It’s Past Time to Protect Our Nation's Marginalized Communities

Erika L. Moritsugu

Racism and xenophobia are on full display throughout the country, even as the nation grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. While the disease wreaks havoc on communities of color, we’ve witnessed the senseless killings of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement and private citizens alike. The heinous acts against George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Christian Cooper are unrelated to the coronavirus crisis, but are surely a sign of the times in which we live. They reignite the need for communities of color — and our allies — to stand in solidarity and demand change in our systems and culture that are deeply rooted in inequality.

Being a woman of color, my race and gender have invited harassment and physical threats from strangers on more than one occasion. But while standing at a bus stop with my little boy early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, this ugliness that I’ve faced my entire life took on a new meaning. A man passing by yelled racial slurs and spat at us. I hailed down a taxi to quickly get us safely home — a “treat” that signaled to my son the seriousness of the interaction. He knew that the “purple” words that the man used were bad even though he didn’t understand what they meant. He had so many questions and I didn’t have any good answers. The experience left me shaken with a newfound fear. I realized that for the first time in my life, being Japanese-Chinese American and out in public put the safety of my family at risk.

As we are tragically aware, the horrific truth is that my experience is not unique, and far from the worst we’ve seen or may have yet to see. Since January there has been a surge in reports of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) being threatened and harassed on the street. We have been falsely blamed for causing this global pandemic — a sentiment that has been promoted by the leader of our country when he calls COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” As a result, many Asian Americans, including myself, are afraid to go out in public for fear of being targets of racism and xenophobia.

As hurtful and dangerous as the last few months have been, this is not the first time widespread xenophobia and racism has been directed toward the AAPI community, and we are far from alone in our experiences. Police forces across the country are inconsistently enforcing social distancing rules and arresting Black and Brown people at higher rates than they are arresting white people for similar violations. And following reports of people of color being racially profiled for adhering to CDC guidance and wearing protective face masks, six U.S. senators called on the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to enforce anti-bias training for law enforcement officials.

While COVID-19 has heightened deeply-held racist, xenophobic and misogynistic views, it has also exacerbated the systemic inequities that are having devastating consequences for women and people of color. Striking new research shows that Black people are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people, and Latinos are twice as likely to die.

To be clear, the inequities that have been elevated by the pandemic are not new. Long-standing imbalances have caused people of color to be disproportionately susceptible to the virus — including lack of health insurance, living in densely populated areas and multigenerational homes, as well as an overrepresentation in frontline low-wage positions that lack basic benefits and protections.

For example, women of color are the least likely to have access to critical employer benefits, including paid sick days and paid leave, which further compounds health and economic disparities and puts them at greater risks during this global pandemic. Without access to job-protected paid sick days, workers cannot securely address their own or a loved one’s health, self-isolation, or quarantine needs.

For me, this year, Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month presents an opportunity to reflect on the rich history and contributions that my community has made to our country and consider what kind of a world we are creating for future generations.

I think of my relatives who were toiling as indentured servants on plantations, brought to Hawai’i as “picture brides,” or held in incarceration camps during World War II, even while other family members were fighting valiantly in the European and Pacific theaters on behalf of the United States. I am also reminded of the experiences of people of color and other minority populations throughout the violent and racist history of our country — whether it’s the anti-Muslim sentiment following 9/11; nationalist views that degrade Latinos or the Latinx community; centuries of oppression, carceral policies, police brutality facing the Black community which has led to an unacceptable crisis for black maternal mortality; and hostility toward Native Americans, LGBTQ Americans and people with disabilities.

As leaders across the country grapple with the challenge of how and when to reopen our economy and society, we have a unique opportunity to reset the social and economic policies that have marginalized too many people in this country. We must not let politicians bend to the loud and aggressive voices of those whose privilege has allowed them to storm state capitols with semi-automatic weapons and demand an end to stay-at-home orders, despite the health consequences for millions.

Perhaps there is no better time for communities of color, our allies, elected leaders and activists to come together and advocate for policies that will create a more equitable society. We must make structural changes and close the significant gaps in our social safety net — including providing meaningful and generous family supportive measures inside and outside of a traditional workplace.

I’m grateful for the privilege to work at a place that allows me to put the safety of my family first and work remotely at a time when so many in our community have lost their jobs or are on the frontlines of this crisis. And I am proud of the strength and resilience of our community — we have overcome great challenges and I am optimistic that we will persevere.

Civil rights advocate Karen Korematsu, said it best: “At the end of the day, we are all American citizens and it dilutes the effectiveness of our democracy when we crack along racial lines.” Together, we can ensure that the most marginalized and those most impacted by structural racism and discrimination have an opportunity to thrive.

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