Weaving the Web: Priceless Neighbors

Dear UUCPA folks,

Today is an infamous anniversary, reminding us that the impulse to scapegoat the momentarily vulnerable is not new. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 imprisoning Americans of Japanese descent. There was no more logic in the idea that Japanese-Americans were agents of the Japanese army than that the pizza shop on the corner had a connection to Mussolini, but the desire to find an outlet for one’s rage and frustration is not easily mollified by logic.

And greed and economic competition run alongside these as powerful motivators. When Japanese-Americans were forced to sell their property on short notice, was their neighbors’ sudden access to dirt-cheap land and houses a side effect, or was it one of the reasons for the policy? It was not the first or last time that anti-Asian laws have brought a financial windfall to the laws’ supporters. Laundries became a booming business in the mid-1800s for Chinese immigrants who had come for the Gold Rush but been driven out of gold mining and railroad work. So San Francisco responded by requiring a permit to open a laundry, citing safety concerns but in fact only enforcing the requirement when it was a Chinese family that sought the permit. (Not a single Chinese or Chinese-American petitioner received a permit, whereas of the one-third of laundries that were owned by non-Chinese, only one was denied a permit.) The Chinese Exclusion Act followed not long after, one of numerous cases of manipulating the immigration laws to express fear and hatred of a group that is finding its place in the US economy.

Now we are seeing a surge in anti-Asian violence and harassment. They first rose sharply after COVID-19 swept the country; Stop AAPI Hate, which was founded last March to track and respond to harassment and attacks, has received 2,583 reports in less than a year. Those who wished to deflect blame from the political failure to handle the public health risk were the most likely to call COVID the “Wuhan virus,” “China virus,” or an anti-Asian slur, and when they were charged with stirring up racist sentiment, they rationalized that the virus was, in fact, first identified in China. Did they know how much they sounded like the San Francisco lawmakers who had piously and selectively fretted about the dangers of hot laundry equipment in wooden buildings?

Stop AAPI Hate rallied support for H. Res. 908, which called for condemnation of all forms of anti-Asian sentiment connected to COVID-19 and the swift investigation of anti-Asian hate crimes (text here), and passed easily last fall. However, the 164 Nay votes indicate how far we still have to go. Racist harassment and violence have spiked in the last several weeks, in the lead-up to Lunar New Year. Cherry trees in San Francisco’s Japantown were destroyed, and a beloved monument to Asian-American immigration in San Jose vandalized. Elderly Asians in our area have been assaulted, one fatally. If we want to know what we would have done in 1942, we’re discovering it now.

What we can all do, especially non-Asian-Americans, is:

Our commitment to the goal of “peace, liberty, and justice for all” begins right here in our neighborhoods. As a Chinese proverb allegedly says, “You can buy a good house, but good neighbors are priceless.” Let’s be priceless.