Photo Credit: Jallicia Jolly & Sadiyah Malcolm
By JALLICIA JOLLY
To be a person of color and an immigrant in this country is to know its cyclical violence intimately. It is to feel precarity written across your flesh as you embody inequalities. It is to look white supremacy in the face as you strike your own marginalization in the belly of an imperial beast. It is a paralysis of fighting to survive while defending your own humanity.
Like the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, anti-asian and anti-black racism are public health issues. The racist and xenophobic claims about the pandemic alongside the bioterrorism of white supremacist groups threaten the lives of communities of color and undermine all efforts to contain the disease. This violence requires that we address COVID-19 as not only a medical and biological reality, but also a cultural one that magnifies anti-asian and anti-black racisms.
COVID-19 is a pneumonia-causing illness that infects the respiratory tract. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 spreads mainly through close contact between people through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Since the outbreak, there has been an increase in harassment and violence of Asians and Asian Americans. According to San Francisco State Asian American Studies department’s reporting center of hate crimes, there are 100 bias reports daily and a total of 1,200 reported since March 19th.
The anti-asian violence is rooted in a longer history of stereotypes that have associated people of color with disease. In 1878, Dr. Hugh Toland of the San Francisco Board of Health wrote an article, “How the Chinese Women Are Infusing a Poison into the Anglo-Saxon Blood”, which contended that Chinese prostitutes carried syphilis that was far more potent than that of the average American prostitute. This fear mongering informed Congress’ passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the travel of Chinese laborers to the U.S. In 1982, the CDC notoriously classified Haitians as an AIDS “risk group”, which paved the way for the indefinite imprisonment of Haitian refugees in Guantanamo Bay that would begin in the early 1990s. Haitians remain the only national group in the “Four H” group of risk factors for AIDS which include homosexuals, heroin users, and hemophiliacs. These responses to COVID-19 not only highlight consequences of historical narratives emphasizing troubling associations between race and disease, but also reveals the legal and policy ramifications of racialized violence.
We still feel the weight of anti-asian and anti-black violence. It hangs in the misplaced xenophobic fear that has spread faster than the virus, igniting harassment and physical violence against Asians in classrooms, in neighborhoods, and on public transit. It lurks in the plots of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who are planning to start biological warfare, stating that it is their “obligation” to spread the coronavirus by spraying saliva from bottles at police and non-White people. It surfaces in the aggression of passersby who, like members of the Trump administration, spew epithets (“Kung Fu Flu” and “China Virus”) that erroneously label the virus. We know far too well that this bigotry kills people of color. The violence of racism and inequality rests in the disproportionate deaths of Black and Latinx folks, many of whom lack the basic resource necessary to survive on a daily basis. Also receiving inferior care from doctors who are less likely to refer Black people for testing when they visit a clinic with COVID-19 symptoms.
In growing anti-immigration rhetoric and raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which has over 35,000 immigrants in detention centers with poor conditions that make COVID-19 spread fast. In recent suggestions that a potential vaccine for coronavirus be tested on people in Africa, which harkens back to a long history of scientific racism and medical exploitation.In the disproportionate rates of COVID-19 in Native communities as they also face recent attacks to “disestablish” the Mashpee Wampanoag and take away its sacred land.
An abolitionist response in these times must actively challenge the logics of racialized violence as we harness the strength of communal spirit and organized protest. This involves mutual aid collectives helping with groceries, medications, childcare and plumbing or electrical. As well as community care groups that serve the homeless, disabled, and marginalized which exchange food, rides, and crucial services. It must include advocacy for full pay and care of those who are still on the job-grocery-store clerks, food service workers, home-care workers, janitors, delivery drivers, doctors nursing-aides. It must disrupt the “pending state sanctioned executions” of incarcerated people living in poor conditions without preventative personal hygiene materials for people behind bars and for correctional officers.
In these times, we must draw on the leadership of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated such as HIV-positive activists like Katrina Haslip and Laura Whitehorn whose organizing work developed tailored care strategies as it challenged medical neglect and the criminalization of their communities in the 1980s and 1990s. These coalitions developed among not only countered systemic abuse within and beyond prison walls and jail houses, but also provided a template for healing and racial justice amidst the deliberate indifference to the health of marginalized people.
These concerted efforts to care for the most vulnerable among us and to deconstruct individualism while isolating, must accompany transformations of political and economic structures that drive anti-asian and anti-black racism.
This is the only way we can all survive this pandemic in a racist and xenophobic world.