Michigan leaders alarmed about racism toward Asian Americans amid COVID-19 crisis

A Japan Airlines worker wears a face mask while working inside a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) during the COVID-19 outbreak. Advocates are concerned about racist incidents against Asian Americans in Michigan and nationwide. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

A group of state elected officials and community leaders on Thursday pushed back against what they see as growing anti-Asian-American sentiment amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorney General Dana Nessel, state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and state Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) hosted a tele-news conference. They were joined by Richard Mui of Asian and Pacific Islander Vote Michigan and Roland Hwang of the Association of Chinese Americans.

Nessel said that bigotry and hatred have no place in Michigan. She pointed out that her team has established a Hate Crimes Unit in 2019.

Michigan lawmakers call out xenophobic reactions to coronavirus

“Infectious viruses have no nationality,” Nessel said. “I’m disturbed by nationwide reports of violence against the Asian-American community. I can assure you we won’t tolerate that in Michigan during this outbreak or anytime.”

Reminding participants about the notorious 1982 Vincent Chin fatal beating along the Detroit-Highland Park border, Chang urged respect for all Americans.

“The murder of Vincent Chin still haunts many Asian Americans nearly 40 years later,” Chang said. “A virus is a virus. It does not have an ethnicity. I will not stand by and watch my fellow Asian Americans be harassed or worry they could become the next Vincent Chin.”

Chin, a young man of Chinese descent, was fatally beaten with a baseball bat. Prosecutors argued that two white auto workers railed against Chin because of their frustration centering on a slumping American auto industry and the rise of Japanese imports in the U.S. market. He mistook Chin to be of Japanese descent.

President Donald Trump at a Battle Creek rally, Dec. 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

In recent weeks, civil rights organizations and others have criticized President Donald Trump for calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” They argue his speech has helped to encourage hostility toward Asian Americans throughout the nation. During his Monday news conference, Trump used the term and said that he doesn’t believe it’s racist.

“It’s not racist at all,” Trump said. “It comes from China; that’s why.”

Nessel pointed out that the term isn’t helpful and encourages xenophobia. Kuppa said that Americans should be “fighting the pandemic, not each other.”

“As an Asian American immigrant, I have been advocating for people to build relationships across cultural and ethnic differences for decades,” Kuppa said. “Developing partnerships is important now more than ever.”

Denise Yee Grim, a member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and the outreach coordinator for the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, previously told the Advance that she believed Trump “put a target on the Asian community.”

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There have been increases in hate crimes and verbal assaults, while Asian American-owned businesses have seen a drop in customers, as the Advance previously reported.

“It’s just so sad,” Grim said. “A man was beaten up in a small town in Michigan because he’s Asian. Comments like ‘You don’t belong here; go back to China’ are being said. …The virus is crippling Asian American businesses.”

Trump said Tuesday during an interview with Fox News that he will stop using the term “Chinese virus.”

“I don’t regret it, but they accused us of having done it through our soldiers, they said our soldiers did it on purpose, what kind of a thing is that?” Trump said. “Look, everyone knows it came out of China, but I decided we shouldn’t make any more of a big deal out of it. I think I made a big deal. I think people understand it. But that all began when they said our soldiers started it. Our soldiers had nothing to do with it.”

However, on Wednesday, foreign ministers from the Group of 7 failed to issue a group statement on COVID-19, after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on calling it the “Wuhan virus.” The World Health Organization and others have cautioned against giving the disease a geographic name “because of its global nature,” the Associated Press notes.

Roland Hwang, an attorney and secretary of the Association of Chinese Americans, concluded during the Michigan news conference by stating: “We are all in this together.” 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.