By Tobye S. Stein
A 21-year-old white gunman was—as one Georgia official unceremoniously put it—"having a bad day” on March 16, so he killed eight people in Atlanta. Six of them were Asian women. Much like the uproar that arose in the Black community after the murder of George Floyd last May, many in the Asian-American community immediately mobilized in protest. It’s no wonder: there has been an enormous rise in assaults against Asian Americans in the past few years. According to The New York Times, hate crimes against Asians in New York City alone are up a staggering 833 percent since 2019. ABC Evening News reports that since the beginning of the pandemic, assaults against Asians are up 150 percent.
I’ve discovered that the increasing violence against the Asian community lands even harder when your own family is at risk. In November, 2019, my nephew visited Detroit, and introduced us to his girlfriend. We had met one or two other girlfriends, but this time the relationship seemed more serious. My nephew, I’m proud to say, has a doctorate in applied mathematics and works as a research scientist. And now, he was dating a doctor, a dermatologist. She was outgoing and seemed to have a lot of varied interests, including cooking, which she and I discussed during their visit.
This lovely young woman and my nephew were teasing each other in the way emotionally connected couples often do. They seemed so comfortable together. Not only is my nephew an only child, so is his girlfriend. Our family has a lot of only children. So in what way were their backgrounds different? He was raised as a Jew, and she and her parents are from China. Her family came to America when she was five years old, so her dad could attend grad school. Eventually, she and her family relocated to Canada, although she attended college and medical school in the U.S.
My nephew and this lovely Chinese woman married in December, 2019. They decided to try to have a baby quickly. But when my nephew announced they were expecting their first child last November, he admitted that they hadn’t anticipated a pandemic would also arrive. Our tiny great-niece decided she just couldn’t wait to be born and arrived a month early. All is well, and she is happy and healthy and her parents are ecstatic. I am, too, and I’m glad that our little family is growing.
The backdrop to these happy events was Donald Trump’s despicable final year in office. We repeatedly heard the former President call Covid-19 “the Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu.” Why did Trump continuously and erroneously blame China for being responsible for coronavirus? Because he is a racist. Also, he could never admit he failed to manage the growing health crisis in our country. Yet, while he fanned the flames of hate against his own citizens, he continued to praise his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for doing a great job managing the virus in China. Trump managed to blame China without criticizing its President.
Am I surprised by this growing aggression against Asians? No, I’ve known for some time that the way our country has historically treated and still treats Asians is abominable. First there was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred all Chinese immigration. Of course, prior to that, the United States was more than happy to use Chinese workers--including children--to build our railroads. There was no issue letting them handle the dangerous demolition jobs that would clear the way for the railroad expansion out west. But when that work was done, we had no need for the Chinese. While the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1942, the U.S. immediately established a quota for the number of Chinese who could enter our country.
And the Chinese were not the only Asians to be mistreated by this country. Let’s not forget the rounding up of 120,000 Japanese-Americans and the creation of internment camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. The camps were horrible, and the citizens who were relocated to them were treated miserably. Although most camps were abolished in 1944, with the last camp closing in 1946, these citizens were not compensated for the loss of their homes or their livelihoods. Each person received a munificent $25 stipend so they could start a new life.
One would hope that the United States could learn from its previous mistakes, but currently, it seems unlikely and leaves me fed up with the closed-mindedness of my fellow citizens. Just as we saw a rise in anti-Semitism and assaults against Jewish Americans during the last administration, and a rise in crimes against Black and Brown Americans, the Asian community is now at greater risk of harm. Of course this occurred while the former Bigot-in-Chief spewed hatred against these groups while praising white supremacists and Nazis as “very fine people.” Being Jewish and having Jewish family members does sensitize me to the rising anti-Semitic vitriol and now so does having Chinese family members.
After what seemed like a very long wait (my nephew just turned 43), I have a lovely niece and a beautiful great-niece who is Jewish and Chinese. So I often worry about my niece and my great-niece, and wonder what level of discrimination or attacks they will face when they start going out in public in New England. It’s no longer just the family at the Chinese restaurant we frequent, whose children we’ve watched grow up and whose business dropped at the start of the pandemic. It’s not just the students who were harassed in the early months of the pandemic at my alma mater in Oakland County, Mich. as well as on other campuses. Now we’re talking about family, my family. And I’m fearful about what may await them in our very intolerant country.
Tobye S. Stein retired as Chief Human Resources Officer from a California-based financial services organization. She once landed a job by replying to the age old question, “Why should I hire you instead of the other two candidates” by simply stating “I’m funnier than most people.” It worked.