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A National Council for the Social Studies Response to Anti-Asian Harassment and Violence during COVID-19

Approved by the NCSS Board of Directors on May 18, 2020.

Since the first identified case of COVID-19 was declared in the United States on January 15, incidents of verbal and physical harassment against Asians and Asian Americans have sharply increased (Yan, Chen, & Nuresh, 2020). On March 16th, President Donald Trump referred to COVID-19 as “the Chinese Virus” in a controversial tweet (Kuo, 2020), defending his phrasing and denying that it might be racist for several days before publicly declaring he would refrain from repeating the phrase (Vasquez, 2020). From mid-March, in one month almost 1,500 physical and verbal attacks against Asian Americans were reported. People of Asian descent have been beaten, spat on, yelled at, insulted, and faced bodily harm from coast to coast. Asian American students have been called “coronavirus,” told to “go back to China,” and physically assaulted.

History shows this is not the first time the United States has witnessed a surge of anti-Asian discrimination in a time of public health crisis . In the wake of the 1876 outbreak of smallpox in California, Chinatowns were labeled as laboratories of infection and subjected to quarantine. During the 1900 bubonic plague outbreak, government officials in California and Hawaii also racialized the epidemic. They quarantined Chinatowns, sprayed the homes of Chinese residents with carbolic acid, forced Chinese residents to shower at public stations, and burned down their homes. A Chinatown in Orange County California was also burned down in 1906 when city officials viewed Chinese residents as threats to public health for the spread of leprosy. More recently, a similar pattern of racializing disease and fomenting anti-Asian discrimination occurred during the 2003 SARS epidemic and is evident now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While fueled by the fear of disease and anti-Chinese/Asian rhetoric by politicians, the uptick of anti-Asian violence during a disease outbreak is rooted in longstanding biases toward Asian Americans. Soon after Asians arrived on U.S. soil, Asian immigrants were racialized as uncivilized, filthy, and dangerous to “Americans .” Depicted as the Yellow Peril who were dirty and dangerous to the United States as a white nation, Asian immigrants encountered discriminatory orders in housing, schooling, employment, marriage, and political participation. And in a time of public health crisis, wartime, or economic downturn, Asian Americans have often become a target of hate crimes and discrimination, as was the case in the Chinese massacre of 1871, Japanese American incarceration during World War II, the killing of Vincent Chin in 1982 during an economic downturn, discrimination against South Asian Americans, Arab Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim in the wake of September 11, 2001, and again today during the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) strongly condemns this discrimination and violence against Asian Americans. Furthermore, NCSS urges those in the public sphere to recognize the harm that is occurring and to engage in education about the impact of discrimination and violence on our citizens.

Role of Social Studies Education

This history and the current resurgence of Anti-Asian violence due to the COVID-19 pandemic signals the urgency of racial literacy education. As the home of democratic citizenship education, social studies educators have a duty to address race and racism. Our young and future citizens need the knowledge and skills to critically read, call out, and act against racism and racial violence in all its forms, especially during a time of crisis. COVID-19 is the newest episode in U.S. history in which a marginalized group is scapegoated and discriminated against during a public health crisis . Earlier, Irish immigrants were blamed for the cholera outbreaks in the 1830s. Then, Jewish immigrants were scapegoated for tuberculosis in the late 19th century, Italian immigrants for polio in the early 20th century, Haitian Americans for HIV in the 1980s, Mexican Americans for swine flu in 2009, and West Africans for Ebola in 2014. Informed and engaged citizens of a democratic society should know that a time of crisis requires solidarity, humanity, and hope, not hysteria or hatred. Only together can we “flatten the curve” of this pandemic, and only together can we prevent a wave of hate crime from arising. While racism and racialization of disease are not new to the United States, we can imagine and must promote a different kind of response through our teaching.

Social studies scholars and teacher educators whose research centers on the teaching of Asian American histories and Asian American representation are painfully aware of the effects of recent anti-Asian harassment on Asian American communities and of the longstanding absence of Asian American representation and histories in P-12 social studies curriculum. Asian Americans are woefully underrepresented in social studies textbooks (Suh, An, & Forest, 2015), standards (An, 2016), and children’s literature (Rodríguez & Kim, 2018). In the face of such sparse representation in the curriculum, media portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans as exotic Others serve as a potent influence to the popular imagination. While it is necessary to recognize the long history of anti-Asian racism in the United States, it is also vital that educators provide examples of Asian Americans showing agency and actively engaging in efforts to overcome this health and social crisis. For example, Sikhs, who are predominantly South Asian American, are providing massive food support across the country and Filipina/o nurses comprise a significant portion of the U.S. nursing force.

On May 11th and 12th, 2020, PBS debuted Asian Americans, the first major comprehensive documentary about Asian Americans, from the earliest arrivals to the United States in the 1800s to the present. The documentary is accompanied by an educational guide to which several NCSS College and University Faculty Assembly (CUFA) members have contributed lessons (see https://advancingjustice-la.org/what-we-do/curriculum-lesson-plans/asian-americans-k-12-education-curriculum ). Used alongside resources like those listed below, social studies educators can begin to include Asian American histories across the curriculum broadly, especially in conversations related to race and racism.

Resources

Below, we have curated a collection of resources about COVID-19, anti-Asian/Asian American harassment, and anti-Asian/Asian American racism for social studies educators interested in learning more about these histories and contemporary experiences. We are particularly mindful of the need to ensure that Asian American voices are included in these resources. We urge social studies educators to remind their students to seek #OwnVoices that emerge directly from the communities of focus, rather than relying on outsider and/or secondary sources of information.

  • An, S. (2020). Disrupting curriculum of violence on Asian Americans. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714413.2020.1753492
  • An, S. (2020). First graders’ inquiry into multicolored stories of school (de)segregation. Social Studies and Young Learner, 32(3), 3-9.
  • Dahlen, S. P. & Rodríguez, N. N. (2020). Asian Pacific American showcase. School Library Journal, 66 (5), 39-41.
  • Dahlen, S. P. & Rodríguez, N. N. (2019). Representation in Children's Literature. Learning Together. Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Retrieved from https://smithsonianapa.org/learn/learn-archives/08-2019/
  • Rodríguez, N. N. (2020). "This is why nobody knows who you are": (Counter)Stories of Southeast Asian Americans in the Midwest. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714413.2020.1757377
  • Rodríguez, N. N. (2017). “But they didn't do nothin' wrong!” Teaching about Japanese-American incarceration. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 30(2), 17-23.
  • Rodríguez, N. N. (2015). Teaching Angel Island through historical empathy and poetry. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 27(3), 22-25.
  • Rodríguez, N. N. & Kim, E. J. (in press). Beyond the model minority and forever foreigner: Disrupting stereotypes and revealing anti-Asian racism in Asian American picturebook biographies. In T. Crisp, R. P. Gardner, & S. Knezek (Eds.), Using Diverse Nonfiction Children’s Books in K-8 Classrooms. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Rodríguez, N. N. & Ip, R. (2017). Hidden in history: (Re)Constructing Asian American history in elementary social studies classrooms. In S. B. Shear, C. M. Tschida, E. Bellows, L. B. Buchanan, & E. E. Saylor (Eds.), (Re)Imagining elementary social studies: A controversial issues reader (pp. 319-340) . Information Age.

Works Cited

An, S. (2016). Asian Americans in American history: An AsianCrit perspective on Asian American inclusion in state U.S. history curriculum. Theory & Research in Social Education, 44(2), 244-276.

Kuo, L. (2020, March 17). Trump sparks anger by calling coronavirus ‘the Chinese Virus.’ The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/17/trump-calls-covid-19-the-chinese-virus-as-rift-with-coronavirus-beijing-escalates

Rodríguez, N. N. & Kim, E. J. (2018). In search of mirrors: An Asian Critical Race Theory content analysis of Asian American picturebooks from 2007-2017. Journal of Children's Literature, 44 (2), 16-33 .

Suh, Y., An, S., & Forest, D. (2015). Immigration, imagined communities, and collective memories of Asian American experiences: A content analysis of Asian American experiences in Virginia U.S. history textbooks. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 39 (1), 39–51.

Vasquez, M. (2020, March 24). Trump says he's pulling back from calling novel coronavirus the 'China virus.' CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/24/politics/donald-trump-pull-back-coronavir...

Yan, H., Chen, N. & Nuresh, D. (2020, February 20). CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/20/us/coronavirus-racist-attacks-against-asi...

Note: All resources provided in this response were recommended by NCSS members for informational purposes only. Inclusion here does not imply endorsement or approval by NCSS.


This current event response was prepared by social studies scholars affiliated with the NCSS College and University Faculty Assembly (CUFA): Sohyun An and Noreen Naseem Rodríguez.

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