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COVID Doesn’t Discriminate. But People Do.

During the pandemic, it’s not enough to just save Chinatowns. We need to talk about anti-Asian violence, too.

Man wearing mask walks by Chinatown shop with Lunar New Year decorations displayed. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate” is one public health message we’ve heard since last March. That may be true, but everything in the virus’s shadow — who gets tested, who gets treated, who gets vaccinated, who dies — does discriminate, reflecting the inequities and discrimination baked into the culture and institutions that define the United States. The anti-Asian attacks that have recently surfaced in the news are no different, marking a year since fears over the novel coronavirus began manifesting as racism and xenophobia against Chinese people and, in many countries, anyone who passes for Chinese.

Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants faced vandalism and plummeting business as sensationalist headlines and bigots leapt to the unproven conclusion that Chinese eating habits were to blame for the first reported cases of the coronavirus outbreak, linked to a Wuhan wet market. President Donald Trump and his GOP ilk repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” and “kung flu” and vowed to “make China pay” for the pandemic, despite news of increasing incidents of harassment and attacks — more than 2,808 self-reported cases last year, according to Stop AAPI Hate — against Asian Americans, who have been assaulted and robbed, physically beaten by classmates, punched in the face, kicked in the back, spat on in the street, and met with death threats. Last spring, while grocery shopping, a Burmese immigrant and his two young children were stabbed by a man who thought they were “Chinese and infecting people.” In July, an 89-year-old Chinese woman was slapped and set on fire in the streets of Brooklyn. Recently, a suspect was arrested and charged for assaulting three elderly victims in Oakland’s Chinatown, including a 91-year-old man who fell after being shoved from behind; around the same time, in San Francisco, an 84-year-old man from Thailand died after being violently knocked to the ground.

What this past year reflects about this country is twofold: the Sinophobia that underpins current American and global politics, as well as the larger history of regarding Asians in the U.S. as one flattened, homogenous group.

The backlash is not limited to Chinese people. East Asians, Southeast Asians, and Pacific Islanders have also become recipients of this anti-Chinese violence — stoked by Trump’s rhetoric, hostile U.S.-China relations, the fear of a Chinese appetite — because of how Asian Americans are perceived in this country: at its core, still as one unidentifiable foreign mass, understood to be “other.” Our distinct ethnicities have been alternately erased or weaponized against each other, depending on whatever’s convenient at the time.

“Anti-Asian hate violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is structured by the interests of U.S. capital and empire,” writer and scholar Mark Tseng-Putterman wrote on Twitter. “Today’s resurgent violence doesn’t stem from an abstract anti-Asian animus, but from geopolitical aggression fixed on China and displaced onto those read as Chinese.”

It’s not the first time that Asian people of one ethnicity have suffered from being mistaken for another. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American man, was beaten to death by two white autoworkers who targeted him for the Japanese automobile industry’s success and the layoffs at Detroit’s Big Three auto manufacturers. Japanese American, Chinese American; in the end, as victims of racial resentment-turned-violence, it’s all the same. “Asian American” — that contested umbrella term denoting dozens of disparate ethnicities and cultural backgrounds — remains in use because we try to form a tenuous solidarity around it. But it also captures one more reality of bearing that identity marker: In the eyes of people who hate us, we all may as well be the same.

It’s funny that this anti-Asian violence has escalated even while “Save Chinatown” efforts have been underway, aimed at reviving local communities devastated by a public health crisis that left a stain of misplaced blame. “Save your local Chinatown,” advocates urge, championing this dim sum restaurant and that hole-in-the-wall noodle spot, this Chinese mart and that decades-old antique shop. “Save your local Chinatown,” supporters respond, posting photos of the takeout and bags of frozen dumplings they’ve bought in bulk to take home. Chow mein, char siu, egg tarts — social media-friendly symbols and tangible (and edible) proof of one’s allegiance to these neighborhoods.

For people who live outside those communities, including myself, that’s the basis of their relationship with Chinatown: It’s a place to consume sights, experiences, and, most of all, food and drink. Well-meaning consumption is so often presented as the most marketable way to resuscitate Chinatowns, but the core of these enclaves are their residents, their elders, their twin origins as both segregated ghettos and refuges for groups ostracized by the rest of American society.

The efforts to save Chinatowns through their restaurants and this year of violence against Chinese and other Asian people are symptoms of the same problem: a relationship mediated through consumption, without quite knowing what to do with the people behind those goods, who are imperiled by the physical threat of assaults, as well as longstanding threats like poverty and displacement. Americans may love Chinese food, but they don’t love the people who make it. They treat Chinatowns like playgrounds, their residents like backdrops for photos. They reach for the products of Chinese labor and with the same hands knock them down on the street.

The Good Samaritan attempts to save Chinatowns and their people — encouraging people to give their business to Chinese restaurants, volunteering to escort elderly Asians, offering $25,000 rewards for information that leads to arrests — are well intentioned. But it’s an uphill battle to try to use a piecemeal approach to combat a fortified wall of root causes, from the unaddressed mental health issues that can spark such violence, to this nation’s demonization of foreign bodies in a desperate attempt to retain its heights of power and empire. Still, maybe that’s all we have.

The crescendoing public attention in this year of violence coincided with the arrival of the Lunar New Year. In ordinary times, Chinatowns, Koreatowns, Little Vietnams, and other small pockets across the country would be bustling with activity, alive with people and their energy. But for many, especially the elderly and the vulnerable, safety still lies in staying in — now, not just because of the virus, but because of the cold threat of dehumanization and violence that has been here since the beginning.