In times of crisis, American identity for minorities becomes conditional
We are born here, we have generations here and we have ties here. However, we are American until we are not. Scapegoating minorities during times of crisis has long been a trend in American history. Government leaders rear hateful, ill-informed rhetoric about minority communities during times of turbulence, sowing devastating seeds of blame to excuse injustice and civil rights violations.
We saw this occur in World War II. Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government created lists of “enemy aliens”—mostly male Japanese American community leaders—to round up and detain. 120,000 Sansei (third generation), Nisei (second generation), and Issei (first generation) Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps per an executive order by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before they departed, they sold their possessions, farms and livelihoods for next to nothing.
We see this occur now amid the pandemic: During his administration, former President Trump did little to soothe a nation wracked with worry, choosing to incite fear instead. Trump was persistent in framing COVID-19 as a “foreign” and “Chinese” virus despite the World Health Organization’s discouragement of associating a virus with its geographical origin.
Asian Americans bear the brunt of this othering, racialized rhetoric when it is used to intertwine a virus to their identity.
Trump’s commitment to building walls of division during the pandemic has resulted in a rise of anti-Asian sentiment. Data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records 216 anti-Asian hate crimes in 2019. Data from the FBI for 2020 and 2021 has not yet been released, but organizations such as the Asian American Justice Center have recorded more than 3,000 hate incidents since late 2020.
An elderly Thai man was slammed to the ground in broad daylight, later passing away. A Southeast Asian American family was stabbed by a man who thought they were Chinese, with two children aged 2 and 6 among the victims of the attack. A 52-year-old Asian American woman was barreled into a row of newspaper boxes in broad daylight, now requiring a half dozen stitches.
As anti-Asian hate crimes rise, it is essential to recognize that this is not an isolated trend. Scapegoating is only a distraction in perpetuating ill-intent rhetoric over searching for concrete solutions. By dehumanizing minority groups, their life and identity are effectively reduced to singular, hateful rhetoric.
The malleability of minority groups’ American identity during times of crisis owes itself to the perpetual foreigner stereotype—where naturalized and native-born citizens are perceived as foreign because they are a part of a minority group. Asian American identity during the pandemic has become reduced to that of a foreign threat “carrying the virus that’s destroying our world.” Despite deep roots in this country, no amount of patriotism can betray a “foreign” face.
Asian American identity straddles the line of “foreign” and “American” but almost always, in times of crisis, strays closer to that of being “foreign.” Supreme Court case Ozawa v. The United States, for example, argued against the prospects of the Japanese being able to fully assimilate due to “marked physical characteristics.” The case argues it was not a mindset or merit that determined assimilation—and that compared to the other immigrant groups such as Italians, the “racial uniform” etched into a foreign face will serve as a barrier.
The way Americanness is negated from Asian American identity is dependent on larger political forces. During the pandemic, Asian Americans are stripped of their American proximity, having their “foreign” faces emphasized to ingrain an association with COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Asian American culture was enjoyed,consumed and celebrated amid our nation’s “melting pot.”
As Jenny G. Zhang, a culture writer for The Eater, puts it, “Americans may love Chinese food, but they don’t love the people who make it. They reach for the products of Chinese labor and with the same hands knock them down on the street.”
Celebrating Asian American culture amid the American melting pot still retains the conditional expendability of our American identity. The melting pot theory by design focuses on a homogenous society moving away from a heterogeneous one. If we expected to all “melt” into America, we would melt into a 76% white and 70% Christian nation. What is left is not a perfect blend of cultures, but the dilution of cultures minimized into a supposed version of American identity.
The melting pot expects a dilution of cultures to blend the stripping of one’s minority identity to stand in duality with Americanness. This is a consequence minority groups whose identities are scapegoated during a crisis are forced to grapple with.
Such is the case of Muslim Americans sharing in the #AfterSeptember11 on Twitter: One user shared how their 9-year-old brother was asked if he wanted to change his name and another how their mother had to display an American flag on their house so people do not throw rocks through their window. Because of society’s faulty association of terrorism with the Muslim American identity, individuals have to negate the foreign aspects of their identity, or hyper-emphasize a commitment to the U.S. in hopes of retaining some sense of security in an American identity now stripped away.
Anti-muslim rhetoric—such as the conflation of Radical Islam, Islam and Islamist, according to Ashalul Aden for the Sahan Journal—has led many to associate Muslim Americans with terrorism. This “dangerous mentality” has paved the way for anti-Muslim hate crimes. As Aden articulates, Muslims are not the enemy—terrorism is. Yet similar to the way the line between negative feelings towards COVID-19 and the people associated with its place of origin vanishes, the use of dangerous rhetoric to scapegoat a group makes it harder to distinguish humanity and easier to find blame in the matter.
Ho-Fung Hung, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University noted that “the virus itself doesn’t know ethnic boundaries.” This is true in the way the blame for COVID-19 has spilled beyond Chinese Americans and into other Asian American groups, and the way blame for 9/11 has spilled beyond Muslim Americans and into Sikh, South Asians and Arabs.
To reiterate the perpetual foreigner stereotype: Scapegoating is used to place blame, and a “foreign” face is all that is needed. There is no logic or reason in who is targeted. Vicha Ratanapakdee, who was slammed to the ground in broad daylight, is not of Chinese but Thai descent, yet his “foreign” face was sufficient as an instigating factor. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man who wore a turban, was shot and killed in broad daylight by self-proclaimed patriot Frank Roque who stated that the shooting was in retaliation for 9/11.
Two decades after 9/11, the burden of blame onto Muslim Americans has left traumatic impacts: “Arab-Americans were traumatized three-fold […] the devastation of the attack itself, the backlash from individuals and new government policies targeting this population, such as the Patriot Act […] only added to existing trauma,” said Dr. Wahiba Abu-Ras, an assistant professor at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work. For many, a sense of safety has been eroded upon.
The actions and rhetoric of today will leave long-lasting impacts on the Asian American community. ShelterForce, a publication focused on community development, calls for a culture of sustained “empathy and solidarity beyond the crisis” as a solution. We need to hold onto the lessons we learned from Japanese internment, hate crimes in retaliation for 9/11 and COVID-19 beyond when life returns to “normal.” We need to address the way minority identity has been used as scapegoats in crisis, and how American identity is not given but constructed.
Written by: Renee Wang — firstname.lastname@example.org Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.