March 20, 2020

Signs of rise in racism against Asians and Asian-Americans

People in the Asian community in Albuquerque say they have seen a rise in discrimination since the outbreak of COVID-19.

According to Torri A. Jacobus, managing assistant city attorney for the City of Albuquerque Legal Department Office of Civil Rights, there has not been an increase in reported discrimination against Asians or Asian Americans since the public health emergency response to COVID-19 began.

But Kay Bounkeua, executive director of New Mexico Asian Family Center, said that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Jacobus said through a written statement that the department is aware of a couple of incidents, one that happened to a student at the University of New Mexico and one that happened to an Albuquerque small business owner. Members of the Asian and Asian-American community met with Albuquerque’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, other officials and law enforcement to discuss what happened earlier this week. 

The student was the subject of a racist prank, according to KOB-TV. The Albuquerque business owner found racist graffiti written on her back wall, the news station  reported.

Recent Albuquerque city councilor appointee Thanh-Lan “Lan” Sena said she’s heard of a rise in incidents in the Asian and Asian-American community including one incident involving an elderly woman who was assaulted. Sena, who replaced Ken Sanchez for District 1, said people may be “reporting down,” meaning they aren’t reporting harassment out of fear.

Bounkeua said a man got out of his car to yell, “go back where you came from,” at her since the public health emergency began.

Robert Blanquera Nelson, co-president of Asian American Association of New Mexico, said that while taking a Lyft recently, the driver told Nelson that COVID-19, a type of coronavirus, is a biological weapon created by China.

Viral sequencing by scientists has tracked the origins of the virus and point to a likely mutation from a disease in bats, not a lab.

“Those kinds of racialized sentiments are pervasive in our society and in our history,” Nelson said.

Both Nelson and Bounkeua call such encounters “microaggressions.” Nelson defined microaggression as “death by a thousand cuts.”

How COVID-19 is weaponized

The virus is believed to have begun in a Wuhan market where meat is sold, Nelson said. has produced a video explaining how wet markets – outdoor markets where wild animals are for sale – in China are the likely cause of the virus. Wet markets are unregulated and unsanitary, Nelson said. The animals are sometimes stacked on top of each other in cages.

But President Donald Trump has repeatedly called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” Other Republican lawmakers or officials have referred to it as “Kung flu” or “Wuhan flu.”

Nelson said such misinformation reinforces negative stereotypes and that leads to attacks.

“It communicates that it’s permissible to say these kinds of terms without any knowledge of how harmful it can be,” Nelson said. “It’s extraordinarily dangerous.”

Trump told reporters during a press conference he calls COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” because he wants to be accurate, but a Washington Post photographer snapped a photo of Trump’s written speech Thursday. The photo, which Jabin Botsford tweeted, showed that Trump had crossed out “Corona” and replaced it with “Chinese.”

Bounkeua said that such inaccurate information leads to xenophobia and racism against Asian and Asian-American communities.

Historically, immigrants are often associated with germs and contagion, according to a paper published in The Milbank Quarterly, a population health and public policy journal. This has been used as a tool of discrimination.

“We’ve seen it throughout history, illness in some parts of the world is turned into xenophobia,” Bounkeua said.

How Asian and Asian-Americans are affected

Bounkeua said that with the economic crisis brought on by the global pandemic, many Asian and Asian-American entrepreneurs face the potential of losing their businesses, and their livelihoods.

Unemployment rose sharply last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But businesses within Albuquerque’s Asian and Asian-American community saw business loss before many others due to fear of the virus, Bounkeua said.

“Prior to it being labeled a pandemic, they (Asian businesses) were feeling the hurt of a lack of business. There is a perceived misunderstanding that Asians are carrying the disease. We heard people say it limited business,” Bounkeua.

Recent immigrants may be working multiple jobs and may not have extended family in the U.S. If they have children, they might be wondering how to juggle day care and work, or they may be worried about insurance coverage, according to Bounkeua.

“These are questions our community is facing and everyone is facing,” Bounkeau said.

Some don’t speak English which puts them at higher risk of receiving misinformation about what’s happening in their local communities. That can lead to additional panic, Bounkeua said.

“The most vulnerable usually aren’t citizens,” Bounkeau said.

In addition, Asians and Asian-Americans may feel afraid to self-report if they are showing symptoms of COVID-19 because of the stigma, Sena said.

“Community members are afraid to go to the grocery store. It’s allergy season and they’re afraid to walk outside and cough. They were already hit before the virus was increasing,” Sena said. 

What to do

Bounkeau said that despite the “many contributions of the Asian community, they’re invisible in New Mexico.”

“Asians are seen as the perpetual foreigner. As we start to change the narrative that all of our families are impacted by this, hopefully there is more understanding that, really, we’re in this together,” Bounkeau said.

Nelson said that it’s important for leaders to be mindful when speaking to the public and that one way for white people to address racism toward Asians and Asian-Americans is to talk about the history of Asians and the history of racism directed towards them.

“It’s a difficult and challenging task to do. Meet it (racism) with compassion and love. You can’t combat hate with more hate,” Nelson said.