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We Have Been Here Before

Violence Against the Asian Community

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

On midday of March 29, a 65-year-old Asian woman was walking to church when she passed a building on West 43rd St. in Hell’s Kitchen. Suddenly a man, seemingly from nowhere, kicked her in the stomach and knocked her to the ground. He continued his assault, kicking her repeatedly and stomping on her head, while yelling “F--- you, you don’t belong here!” laced with other obscenities. Then he left.

Three people were watching from the lobby of the building and made no move to assist her. A building security guard wordlessly closed the front door while she lay still on the ground.

There is an American conceit that we are better than everyone else, that we stand for human rights, are a force for good in the world, and are “exceptional.” Yet anyone with a sense of history should be horrified by what is happening. The recent rash of violent anti-Asian incidents in this country echoes ominously with episodes from the past. We have been here before.

In the middle of the fourteenth century a pandemic spread across Europe killing vast numbers of people. The disease was the bubonic plague, a bacterial infection that caused “buboes,” or painful and swollen lymph nodes, at points of entry into the body. They called it the “black death.” There was no defense against it, no drugs and no vaccine. They only thing people could do was find someone to blame. And they found the Jews, already unpopular because they were alleged to have killed Christ.

It was obvious to many that Jews were to blame. Rumors spread that Jews did it by poisoning the water in Christian wells. Well Jews were different, they were foreign, so why wouldn’t they? What else could possibly be the explanation?

Anti-Jewish riots spread nearly as fast as the plague. Thousands of Jews were massacred, and many were burned alive. Of course, that did nothing to stop the disease. But it probably made a lot of people feel a little better.

While today the violence may not be as extensive - hopefully we have learned at least something in 700 years - there has definitely been a rash (to use another epidemiological term) of anti-Asian assaults. The incident mentioned above is just one of many, and the number is increasing. Like the Jews, Asians were largely held in disfavor and suspicion since before the pandemic. Like the Jews, people thought they looked and acted different, and that perhaps they were too smart. Not human like “real” Americans. If someone appears different enough, it is easy to doubt that person’s humanity. And once that happens, anything is permissible.

Donald Trump figured he could use this to his political advantage. He knew that if you make people angry enough, especially at each other, you can use their hatred to distract them from the real problems you are not fixing. And as a group, Asian-Americans were expendable. So he never missed an opportunity to call COVID-19 the “China Virus,” or the “Kung Flu.” As anti-Asian incidents began to proliferate, representatives of the Asian community begged him to stop, but the more they tried to get him to desist, the more determined he seemed in his persistence. I believe this was calculated. It is the oldest political strategy in the world used by demagogues: divide and conquer. If you can keep getting different communities to attack each other, they will stop paying attention to what you’re not doing to help them. In fact, half of them will think you’re the only one who can save them from the other half.

Racism, race and ethnicity-based hatred, always existed in this country. But Trump gave people permission to express it openly. He undid generations of effort to make racism socially unacceptable. So more and more of these attacks are happening in broad daylight. That is Trump’s legacy to this land, which most likely will last long after his White House tenure has ended.

This is what happens to societies that decay from internal conflict, selfish values (which many like to call “American individualism”), and loss of commitment to the common good. We are not exceptional. We are not immune to the consequences societies suffer when they allow this to take place. The destructive trends that have undermined whole societies can happen here too, and it has been happening. We need a sense of history to inform and support our sense of decency. We need to remember what happens in past and present to societies that tolerate or even encourage the hatred many have now come to see as a virtue.

In biblical times, the prophets were the ones who tried to call the people back to their senses. Today that task falls to our religious leaders. Our elected representatives, with very few exceptions, will not do it. Many of them are too worried about pandering to their constituents so that they can remain in office. While there are notable exceptions, too many of our religious leaders have fallen silent just when they are needed most, and way too many of them have actually allied themselves with the dark forces they ought to be resisting.

We need not only to sympathize, we need to identify with the pain of Asian-Americans. We need to feel their pain as if it were our own, because it should be. The woman who was attacked and kicked on her way to church could be your mother. The young Asian man beaten unconscious on a subway train could be your son. We need to dispense with the condescending sentiment of “There but for the grace of God go I.” Instead we should be saying, “There, with the grace of God, go I also.”

At this writing the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer seen killing George Floyd, is underway. No doubt this is intensifying deep wounds in the Black community. Theirs is another story that should cause us great shame before we think of America as “exceptional,” and much the same could be written about that story, which we also need to hear. We need both to see and to feel the pain surrounding this trial. It has to become our pain. Overcoming separation begins with the sharing of pain. That is the literal meaning of the word “compassion.” It means being with the pain of others. It is so easy to compartmentalize, to see ourselves separate, to turn away as that security guard turned his back on the Asian woman. No exhortation or sermon will fix this. We have to be willing to feel.

Any illusions that America overcame its race problem when it elected a Black president have now been dispelled. If anything, many are now more aware than ever of how deep-seated the problem is - something the victims of racism have always known and have been trying to tell us. We are living in a dangerous time. Even now, massive efforts are underway to subvert our democracy and suppress minority votes. What the previous administration stood for is threatening to make a comeback. It camouflages itself in claims of “patriotism,” “religious freedom,” “American exceptionalism,” and “individual rights.” When you hear these claims, be alarmed. They are all efforts to make attractive the forces of division and the drive for power for power’s sake. Orwell knew that the best way for these forces to succeed is to look like the opposite of what they really are. Hence the expert use of language to confuse us, and unfortunately, too often, it works.

There, with the grace of God, go I also.

March 2021