On October 7, 2021, at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, Jane Junn, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, as well as an established author of political research books, led a presentation called “Amidst Pandemic and Racial Upheaval: Where Do Asian Americans Fit.” Junn’s presentation, where she dissected what it means to be an Asian American during the pandemic, as well as Asian Americans’ political activism, is a reflection of the current state of the United States through the lens of an Asian American.
In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, anti-Asian violence has resurged with Asianhate crimes increasing tremendously, and over 9,000 cases of anti-Asian crimes occurring since March 2020. This begins to answer the opening question of the presentation: what does it mean to be Asian American in today’s world? Are Asian Americans participating in politics given the circumstances of the pandemic?
According to Jane Junn, they still are. Coincidentally, a pandemic, especially one that has been so racially fueled, is just the thing that drives people to become an activist, to mobilize, and to address local and state lawmakers. People want to be politically active, Junn notes, but sometimes their environment is what limits them.
The pandemic helped change the political participation of Asian-Americans. Statistically, they are the group that is most likely to vote absentee and by mail, and this increased during the pandemic. The pandemic helped expand the political understanding of Asian Americans. Many threats were posed in the most recent presidential election, such as traveling or being near other people, which Democrats were more worried about, or stolen or intercepted ballots from a Republican perspective. For Asian Americans, this election gave better access to information since people were at home, received translation help from a family member, and offered more time. These factors allow for a better chance at voting, and given the 2020 Presidential Election, Asian Americans voted more democratic than ever before.
Asian Americans are not a monolith, and the sub-races within come from different cultures that influence their political decisions. For example, Filipinos and Taiwanese have been viewed as politically more conservative. One student at Junn’s presentation recalled her Taiwanese grandparents who came to America after China had taken over Taiwan. The upheaval of the Taiwanese economy, paired with the threat of being killed if associated with China, resulted in a negative political association and the support of a pro-capitalist agenda. The political association of Asian Americans varies, especially considering the experience in America of each individual.
However, with anti-Asian hate crimes occurring recently all over the country, from New York and Atlanta to Minneapolis and Los Angeles, violence knows no racial distinction within Asian Americans. Hate crimes have happened to all kinds of Asian-Americans since the COVID-19 pandemic. In Los Angeles, there has been an increase of anti-Asian hate crimes by 76 percent. In Atlanta, six Asian-American women were shot and killed at work in three separate attacks on spas by a 21-year-old white male, who claimed no motive.
Some can attribute these hate crimes to the rhetoric used by former President Donald Trump, who commonly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.” When xenophobia is being spread top-down from the President, it’s no wonder crimes are occurring all over the country based solely on race.
Race surrounds the discussion of American politics — it is unavoidable, especially when looking in the context of the pandemic or recent presidential elections. Answering a student’s question regarding the labeling of Asian Americans as such a broad category, Junn highlights that with a country “founded on racial subjugation, where it’s in our Constitution,” it’s hard not to be obsessed with race.
Change for ending racism begins with mobilization and group action, according to Junn. The hate received by Asian Americans is not exclusive to them — Blacks have been receiving it for centuries. If the police were to pull over an Asian American woman versus a Black woman, the same event has very different effects on each person. Professor Junn expressed her worry for her car insurance going up, whereas a Black woman would fear for her life. Professor Junn recalls a quote by Gordon Allport, “The same heat that melts the butter also hardens the egg,” noting the privilege of Asian Americans that comes from them being non-black.
Asian Americans have been living through a very long period of racialized context that Black Americans have endured. However, where black lives are threatened, all lives are threatened. No matter what race you are, all Americans are connected and no one can afford to say that these cases of racial upheaval are not their issue. The races are intertwined and Asian Americans play a role just like anyone else: to fight systemic oppression. The future of democracy can be renowned through the collective fight against the deeply rooted racism in the United States against all minorities. Moving into a post-pandemic world, where Asian Americans have been under attack like never before, America needs to realize the effect of Asian cultures on America and the fighting role of Asian Americans. As Jane Junn mused at the end of her presentation, Asians in America can help make the world a more “egalitarian” and “humane” place.
*Photo by Kate Trifo (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.