” laments Yang. 

The Chinese American producer, who pioneered the connection between Hollywood and the Chinese film industry, comments on how in a recent article for The Hollywood Reporter, she celebrated how far Asians and Asian Americans had come in Hollywood, noting the popularity of films such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Farewell” and the Oscar-winning Korean film “Parasite.” And yet within a matter of months, it seemed that the very same respect and adulation transformed into suspicion and animosity, even violence.  

“I should not be surprised, perhaps,” Yang tells Scheer, “I have seen this incredible seesaw effect. We can go back to the turn of the century, when Chinese were the only people to be legally excluded from this country because people were so fearful of the jobs they were taking. 

“That was seemingly a place that we would never go to any more, that level of vitriol,” she goes on. “We've seen it, though, in waves since then: World War II, we had an Asian enemy; Korean War, we had an Asian enemy; Vietnam War, we had an Asian enemy. And then we had Asian enemies that were economic in nature.” 

Scheer points out that it seems that regardless of the political conditions in China, throughout American history people with Chinese ancestry have been discriminated against, just as we’re seeing now. 

“The dominant culture in the U.S. has disrespected the Chinese,” says the “Scheer Intelligence” host, “whether they represented a feudal society to be exploited, whether they represented a nascent, democratic capitalist society before the communists, whether they represented communism at a certain point, whether they represent capitalism now--because they are actually the most successful center of capitalist inventiveness and so forth in the world now. 

“It doesn't seem to matter,” he continues. “What matters seems to be the need for an enemy. And even if you have a virus that you're describing, it is convenient to that narrative to define the virus as having some kind of alien national identity.”

In response to this vilification, former 2020 Democratic candidate Andrew Yang wrote a controversial op-ed in the Washington Post encouraging members of his community to lean in to their “American-ness” to show their value to the country as they faced virulent attacks. The Hollywood producer comments that while she’s sure he was well-intentioned, that is exactly the wrong way to approach this problem. 

“[What Yang wrote] sounded a little Uncle Tom-ish: bow your head and just keep doing good, and wear red, white, and blue,” she tells Scheer, “I don't think that's the solution anymore.

“Quite the contrary,” adds Yang. “It is time to speak up. […] Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to come together even more strongly as a community and be able to speak as one voice. Because what is happening seems almost unspeakable, and we must speak of it.” 

Listen to the full conversation between Yang and Scheer as the two trace the history of Asian Americans in the U.S., the waves of racism the community has faced, and the many accomplishments and contributions they’ve made to the U.S. and the rest of the world. 



Joshua Scheer