News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'A Spike In Prejudice': DFW Asian-Americans Share Stories Of Racism As Coronavirus Rolls In

Elizabeth Myong
The Dallas Chinese Times' March 3 front cover says "Discrimination is worse than the epidemic".

As 34-year-old Lang Nguyen stood in line to vote in Irving last week, he took a sip of water and began to choke. 

“The woman [in front of me] happened to turn around and say if you’re going to be sick you might want to stay home,” he said. 

Nguyen said he was shocked, but assured her he wasn’t sick and explained the situation. 

“She said some racial slur to me like, ‘All you Asian people are spreading that coronavirus’ and so forth,” he said. 

Nguyen said he was stunned by her response and another woman who heard the exchange stepped in to defend him. 

Stories like this of prejudice and discrimination against Asian-Americans during the coronavirus outbreak have been shared in the U.S. and across the world. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the stigmatizing of Asian-Americans has affected the community personally and economically. 

When Nguyen finished voting, he said a police officer approached him in the parking lot and immediately asked for his ID. 

“Apparently, he was telling me as he was looking at my ID, the woman felt like I was going to assault her,” he said. “That shocked me even more.” 

After he and another person explained the situation, Nguyen said he heard the officer admonish the woman who made racist remarks to him, telling her she should thank Nguyen, who was deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan, for being a veteran. 

The Spread Of Bias

Credit Elizabeth Myong / KERA News
An empty aisle at a Chinese supermarket in Richardson's Chinatown.

Across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Asian-American restaurants and stores have suffered during the coronavirus outbreak as business has sharply declined. 

Paul Pass, executive director of the Japan-America Society of Dallas-Fort Worth, said Asian-American businesses and restaurants across the metroplex have turned to cost-cutting measures. 

“I’ve heard that because of the reduction in revenue, they need to lay off workers,” he said. “They need to perhaps adjust shifts so they’re not paying as much for their workers."

Pass said while Chinese-American businesses have primarily been affected, the coronavirus outbreak has also affected other Asian-American business owners, including Japanese-American and Korean-American entrepreneurs. 

He said the neighborhoods that seem to be most affected are those with large Asian populations, including Richardson, East Plano and Carrollton. 

Bias against Chinese and other Asian-Americans because of the virus has become so prevalent that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance on its website: 

“Stigma is associated with a lack of knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame someone, fears about disease and death, and gossip that spreads rumors and myths. Stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear or anger towards ordinary people instead of the disease that is causing the problem.” 

The prejudice spurred on by the coronavirus is not just a local issue. Nationally and internationally, stories of prejudice have been reported, even among public officials and leaders.

Credit Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press
Associated Press
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department.

Some conservative politicians and officials in the U.S., including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Paul Gosar, referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus.” Public health officials, including the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO), have advised against these kinds of references. 

Rep. Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, called out Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California for referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese coronavirus”. 

At an art fair in Britain, a Vietnamese art curator was dropped by an exhibitor who stated in an email that her “presence on the stand would unfortunately create hesitation” given the spread of the coronavirus. 

A Legacy Of Discrimination

Dennis Kratz, director of Asian studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, said because the new coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China, people wrongly link Chinese people and the coronavirus. 

“It’s just as nonsensical as the decline of the purchasing of Corona beer because the word 'corona' appears in the word,” he said. “We make these irrational connections and they are very powerful.” 

He argues that today's stigma is rooted in a long history of American and Western prejudice against Asians. He points to the 19th and early 20th century, the first immigration laws were passed specifically to exclude Asians from the U.S. 

Credit National Archive
National Archive
A photo of the T"Chin Quan Chan family who were involved in a Chinese Exclusion Act case in 1911.

And that view of Chinese people as outsiders can also be tied to politics -- and how the U.S. positions itself against the communist government in mainland China. 

“They immediately just assume that a Chinese person, at this point, is in some way hostile to the values of the United States,” Kratz said. “That’s been promulgated politically in the past five years particularly, and builds on earlier prejudices.” 

He said many Asian people in the U.S. are often treated as outsiders, even if they’re citizens. 

“When we say, ‘Where are you from?’ the assumption is that they have to be from some other continent,” Kratz said. “I know people are surprised when you say, ‘I live down the street from you.’ ” 

It’s the long history of bias against Asian people, intensified by current politics, that Kratz sees leading to the kind of behavior that's hurting Asian-American businesses in Dallas-Fort Worth. And with the arrival of more positive cases of COVID-19 in North Texas, he expects the issue to worsen. 

“I think there’ll be a spike in apprehension, which will lead inevitably to a spike in prejudice,” Kratz said.

Eddie Pan, a member of the Dallas Chinese Community Center, said he thinks the discrimination against Asian-Americans comes down to xenophobia. 

“Now that it [coronavirus] is here — you'll have a group of people,who is probably already xenophobic and racist, blame this on the Chinese or anyone who they perceived as Chinese,” Pan said. “To many people, this is illogical and they won't behave this way. But to the people who already dislike anything foreign, they would think that it's ‘you people’ who brought this to the U.S.”

He said it reminds him of the kind of discrimination faced by Muslim people in 2001. 

“When 9/11 happened, people had this irrational fear and hatred against the Muslim communities throughout the country,” Pan said. “This was caused by X, so we hate everything related to X.”

Combating Stigma

Kratz points to Asian-Americans who have written about the issue of prejudice. 

Charles Yu’s novel “Interior Chinatown” gives insight into how Caucasian people see the Chinese not as people but in the stereotypical roles they want them to play. Kratz strongly warns against this kind of thinking. 

“As long as we see individuals within that stereotype, we will always, I fear, justify our own less admirable emotions,” he said. 

Kratz said people need to look beyond surface differences and recognize that we’re all people. He also said the best way to fight prejudice is interpersonal contact — in other words, really getting to know a person. 

“I think if people have a prejudice against anyone, they should go and find people and talk to them and honestly share what they think about, what they believe and how they feel,” he said.

Credit CDC
A portion of the CDC's guidance to combat against stigma with facts.

The CDC says the best way to fight the stigma against Asian people is to learn and share facts. 

“People can fight stigma and help, not hurt, others by providing social support,” the agency’s website says. “Communicating the facts that viruses do not target specific racial or ethnic groups and how COVID-19 actually spreads can help stop stigma.”

After that experience last week in Irving, Lang Nguyen said stigmatizing certain populations is not helpful to anyone. 

“I don’t see how racism or prejudice is constructive moving forward,” Nguyen said. “I would hope that we could all come together because I thought this was the United States of America.”

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.