Facing Down Bigotry and a Pandemic

A random pedestrian spit on a 26-year-old woman on her way to the gym in her San Francisco neighborhood. In New York, a stranger chased and struck down a woman who appeared to be of Asian descent. And in Texas, a man stabbed a family of three at a store because he thought they were Chinese Americans spreading the coronavirus.

Donald Trump fanned the flames of this anti-Asian hostility by repeatedly calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” And we can expect more racist rhetoric. According to reports, the National Republican Senatorial Committee advised candidates to “attack China” as a mainstay of their campaign messaging.

As members of the nonprofit Young Elected Officials Network, which is predominantly made up of people of color, we take the fight against racism to heart. Our millennial generation grew up believing deeply in social justice. We also believe that when the challenge is unprecedented, as this pandemic is, it helps not to be wedded to the status quo.

Our own cities have experienced disturbing incidents.

One of us, Janice, a first-generation Chinese American woman living in San Francisco, was harassed and shoved at a bus stop. Across the city, people have broken into and vandalized Chinese-owned businesses.

As mayor of Ithaca, New York, Svante is confronting verbal attacks on Asian Americans and situations in which people were physically menaced.

Talk to our young network, and one word emerges as we talk about our role in this crisis: education, in which cultural awareness is a vital ingredient.

As Ohio state senator Tina Maharath said, “There is no cultural heritage for any virus.” Marahath is the first Asian-American woman elected to the Ohio state Senate. Most Asian residents in her district are South Asian, as she is, and many have been bullied.

Some immigrants fear they will be targeted for deportation, and a lack of multilingual resources leaves people in fear of the unknown. Maharath is speaking out, informing her constituents in a newsletter and online.

Georgia State Representative Bee Nguyen says she and her colleagues are pushing the governor’s office to ensure that Asian communities in her state have the information they need to be healthy and safe.

“A lot of the information out there is very hodge-podge,” she says. People need multilingual information about the virus and how to mitigate its economic impact, including how to access benefits or what to do if your utilities are shut off.

Beyond these immediate adjustments, more action is needed to defeat all forms of embedded racism. We want everyone to stand in solidarity with communities of color as disproportionate impacts of the crisis strike us.

Even as we confront the ugliness of this crisis, we see great possibility. The pandemic has laid bare racism against Asian communities that some might have thought was a thing of the past. That awareness will inform our policymaking in the future.

Our network is in constant communication about what works best for cities, for schools, for deploying police and firefighters, for offering economic relief to residents — and yes, for combating bigotry.

When we emerge from the war on this virus, we will extend what we are learning to all the other “wars” we have — on poverty, addiction, and injustice — in a new way.

Meanwhile, in the states, cities, and towns our young officials lead, we are proud to celebrate the rich contributions of Asian Americans in this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. This year, it is more important than ever.

Svante Myrick is the youngest-ever mayor of Ithaca, New York and the Director of Youth Leadership Programs at People For the American Way (PFAW) Foundation.

Janice Li represents District 8 on San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors and is a member of the PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.