President Donald Trump on Monday said the Chinese are not to blame for coronavirus, but some say his previous incendiary remarks have fueled assaults against Asian-Americans.
Lili McDonald likes ice cream.
So, when the 17-year-old Royal Palm Beach resident stopped by Dairy Queen last week, she was confused when another customer told her to “go to a Chinese restaurant.”
It took the teenager a moment to realize what was happening.
“It wasn’t just an off-comment where you say, that was kind of rude,” McDonald said. “It was actually very pointed and very racist.”
McDonald grew up in the United States, adopted at the age of one by an Irish-American family. Forgiving and unassuming, she was not accustomed to being singled out — and even less so to being verbally insulted.
“I’m not a very reactive person,” McDonald said. “I don’t process it, I’m not expecting it, I’m not waiting for someone to say something like that.”
That is changing in the era of the coronavirus pandemic. Advocacy organizations around the United States worry the health crisis will stoke bias and discrimination against Americans who immigrated from Asian countries as well as those of Asian descent.
Incidents of hate and violence have spiked so much that the website Teaching Tolerance has dedicated a section to teaching students how to speak up against racism related to coronavirus. And the organization Chinese for Affirmative Action now tracks assaults via voluntary reporting on its website.
Hundreds of cases have been recorded. Thousands more, particularly those occurring on social media, continue unabated. It is a reality McDonald and her family are now forced to accept.
Concerns also surged to the forefront of national conversations after President Donald Trump’s statements and tweets labeling the illness as the “Chinese virus.” A White House official also reportedly called the virus the “kung-flu” while a Republican lawmaker referred to it as the “Wuhan flu.”
The end result, intended or not, has filtered down to Main Street America.
“I realize I have to start almost being mentally prepared for that so I can react,” McDonald said.
Nancy Norton, McDonald’s mother, said she is shocked by the behavior of people in her own community. She said she now fears for her daughter’s safety.
“She’s not allowed to go out without me or her sister shadowing her,” Norton said. “If something happens, they are going to have to get through us first.”
Reports of assaults on Asian-Americans have been documented worldwide since January, as the flu spread far beyond its place of origin in China. But they spiked after Trump began using nicknames for the virus that implied Chinese people were somehow to blame, said John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC.
“We’re now getting somewhere between five to six reports a day,” Yang said. “These incidents are not just verbal, but include physical assaults.”
On Monday, after being pressed by the White House press corps about criticism by advocacy groups about his use of the term “Chinese flu,” Trump conceded that verbal taunts, slurs and violence toward Asian-Americans are unacceptable.
Trump later tweeted: “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States, and all around the world. They are amazing people, and the spreading of the Virus …… is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER!” he wrote in a series of tweets.
But the president did not back down from his use of the term, nor did he accept responsibility for spurring stigmatization of Asian-Americans in using it.
For those on the front lines of the fight against racism, Trump’s condemnation of bias toward Asian-Americans provided little solace.
“We think it is better late than never that he spoke out against violence against Asian-American’s, but it is unfortunate that it took him so long to do so,” Yang said.
The coronavirus outbreak, which began several months ago in Wuhan, China, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. And as rapidly as it spread across the United States, so did misinformation and ignorance. Slanderous terms by an administration long accused of xenophobia soon followed.
“Using terms like ‘Chinese virus’ does have a stigmatizing effect,” Yang said. “It fuels prejudice because it’s based on the misperception that Chinese Americans are responsible for the virus or are somehow special carriers or transmitters of the virus, none of which we know are true.”
Trump has denied the term “Chinese virus” is racist, instead calling it a statement of fact. But nothing could be further from the truth for those suffering the consequences of bigotry invoked by such words, Yang said.
At McDonald’s West Palm Beach school, Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, another Chinese-American student said she was verbally assaulted by a classmate whom she previously considered a friend.
“Everyone knows Chinese people are disgusting,” she reported the antagonist saying. “They’ll eat any kind of animal. They’re dirty.”
The hurtful comments are but a sampling of what some have endured as a result of coronavirus-related aggression. People have been punched, kicked and spit-on, according to numerous media reports.
The impact of such assaults affects not only those involved in the confrontations but those who witness them.
“Unfortunately, these events have caused all of us in these difficult times to be further isolated from each other,” Yang said. “There have been stories of good bystanders that have intervened, and that has helped people feel more unified. But, absolutely, the effect of these events is that it makes everyone feel less safe.”
Rui Falcon, secretary and treasurer of the Chinese Association of Science, Economics and Culture of South Florida, hopes that the work her organization is doing to combat the threat of coronavirus will help people realize that citizens of all ethnicities are equally important members of the community.
“This country is a melting pot, and it has been super successful in productivity and is the strongest country in the world,” she said. “That’s an indirect result of embracing many different cultures.”
Falcon’s organization has been distributing face masks to the elderly and plans to donate 3,000 more face masks and 120 bottles of hand sanitizer to local hospitals this week.
“We would like to contribute very positively to fight against the virus with everybody in the community,” she said.
The group began sourcing much-needed medical supplies to send to China early in the crisis. Now, they are donating supplies locally to help protect medical personnel who are treating infected patients.
Falcon finds reports of assaults on Chinese-Americans troubling and says everyone is facing the same frustrations and uncertainty.
“There’s so much negativity here, because people are in fear,” she said. “The market is dropping, they’re losing a lot of money, they are losing their jobs, and there is a tremendous amount of anger over death and illness.”
But instead of division, Falcon said now is the time for all Americans to work together to fight coronavirus.
“We’re one of you,” she said. “We’re all in this together. That is my main message. We all must work together — we’re a team.”
Palm Beach Post staff reporter Tom D'Angelo contributed to this story.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.