In the late 1970s, I moved to Detroit hoping to be part of its famed labor movement and got a job as a factory worker at a Big Three automaker. My pay was almost $10 per hour, more than six times the minimum wage, thanks to a thriving industry and a strong union.
But the Iranian revolution in 1979 brought severe oil and gas shortages and threw the auto industry into crisis. Suddenly I, and millions of other factory workers, lost our jobs. The downturn in Detroit took down the companies that supplied it, the service industry businesses that catered to auto industry workers, and eventually, the larger economy.
Along with other once-productive people, I spent long days at the unemployment office, in lines that snaked around city blocks in the freezing cold. Misery doesn't begin to describe the depths of despair that infected the once-great industrial region.
Politicians, CEOs and union bosses pointed fingers at each other, trying to deflect blame. Workers simmered with frustration and outrage. Soon they found an enemy they could all agree on: Japan.
The Japanese auto industry, they said, was the source of everyone’s woes. This enemy was hurting America by producing fuel-efficient cars when no one wanted Detroit’s gas guzzlers. People who drove Japanese cars were shot at. Never mind that Volkswagen Beetles were also popular — racism is a more effective tool when the enemy looks different. Some even declared that the United States was at war with Japan, suggesting that nuclear bombs might be a solution to the crisis.
Everyone "Japanese looking" became targets as hate-filled rhetoric dominated the airwaves. I never knew when someone might curse me with racist epithets, or threaten to get violent, even though I, too, had lost my job.
Our fears were realized in 1982, when two white autoworkers in Detroit bludgeoned to death a 27-year old Chinese American named Vincent Chin. Witnesses reported hearing the perpetrators tell Chin that “It’s because of you motherf------ that we’re out of work!” His killers never spent a full day in jail. And their rage did nothing to help Detroit autoworkers get back into their factories.
But Chin’s murder triggered a national civil rights campaign. The multiracial, cross-cultural coalition that emerged helped enact changes in the law that have benefited all Americans in the decade since, from allowing victim impact statements to be read at sentencing to protections against hate crimes.
The similarities between the anti-Japanese racism of the 1980s and the current racially charged response to the coronavirus pandemic are chilling. President Trump has made the deliberate decision to use anti-Chinese language to describe the disease. Already, there are hundreds of reports of anti-Asian harassment and violence. This violence could become much worse as more people lose jobs — and lives.
Americans can do better than this, and they have done better. After the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush warned the nation against Islamophobia. He didn’t stop hate crimes, but he set the tone from the country’s highest office that targeting Muslims was not acceptable. Bush later credited his friendship with his Cabinet Secretary Norman Mineta for opening his eyes to the xenophobia that motivated the incarceration of 120,000 U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II.
Even though Trump recently stopped using his inflammatory name for the virus, he already gave permission to hate-mongers. Other leaders need to step up, as did the governors of New York and California, and the Asian American members of Congress.
Like all of us, Americans of Asian descent need to know they will be protected not just from covid-19 but also from violence and harassment when they go out to buy groceries, walk the dog or take their kids to the park.
This isn’t just a matter of our safety: About 20 percent of the nation’s front-line health-care workers are immigrants, including from many countries in Asia. As the Association of American Medical Colleges reports, as of 2018, 17 percent of doctors practicing in the United States were of Asian descent. The virus of hate puts these first responders, and the patients they serve, in double jeopardy. And as the Silicon Valley Leadership Group pointed out in a statement, 1 in 6 of the network’s science, technology, engineering and math employees is from China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. Keeping these workers safe also protects their ability to search for a vaccine and a cure for covid-19.
At this time of grave uncertainty, everyone is at risk. Anti-Asian racism is no cure for covid-19; instead, it’s another virus that puts us all in danger.