This week, eight people, six of whom were Asian women, were senselessly murdered at three spas in Atlanta in an act of white supremacist violence, the latest in an escalation of physical violence over the past year against Asian and Asian American members of the community. Former President Donald Trump’s “Chinese virus” rhetoric focused the rage of Americans reeling from the life-altering reality of the pandemic and handed them an easy target for their attacks.
As my colleagues in American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington and others have pointed out, anti-Asian violence in this country is nothing new; it is in fact foundational. It is rooted in a long history of anti-Asian sentiment that recruited Asians as labor but denied them rights and citizenship through exclusionary laws and policies. It is heartening to see the community condemn these acts of physical violence and murder as unacceptable. But what constitutes violence? Why do only spectacular acts register as reprehensible? Early in the pandemic, Asian and Asian American small businesses were severely impacted by anti-Asian backlash.
As a scholar of race and migration, much of my research asks what counts as violence, and when does it end? The inequality of the pandemic has been acknowledged in the death tolls — a disproportionate number of people of color have died because of their overrepresentation in the service industry and in unskilled labor. As skilled workers, Filipina nurses constitute nearly a third of the nursing deaths during the pandemic, their employment tied to circuits of migration resulting from a long history of colonialism and neoliberal economic policies. If we can name physical attacks and deaths as racist violence, why can’t we name the system of racial capitalism that produces the economic precarity of living paycheck to paycheck an issue of violence, as well? Much of the mainstream focus on race and racial violence ignores the intersection of class.
I face the contradictions of being a tenure-track professor whose job flexibility allows me to continue working and receiving benefits while my parents and sisters struggle economically to stay afloat. I wonder if they will be able to keep the house purchased via predatory lending practices at the height of the housing market bubble in California in the early 2000s. Most of my family members work in the service industry. My 64-year-old mother, a refugee from the Vietnam War, has been a manicurist in the San Diego area for almost 30 years. Her lack of English proficiency and the demands of caring for children meant that training for skilled labor was never an option for her. Beyond worrying about her health because of the chemicals in this work environment, at the start of the pandemic, I worried about whether she would be able to pay the bills when she had to stop working. When California Gov. Gavin Newsom blamed nail salons for the outbreak in California, I had a new set of concerns.
In the midst of this, two of my younger sisters faced serious health scares that made visible the need for a system of comprehensive mental health and medical care that does not exist, particularly for the unemployed or underemployed. One of them, diagnosed with breast cancer one month into the pandemic and days after her 29th birthday, worried about potential lapses in her health coverage as she navigated unemployment, multiple surgeries and chemotherapy while her job in the food industry was subject to the instability of repeated openings and closings.
At a time when publicly acknowledging that racism is real and results in insults and death threats, representation certainly matters. However, just teaching others about our cultures is not going to solve the problem of systematic economic inequality. The violence of economic insecurity has been tolerated silently by the Asian American community for too long in exchange for the promise of a “dream” and a modicum of protection from white supremacy at the cost of our Black and brown neighbors and community members. It’s time to name economic inequality as violence, too.
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