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Religious Organizations Can Help Prevent the Targeting of Asian-Background Individuals during COVID-19

In several countries, including the United States, Italy, France, Australia, and Russia, civil society groups are reporting COVID-19-related verbal and physical attacks on people of Asian descent. Between March and June, over 2,100 COVID-related hate incidents against Asian Americans were recorded by advocacy groups in the United States. During the pandemic, Asian-background individuals and families have been blamed for the spread of the virus and even attacked in public. In one incident, “A truck drove by and threw a [fast food franchise] drink on my back and yelled ‘Hey chink, you’re fucking nasty.’” Even Asian American health-care workers, serving at the pandemic’s frontline, have been “spat on, stabbed while shopping…and barred from entering ride-hailing vehicles,” reported the Washington Post. Some patients have refused to be treated by Asian-American doctors.

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay ©2020

Why the increase in violence? According to Dr. Melissa Borja, an assistant professor from the University of Michigan in the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program, this type of racism towards Asian individuals in the United States is a long-standing issue, brought into the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout U.S. history, a toxic undercurrent of stereotypes blames Asian-background individuals as sources of disease. In the 19th century, for example, racist actions towards Asian-background individuals, often in the context of fears about China as a threat to U.S. power, were justified by the perpetuation of the idea that China was the so-called “cradle of smallpox,” Borja explained.

Whenever there is a crisis, it is easy to direct anger at groups of people who “look different”. In American history, Borja explains, Asian-American people have been under greater scrutiny: excluded, incarcerated, and attacked because they were seen as the source of the problem, whether that be a war, a disease, or an economic woe. Because of this dynamic, religious organizations—and members of religious communities—can be a vocal model for solidarity and action in countering expressions of hate.

Since I come from a Christian background in the United States and have seen church members model strength and creativity in reaching out to the wider community, I ask myself daily: where can I see the Church moving? All Christians are equipped by Christ to oppose violent acts and hateful language towards Asian-background individuals and other groups. Some pastors and congregants have started to demonstrate their support for Asian-Americans, but it will only be enough when every American can say “I know what the Church stands for: the Church takes a stand for equality.”

Religious groups are invaluable allies. The actions of religious groups during past crises provide concrete insight into how religious communities today can react positively. For example, in the wake of the Vietnam War, Borja shared, “churches were eager to help refugees: they were instrumental to resettling them, showing support for them when South-East Asian refugees were targeted in racist attacks after arriving in the United States.” However, congregations must be open to criticism and change themselves, recognizing that religious communities can and do also fuel hate and racism. The anti-Semitic messages of a pastor in Florida are a recent example.

I asked Dr. Borja for advice on what steps churches and other religious organizations can take. Some powerful developments are underway already. Over 10,000 non-Asian and Asian church leaders and church members have signed a statement by the Asian American Christian Collaborative condemning anti-Asian hate. The impact of this statement goes further than the words themselves, combatting a narrative of violence with a narrative of peace. Dr. Borja emphasized that when anti-Chinese rhetoric recently increased in U.S. politics, there was a clear increase in hate incidents targeting Asian Americans. Publishing your congregation’s stance publicly – in parallel with concrete efforts to ensure inclusion – sends a clear message that your congregation is committed to equality and speaks out against hate.

  1. If you are a member of a faith community, encourage your pastor, ministers, or laypeople to sign the statement.
  • Local congregations should issue statements of support. Start by asking a pastor (or relevant religious leader) and another congregant to write it with you! Create the statement collaboratively to acknowledge and engage the existence and experience of Asian-background individuals. Even though Asian Americans carry a seemingly more positive “model minority” status, Dr. Borja explained they are “still non-white and their non-whiteness continues to put them in a vulnerable position”.
  • Organize a safely distanced prayer walk or phone prayer chain if your faith recognizes prayer as an element of action.
  • Call and email your political representatives to ask them to support anti-racist policies; lessons from the past show that public opinion strongly impacts the racist or anti-racist work of politicians.
  • Join (and/or donate to) an organizing group that focuses on identifying and creating anti-racist policies. They will send you letters to sign, campaigns to join, and calls to make to your representatives.

As they have in the past, religious communities can affect the public dialogue and provide concrete support to communities impacted both by COVID-19 and by hate-motivated attacks. A church embodying Christ in the time of COVID-19 is a church that advocates for and protects Asian background individuals and anyone else that is turned into a scapegoat for fear.


Coretta Lemaitre

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