Interview: Coronavirus Pandemic Inflames Anti-Asian Racism

Produce seller with his sidewalk stand in Chinatown, New York, in front of store

New York's Chinatown has seen losses in business for over two months because of fear fomented by President Trump and others. A number of businesses have closed. Photo: Flickr user susanjanegolding, CC-BY-2.0, cropped from original.

Labor Notes’ Saurav Sarkar spoke with New York City teacher Annie Tan on March 23 about the rise in anti-Asian racism with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Labor Notes: Can you tell me a little bit about your family background and how it connects to organizing against anti-Asian racism?

Annie Tan: I was born and raised in Chinatown and I have lived in New York City almost all my life. My family members were mostly new immigrants to America.

But I found out when I was 13 that I was actually related to a man named Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two white auto workers who assumed he was Japanese. Japan and Japanese companies were being blamed for the recession in Detroit. These two guys beat him to death because they thought he was the cause of their suffering.

That led to a big pan-Asian American movement of people who rallied around Vincent Chin. He was my great-aunt’s son.

Your family’s tragedy made a real impact on both the Asian American movement and the labor movement. Can you talk about how those two things connect?

When you look at any movement of people where you are only fighting for yourself or your own group, you’re going to have waves of xenophobia, of excluding people.

In this case, when you have a labor movement that seeks to blame an outside group of people for their misery or lack of success, that group becomes a target. It’s very dangerous because then you can’t build in solidarity with those groups.

The murder of Vincent Chin did influence a number of people to start building solidarity instead of attacking other groups. People identified as Asian American for the first time because of the Vincent Chin case—many Asian American activists, including my fellow teachers, have told me how the Vincent Chin case affected them and how my family’s organizing helped others fight for change too.

The Asian community was also able to create alliances that still exist to this day with labor organizations, with racial justice organizations, and with social justice organizations.

We often forget the history of solidarity among movements. When we look at history, we say, “Oh, this organization did it. Martin Luther King did this,” when it was hundreds and thousands of organizations coming together in solidarity. And that’s when you can actually push things.

Jesse Jackson stood right next to my great-auntie Lily Chin as she went all over the nation and fought for justice. There are people who will support movements even if they don’t identify with the group being targeted. And that’s what it takes to build a successful movement.

Vincent Chin’s case resonated with so many people. Lots of people in Detroit, they still tell me that that case affects them deep in their soul. People took it very seriously.

How do these issues connect with “Buy American” or Trump’s labeling of coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”?

When you think of Buy American, the innocent meaning is that you’re protecting workers here in America who are unionized, and you’re protecting work in your communities. But the issues come when you “other-ize” non-American groups of people. Then you can’t possibly, for instance, fight against climate change, because you don’t believe you can work together to fight against such a massive issue.

And the concept of what American looks like is not seen to include me, even though I am 100 percent American as a Chinese-American woman.

Now anyone who looks Chinese is getting targeted by people who blame us for this virus. My community, Chinatown, has seen losses in business for over two months because of people’s fears, because Trump and other people are labeling this as a Chinese virus. A number of businesses have now closed.

It’s devastating. My Chinatown will never be the same after this. There’s the direct racism, the direct violence, and then there’s the continued effect on Chinese businesses that’s going to devastate my people, frankly.

How are you coping personally with the level of anti-Asian racism that has come to the surface again?

Everyone I know who’s Asian has seen some form of this. We’ve seen Asian supermarkets, not just Chinese supermarkets, that are full [of goods] and not getting patronage. My friend had a man point to her on the subway, saying she was the cause of this virus spreading. I feel like we are all being hit by it right now.

It’s hard and scary to be out in public. There are a lot of people who moved to America and have never faced this level of racism in their 40 to 50 years of living here.

It’s a double effect. People who live in Chinatown aren’t getting business, so they don’t spend money, which then hurts businesses more—and they also don’t want to go out for fear of being attacked.

A lot of the people that you’re talking about are working-class people, right?

A quarter of Asian American people in New York City live in poverty. Asian Americans actually constitute some of the poorest New Yorkers. So people don’t have a safety net.

It’s much harder to organize right now, but is there a response coming from the community or its allies?

There are business organizations providing zero-interest loans, but even that won’t help a lot of people right now, because they’ll have to pay it back. A number of community groups are trying to provide services and food. Those people have to really be commended.

My parents are working-class people. They just retired and they are living off Social Security right now, because as construction workers and seamstresses and bakery workers they didn’t have access to a pension or a retirement plan.

But throughout my life, they had a lot of people help them out. My landlord would bring them food. Anyone who had excess cans of food or extra vegetables or groceries, they would bring them to my mom and dad. My parents would bring other people food as well, because we know how to pay it forward.

One of the things about Chinatown is that we’re so tight-knit that people do look out for each other, so that, for example, my parents have never had to have English-speaking jobs. They don’t speak English. You were able to find work through connections with people, and that’s how Chinatown has always worked, even for people who are really poor.

But Chinatown is the number one gentrifying neighborhood in New York City. Those networks of people and community are starting to get lost as people like me move out. I am one of those rare humans who is middle-class and Chinese and did not leave.

I’m hoping to at least help the people in my neighborhood and in my apartment building. I really fear for seniors who may not have that community safety net.

What’s been the response from the labor movement to these issues?

I have been hearing about a lot of teachers organizing. Right before schools were closed, there was huge talk of a possible sick-out. Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer tweeted right before Mayor Bill DeBlasio closed the schools that she was hearing that 60 to 70 percent of staff were calling out.

I don’t know what made the mayor finally close schools on March 16th, but I do believe the teachers had a huge say in that. And the teachers who fought back saved lives. An eighth of the city was trying to go to school, because we have 1.1 million students and 150,000 school workers—all going in for what? To spread coronavirus?

Organizations like CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities have been doing virtual work. CAAAV helped fight for and win an eviction moratorium in New York City and are supporting the Housing Justice For All campaign to suspend rent and house the homeless. A lot of the tenants who work with them have lost their jobs.

And especially in working-class jobs, paid sick leave is not always there. A lot of people are trying to help people apply for unemployment and get immediate benefits.

There is another group called Welcome to Chinatown that is raising money to pay for meals to give to essential workers from Chinatown restaurants that have lost business. And Chinatown businesses like Pearl River Mart are using their resources to provide Personal Protective Equipment for health care workers.

If you could tell the non-Asian American worker one thing about what’s happening with Asian American communities right now, what would you say?

Just remember the Chinatowns, and remember the Asian American communities. We’ve been members of your movements the whole time. We’ve been in America, we’ve helped lead strikes, we’ve been organizing in solidarity with labor and other movements.

Saurav Sarkar is a former Assistant Editor of Labor