Asian Americans in 2020: The Year in Review

Asian Americans in 2020: The Year in Review

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 was quite an eventful year in many ways, and for good and bad. As we approach the end of the year and the start of 2021, I want to reflect on how the Asian American community fared throughout the year and how different political, economic, and social events throughout the year had positive or negative effects for Asian Americans collectively.

Bad (Very Bad):
The one event that framed the lives of Asian Americans and billions of people all around the world of course, was the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only has the Covid-19 virus resulted in more than 18 million infections and almost 320,000 deaths (both are officially reported numbers, with many more likely unreported) just in the U.S. (with 77 million infections and 1.7 million deaths worldwide, respectively), but it’s also led to thousands of incidents of racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans, with such examples ranging from verbal harassment, cyberbullying, physical assaults, and even attempted murder. Many Asian American-owned small businesses have also been hurt badly by this wave of anti-Asian hate, through physical damage and vandalism to their stores but also through lost revenue and this situation has made many Asian American communities even more vulnerable to gentrification and the real danger of completely disappearing altogether.

These incidents are based on the historical constructions of Asian American as the Yellow Peril, or some kind of political, economic, cultural, or public health threat to the U.S., and of Asian Americans as “perpetual/forever foreigners” who are unworthy of being “real” or “legitimate” Americans. Making the situation even worse, not only did the Trump administration not do anything to address this situation, they actively fanned the flames of hostility and division by repeatedly using inflammatory terms such as the “China virus,” etc. Recently, the first batches of the Covid-19 vaccine started to be administered so it looks encouraging that the Covid-19 virus might be contained in a few months. However, the sociological aftermath and effects of this wave of anti-Asian hate and racism will continue to linger and fester for the foreseeable future.

After the tragic murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Live Matter movement this spring, many people in the U.S. and around the world were forced to confront the historical legacy and ongoing dynamics of systematic racism against Black people. This included the Asian American community. As I wrote previously, it should be abundantly clear by now why Asian Americans need to unite in solidarity with our Black brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family and embrace their struggle for racial justice. Hopefully Asian Americans recognize how the racism that we’ve faced involves the same institutional structures of privilege, authority, and power that operates against Black people and other people of color, and that if we want others to stand up in our defense during those situations, we also have to show up and do the same without hesitation when it happens to Black people. Through the Black Lives Matter movement, many Asian Americans have taken steps to have these difficult conversations and to confront the anti-Blackness that has and still exists within our communities and our own families (see this excellent list of resources to promote Black-Asian solidarity).

Artwork by Kalaya’an Mendoza

Although it was a nail-biter in many ways, the 2020 Presidential election resulted in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris being elected as our next President and Vice President, and the upcoming ouster of the worst President in U.S. history. While we progressives are still a little wary of Biden’s more “centrist” positions on several important issues, we certainly need to celebrate this as a major accomplishment and big step forward for racial equality and social justice for people of color, immigrants, and others in vulnerable situations, and common decency for all of us as human beings. These past four years have been literally terrifying in many ways and while there’s still a lot of work to be done, at least we can be thankful that the worst of it is coming to an end.

Speaking of Kamala Harris, we should also recognize the significance of her election as the first woman, Black, and Asian American Vice President in our nation’s history. This is a major accomplishment that is also long overdue. We should also remember that she was one of several Presidential candidates who were Asian American, along with Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard (who is one-quarter Samoan). Of course, the success of a few individual members does not mean that all members of that particular group have successfully overcome all the challenges and barriers that they have historically faced (see the example of Barack Obama). Nonetheless, I hope that this is an encouraging trend in which more Asian Americans feel inspired by the success of Harris, Yang, and Gabbard and can now see themselves vying for positions of power in various areas of life, and second, that more Americans in general are hopefully seeing that Asian Americans can indeed be confident, charismatic, and inspirational leaders and not just be confined to “technical” jobs like an engineer or scientist.

Image by Celeste Sloman/Redux

While I am very thankful that Biden won the election, it is very sobering to realize that over 74 million Americans still voted for Trump, the most racist, xenophobic, corrupt, and despicable President in U.S. history. On top of that, it appears that, given the defeat of many progressive Democratic candidates around the nation, that large numbers of Americans are still not ready to support much-needed reforms to our political system and the social structure of our society that seek to eliminate the destructive inequalities and divisions that have caused so much damage to the lives of so many vulnerable people. It is really sad — even tragic — that so many Americans have bought into the propaganda that anything labelled as “socialist” or even “racial equality” is somehow “un-American.” On the one hand, I am encouraged that after George Floyd’s death, many White Americans were jolted into taking a close look at their privileged position within the U.S. racial landscape. On the other hand, I am very discouraged that data seems to show that after the initial shock of George Floyd’s death, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has declined among Whites, Asian Americans, and Hispanics in the months leading up to the election. I suppose it’s another example of the adage of “two steps forward, one step back.”

Along the same lines, I also bemoan the apparent rise in power of a small but very vocal contingent of conservative Chinese Americans who have gained attention, influence, and support within the Asian American community and U.S. society in general. As I’ve also written about before and as previous research has documented, this group is overwhelmingly comprised of recently-immigrated, older, and affluent Chinese who are unfamiliar with the U.S.’s tragic history of racism and racial injustice (or even completely deny it altogether) and instead, routinely spread disinformation within their WeChat networks that perpetuate racist stereotypes against Blacks, undocumented immigrants, and Muslims to name just a few groups, and have basically internalized that for them to attain success and be accepted as part of the U.S. mainstream, they need to embrace Whiteness and reject Blackness.

These conservative Chinese Americans are the ones behind the organization Asian American Coalition for Education that sued Harvard University, alleging that it systematically discriminates against Asian American applicants. By the way, as a small “good” item, in March and November, two different sets of federal judges ruled against their claim and found that there is no credible evidence that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants. Nonetheless, it’s almost certain that AACE will appeal this case all the way to the Supreme Court and now that it has a solid conservative majority, the future prospects for affirmative action are not positive. Either way, this small but vocal and politically active group of conservative Chinese Americans has shown that they are passionate, committed, willing to stand toe-to-toe with progressive Asian Americans in asserting their position, and will be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.

2020 was a pretty good year for Asians and Asian Americans in terms of representation and commercial success in mainstream media and entertainment. Who could forget the surprise and excitement when Bong Joon-Ho’s film Parasite won the Academy Award for Best Picture back in March, the first non-English language film to do so? While Parasite wasn’t an Asian American-centered work, I can confidently say that its success was a source of pride for many of us and it showed that Asian cultural products have the same high levels of quality and depth that white-centered cultural products have implicitly enjoyed for decades.

Parasite winning Best Picture

Moreover, several Asian American-focused works were a big hit, especially during the spring and summer when people were generally confined indoors and watching more tv, such as the critically acclaimed PBS documentary series Asian Americans, produced by Renee Tajima-Peña; ESPN’s documentary Be Water that profiled the life and legacy of Bruce Lee and was directed by Bao Nguyen; and Netflix’s charming Never Have I Ever series, produced by Mindy Kahling and The Half of It produced and directed by Alice Wu, to name just a few examples. Other high-profile Asian Americans were recognized for their success and excellence, including professional tennis player Naomi Osaka (who plays for Japan but is also very Americanized) who was named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year” for her success on the court including winning the 2020 U.S. Open and just as important, becoming a force off the court with her strong activism in support of Black Lives Matter.

Also in the world of professional sports, Kim Ng made history by becoming the first woman and Asian American general manager of a Major League Baseball team (the Miami Marlins). In addition, K-Pop superstars BTS was named Time magazine’s Entertainer of the Year for their commercial success and their activism in support of numerous causes including Black Lives Matter, mental health awareness, and LBTQ+ rights. Several Asians and Asian Americans are also part of Time magazine’s annual 100 Most Influential list, including Nathan Law (main organizer of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement), Ali Wong, Yo-Yo Ma, Bong Joon-Ho, Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google, joining Satya Nadella CEO of Microsoft who was not part of the list), and Lisa Nishimura (Senior Executive at Netflix).

While we need to be careful and not gloss over the struggles and challenges that many Asian Americans still face on a daily basis, these high-profile examples go a long way to making the life, experiences, and contributions of Asians and Asian Americans visible, especially to young people who are beginning to see others like them in positive ways in the mainstream media, rather than as one-dimensional stereotypes and caricatures. The long march towards justice and equality will have a lot of twists and turns, ups and downs, and the Covid-19 pandemic has had and will continue to have severe negative consequences for the Asian American community in many ways. That said, there were also many positive events for Asian Americans in 2020 that we can build on and to move forward in terms of asserting our rights to cultural citizenship and to continue forging solidarity with other minoritized communities. It certainly helps that we have a new presidential administration coming in with that in mind, let’s keep working on building a better future for ourselves, our families, our community, and our society in 2021!



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