Before I began preschool, my mother began to read bedtime stories to me in English. Living in Hawaii, where I had been born and raised, I was able to get by during my toddler years primarily on Korean. But by school-age, my parents, worried that I would be mocked for an accent, made their strained English the language of the household. By the time I was in kindergarten, English had become my native language; I lost my Korean entirely.
Our family moved often, and when I lived in places as homogeneous as Indiana or Wisconsin, I was glad that I spoke English natively. You would be amazed how early a child understands that they are an outsider. So I did everything I could to fit in: I played football. I became an Eagle Scout. Still, I knew that to some, my place in America––my family’s place in America––would always be contingent.
In my freshman year, my high school track coach called me a “chinaman.” My football captain called me a “chink” and a “gook.” But I laughed off those comments. Even if I knew racism would never be eliminated, I believed that it would always be relegated to the fringe in America.
On September 17, the House of Representatives voted on “Resolution 908: Condemning all forms of anti-Asian sentiment as related to COVID-19.” After a horrifying series of hate crimes against Asian-Americans, motivated by the President’s malicious rhetoric regarding COVID-19 (i.e., ‘Wuhan virus,’ ‘Chinese virus,’ and ‘kung flu’, among others), the resolution was a straightforward statement condemning racism. It cited the Director of the CDC, the Chief Medical Officer of the CDC, the UN Secretary-General, and the Director of the WHO, each of whom explained why such ethnically-based language was scientifically inaccurate and potentially dangerous. The resolution was a purely symbolic statement against racism.
164 Republicans voted no. In what became a party-line vote, the Democratic caucus voted for the resolution, and 164 Republicans voted no. To condemning racism. In the days following the vote, Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY), who sponsored the resolution, revealed that she had been bombarded with an onslaught of racist verbiage, insults, threats, and general abuse. A short sampling was released by her office, to which one can listen here. Please be warned: it is an assault of genuinely horrifying and extraordinarily hateful language. When our political leaders fail to condemn racism, their actions have consequences.
In order to be as charitable as humanly possible, one should note that Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did say, “nobody on this side of the aisle supports” hate crimes. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) argued that while “we all know racism is wrong,” calling the novel coronavirus some variant of “China virus” is not racist. People may disagree whether that term is inherently racist (although ‘kung flu’ certainly is), but any thinking person could have predicted the accompanying increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans of every ethnicity and birthplace. And once hate crimes against Asian-Americans did materialize, every decent American should have stood up against that xenophobic terminology.
Moreover, Jordan is betrayed by the President, who famously inflects his voice harshly when pronouncing China, implying some negative connotation. In contrast, the President speaks glowingly of the Latinate term ‘coronavirus:’ “It’s the China virus, not the coronavirus. Corona sounds like a place in Italy, a beautiful place. It’s corona. No, it’s the China virus.” The racist implications of President Trump’s ethno-centric language are obvious. This is, after all, the same President who called majority non-white nations “shithole countries.”
In addition, if Rep. McCarthy was truly concerned about stopping hate crimes, he could have reached out to Congresswoman Meng (D-NY), the sponsor of the resolution, and asked to amend the language so that the House could pass a bipartisan statement against racism. McCarthy and Republicans in Congress could have proposed an alternate resolution of their own. They did not. And ultimately, McCarthy explained, it was because they did not really care: “There is no kitchen in America that thinks this is the priority.”
But I am an American, too. And this is a priority for me. I may not be wealthy or powerful. My parents are pastors, not senators. But I matter, too. My family matters, too. And our concerns, our disappointments, our suffering: they matter, too.
The House voted on a measure condemning racism. And 164 Republicans voted no.
I was raised to believe in decency, honesty, and generosity. I was taught to show love and compassion to my neighbors, and to judge them by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. These were American values, and they made me proud to be an American. But these Republican congressmen have forgotten what makes America great, and they do not deserve to lead our nation. When you go to the polls, please remember that decency really is on the ballot this November.