Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang has raised the ire of Asian American civil rights groups, including the Manzanar Committee, with his suggestion on how the community should deal with the wave of anti-Asian discrimination resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
In an op-ed article titled “We Asian Americans are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure,” published in The Washington Post on April 1, Yang called on Asian Americans to “embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before.”
He recalled a recent incident at a grocery store where he felt judged and demeaned. “Last week I was shopping for groceries and preparing to hole up at home with my wife, Evelyn, and our two boys. There was an eerie, peculiar aura in the parking lot in upstate New York as night fell and shoppers wheeled out essentials and snacks.
“Three middle-aged men in hoodies and sweatshirts stood outside the entrance of the grocery store. They huddled together talking. One looked up at me and frowned. There was something accusatory in his eyes. And then, for the first time in years, I felt it.
“I felt self-conscious — even a bit ashamed — of being Asian.
“It had been years since I felt that way. I grew up with semi-regular visitations of that sense of racially tinged self-consciousness. It didn’t help that I was an awkward kid. But after adulthood, marriage, a career, parenthood, positions of leadership and even a presidential run, that feeling had disappeared — I thought.”
Frequent references to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” (or, as one White House official put it, the “kung flu”) have contributed to the false belief that all Asians are carriers of the disease or are more prone to catch it, resulting in harassment and violent attacks across the country. A man in New York City was sprayed with air freshener while riding the subway; a Filipino boy was bullied at a California middle school; and an Asian American family was stabbed in Midland, Texas, by an assailant who allegedly claimed he targeted the family because they were Chinese.
To respond to this situation, Yang — the only Chinese American in the once-crowded field of Democratic candidates — wrote, “We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”
Yang also said, “I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing. But saying, ‘Don’t be racist toward Asians’ won’t work.”
Citing the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, Yang wrote, “During World War II, Japanese Americans volunteered for military duty at the highest possible levels to demonstrate that they were Americans. Now many in the Asian American community are stepping up, trying to demonstrate that we can be part of the solution.”
Comedian Jenny Yang responded via Twitter, “This hasn’t worked before, Andrew, and this will never work. 33k Japanese Americans served in WWII, 800 of them killed in action, yet 120k Japanese Americans were put in internment camps.
“Asian Americans don’t need to prove that they’re Americans, Andrew Yang. We’ve already proved that being Captain America won’t make people respect us.”
Yang also posted a video of herself wearing red, white and blue, standing on the street with a sign says, “Honk if you won’t hate crime me,” and handing out Clorox wipes to strangers.
Letting Racists Off the Hook
Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey blasted Andrew Yang for letting racists, xenophobes, and political opportunists off the hook.
“Like everyone else, Asian Americans have the right to walk down the street, shop, and go about their business without having to prove their loyalty,” he said. “Yang believes that by being extra helpful and showing our ‘American-ness’ that we will defuse this wave of anti-Asian racism. That is patently false.
“Instead of placing the onus on the racists and opportunistic politicians who are calling the COVID-19 virus the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘kung flu,’ Yang has placed the burden on the victims. This approach has never worked before and never will, as many in the Japanese American community know from the forced removal of our families during World War II, and its aftermath
“Many in our community, during and after World War II, argued precisely what Yang is saying. ‘Just be good Americans, don’t make waves or protest, show how patriotic we are and everything will be fine.’ My family lost their store, along with their freedom and their constitutional rights. I don’t consider that to be, ‘just fine.’”
While noting that the 100th/442nd became the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service, Embrey took issue with Yang’s suggestion that Asian Americans must go the extra mile to demonstrate their worthiness today:
“Yang refers to the heroics of the all-Japanese American combat unit in World War II. Three of my uncles served during World War II and I am very proud of their service. But that’s only half of the story. At the same time, my mother’s family had been unjustly incarcerated at Manzanar. When she arrived, living conditions were simply horrible, and after months of complaining, a protest erupted.
“At the Santa Anita Assembly Center, there were protests. At the Poston camp, there was a general strike. At Heart Mountain, men resisted the draft. Japanese Americans wrote letters, demonstrated, sued their government, and demanded redress and reparations. Many in our community were not the ‘quiet Americans’ and definitely not a ‘model minority.’
“For the camp survivors, anti-Japanese racism and violence continued long after World War II. Anti-miscegenation laws and alien land laws remained on the books until the late 1940s or 1950s. Restricted covenants were in effect until the late 1960s or early 1970s, and anti-Japanese violence continued well after camps were closed and many returned to the West Coast.”
Embrey stressed that fighting racism and xenophobia has been a defining feature of the nation’s history. While anti-Asian racism and xenophobia is being whipped up and is escalating, racism did not begin with the pandemic; rather, it has long been a feature of the nation’s development:
“Yang may think the solution to racism is to be compliant, but fighting for one’s rights against inequality and racism has been an integral part of our nation’s history. Our democracy demands that all people are entitled basic constitutional rights and equal justice under the law. If these basic rights are denied, then fighting back is not only justified, but it is also necessary.
“This has been true throughout our history. People have been fighting for their rights, whether it was freedom from slavery, from Native people’s fighting back against genocide, to more contemporary battles for civil and voting rights, to our community’s victorious campaign for redress and reparations. Fighting back is as ‘American’ as you can get.
“Yang is right when he said that like everyone else, we should help our neighbors and work to ease the pain and suffering brought on by the inept, criminally incompetent, federal response. Everyone should. Americans, immigrants — everyone must pull together to do what we can to overcome this pandemic.
“The COVID-19 virus is the great equalizer. It doesn’t discriminate. No one is safe from it. We are all in this together.”
Appealing to the Model Minority
In Seattle, Densho Communications Coordinator Nina Wallace had this response to Yang: “The crisis that he describes is very real. The FBI warned of an uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes after President Trump and other government officials repeatedly used racialized terms like ‘Chinese virus’ and the ‘Kung Flu’ to describe the novel coronavirus. STOP AAPI HATE, which tracks discrimination against Asian Americans related to the COVID-19 pandemic, received over 670 reports of verbal or physical attacks in its first week alone.
“But Yang’s claim that Asian Americans need only put on a polite smile and ‘wear red white and blue’ to avoid racist abuse is ahistorical and dangerously wrong.
“During World War II, Japanese American Citizens League leader Mike Masaoka made similar statements, counseling obedience and assimilation to quell anti-Japanese sentiment. Masaoka’s wartime respectability politics didn’t stop the hate, but it did undermine efforts to push back against the injustice of incarceration.
“In an almost mirror image of Yang’s model minority appeal today, Masaoka wrote in his autobiography that, under his leadership, the ‘JACL urged its members to cooperate with authorities, buy war bonds, volunteer for civil defense units, sign up for first-aid classes and donate blood, look for good newspaper publicity, and, in short, do everything to project a favorable patriotic image.’
“At a New Year’s Eve celebration a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, as hundreds of Issei men arrested by the FBI sat in jails separated from their families — some of them reported by JACL members who considered them ‘traitorous elements’ within the community — Masaoka encouraged his fellow Japanese Americans to ‘assume [their] duties and obligations as a citizen, cheerfully and without any reservations whatsoever.’
“Six weeks later — apparently unmoved by these performances of patriotism — FDR issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced exile of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.
“As the government finalized plans for the mass removal, Masaoka approached the Army with a proposal to form a suicide battalion of Nisei soldiers, offering up their immigrant parents as hostages lest they falter in their patriotic duty. The proposal was, thankfully, ignored.
“But when the Army began drafting Japanese Americans out of the camps, the JACL stigmatized more than 300 young men who refused to risk their lives for the country that had imprisoned them, suggesting they be charged with sedition on top of Selective Service violations and publishing editorials calling them ‘draft dodgers’ who had ‘injured the cause of loyal Japanese Americans everywhere.’
“These gratuitous demonstrations of ‘loyalty’ — from Masaoka and others who shared his views — did not save Japanese Americans from the trauma of incarceration. On the contrary, the silencing of dissenting opinions drove a wedge through the community during a time of crisis, and created deep wounds that still fester today.
“The Nisei soldiers who Yang cites in his op-ed faced racist attacks themselves — in some cases even while wearing a U.S. Army uniform. In one of several examples of terrorist violence aimed at Japanese Americans returning to the West Coast, the family of Shig Doi, a soldier in the 442nd who was part of the famed rescue of the Lost Battalion, endured a two-night ordeal that involved the attempted dynamiting and arson of their packing shed, followed by shots fired at their house from passing cars.
“Four men were arrested and went to trial. But despite a confession from one man that implicated the others, and a defense attorney who simply cited the Bataan Death March while arguing, ‘This is a white man’s country,’ the all-white jury acquitted the men of all charges.
“Shig later recounted in an interview, ‘I was getting shot at from the enemy, and then at home in my own country, people were shooting at my dad. I was risking my life for this country, and my government was not protecting my folks.’
“Japanese American military service did play an undeniable role in easing anti-Japanese sentiment after the war — but so did coalitions with other communities of color, the nation’s attention shifting to the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, and many other historical events that make Yang’s analogy ring false today.
“Yang is severely mistaken if he thinks the lesson we should take away from our history is that Asian Americans can, or should, escape racism by appealing to racists. Japanese Americans tried to prove their loyalty to this country during WWII, through military service, through quiet endurance, and, in some cases, through the vilification of those who chose to exert their American-ness in acts of civil disobedience. These demonstrations did not prevent the uprooting of our community, the years of incarceration without trial, or the onslaught of rhetorical and physical hate directed at Asian bodies.
“Should we, as Yang says in his op-ed, ‘step up, help our neighbors… and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis’? Absolutely. Many Asian Americans are already creating community support networks to supply our elders with groceries and ensure that Chinatown and Nihonmachi businesses stay afloat. But flag-waving allegiance should not be a prerequisite for ending anti-Asian violence.
“Putting on a model minority show of hyperpatriotism and unrequited loyalty will not protect us. What will protect us is solidarity. With Black folks creating pathways to liberation through both white supremacy and anti-Blackness from other people of color. With Indigenous peoples fighting to protect and nurture the land on which we stand. With survivors who are already intimately familiar with the consequences of victim-blaming, and actively engaged in building a world where we need not ‘prove’ our worth. And with Asian Americans striving for true justice, not proximity to whiteness.
“Now is not the time to cull the dissenters and resisters from our communities. Now is not the time to retreat to the center and erase those who live on the margins. Rather than appealing to notions of loyalty and ‘American-ness’ that demand we sacrifice our cultural and political identities as a price of admission, let us instead build our own power and mutual support.
“We are enough, and we have nothing to prove.”