An Evolution of Hate Crime

Once a week, my mother goes out to shop for essentials at local food markets.

Once a week, my mother goes out to shop for essentials at local food markets. My siblings and I help her assemble her armor: gloves, a heavy-duty mask, sunglasses, three layers of jackets, and, oddly out of place, a little black and yellow bottle that we’ve attached to her keys, labeled in all caps, “PEPPER SPRAY.” On her petite frame, all this seems like too much, yet this is all necessary precaution – against Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) itself, but also the violence the virus has caused. As the number of confirmed cases and deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise in the US, wreaking havoc on the economy, jobs, and lives of many people, there has been a marked rise of violent hate crimes towards those of Asian descent throughout the US. Across social media, there has been a horrifying number of posts and videos of bruised, bleeding men and women, warning fellow Asians to stay safe when walking the streets. My mother is lucky to not have been the subject of one of those posts so far, but it frightens me that the prospect of her becoming a victim is not elusive.

A large part of the issue stems from many’s struggles to bridge the disconnect between news and reality. No longer is the disease something we passively watch on the screen, with commentators talking about people halfway across the world. Rather, they are talking about the disease spreading here in the US. After just a few months, the virus that originally caused simple internet memes is now causing mass chaos fueled by a myriad of misinformation found online. The panic and fear that pushes people to buy toilet paper and hand sanitizer in bulk is the same hysteria that causes these xenophobic crimes. For some, Chinese people are quite literally the physical embodiment of the virus—we are a constant reminder of the harsh reality that is now knocking at their door.

Though the fear of COVID-19 is certainly responsible for many of these hate crimes, the pandemic also reveals an underlying bias and ignorance towards Asian people that had previously been hidden. China’s 2002 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (another fatal respiratory illness) and now COVID-19 have reignited age-old racist insults against Chinese people, leading to exaggerated concerns about China’s hygiene and “medieval” food practices. Many paint Chinese people as diseased and primitive, wholly responsible for the virus’s spread around the globe. While Chinese people specifically have been blamed for this crisis, all Asians have been targets of these attacks, revealing underlying. The practice of scapegoating—blaming one community for a tragedy occurring to all—is nothing new. We have seen how society reacts whenever a national disaster occurs and we have seen where this trend leaves us. Widespread paranoia often snowballs into situations similar to the kind Muslim-Americans faced after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Unlike 2001, however, where President George W. Bush repeatedly urged the nation against blaming Muslim-Americans for the tragedy, President Trump has instead increased tensions in the U.S. with his xenophobic comments. In recent weeks, Trump called the global pandemic a “Chinese virus,” refusing to acknowledge the negative effects of his words. Trump's participation in such discriminatory trends only makes matters worse, encouraging anti-Asian violence to spread even further. Media coverage, too, has increasingly exacerbated the situation, playing into the public’s growing alarm for more views. Many stories refer to the COVID-19 as “Wuhan coronavirus,” “China coronavirus,” or “killer virus.” In February of 2020, a LexisNexis UK database of almost 100 high-circulation newspapers from around the world reported that 1,066 articles mentioned “fear” or related words, including “afraid.” Using such language is more harmful than it seems. Panic spreads faster than the actual disease, and linking coronavirus to geographic regions or fear-inducing adjectives stimulates prejudice and discrimination against Chinese people. Our president’s dismissive attitude towards the negative effects of his words only condones the usage of such terms and harassment of Asians, promoting a culture of distrust and finger-pointing in America.

Is that it? Is this what our society has come to? Perhaps there is more we can hope for in this society. Rather than allowing this crisis to disintegrate our solidarity, it could be a uniting factor, bringing us together into one large community, battling against the virus as one, and helping those in need. Already in the medical community, there has been an increase in international collaboration of research in hopes of discovering a cure for COVID-19, proving that, contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to overcome our biases and come together. Upon seeing other collaborative efforts, it is clear that the U.S. does not have to continue its trend of resorting to xenophobia and racism during a crisis. As global citizens, we must see beyond our fear to recognize the humanity in every single person. Countries must be able to hold the media accountable for negatively portraying the disease and stoking the panic in order to reduce racially motivated violence. As Lawrentians, while we have experienced little anti-Asian hate on campus, we, too, must be mindful of our language with respect to the Asian community.

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