Sunday, May 31, 2020

An epidemic of inequality

On June 23, 1982, when I was six years old, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American resident of Michigan celebrating his bachelor party with friends, was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by two white men. Ronald Ebens and stepson Michael Nitz, auto workers who had both been affected by competition from Japanese companies (Nitz had been recently laid off), hurled racial slurs at Chin, whom they mistook for being of Japanese descent. Both men were charged with second-degree murder and pleaded guilty to manslaughter, which typically carries up to a 15 year jail sentence. Instead, Judge Charles Kaufman fined them a total of $3000 and sentenced them to 3 years' probation, stating in a letter that "these weren't the kind of men you send to jail."

Outraged Asian Americans in the Detroit metro area and around the nation took to the streets to protest the verdict. As documented in the final episode of the PBS documentary "Asian Americans," this senseless murder was a particularly bitter pill for Asian Americans to swallow; after a century of being labeled the "model minority" and doing everything we could to blend in, we were in fact still viewed by most whites as "perpetual foreigners."

Chin's family eventually brought federal civil rights charges against Ebens and Nitz, the first time that this statute had been used for a hate crime against someone other than African Americans. Although Ebens was sentenced to 25 years in prison, the verdict was overturned on appeal. Chin's mother Lily, who died in 2002, was quoted as saying: "What kind of law is this? What kind of justice? This happened because my son is Chinese. If two Chinese killed a white person, they must go to jail, maybe for their whole lives... Something is wrong with this country."

Something is still wrong with this country. Although reported hate crimes against Asian Americans had been declining since 2003, and in 2017 were a small fraction of the number reported against black, Muslim, and Jewish Americans, this changed with the arrival of COVID-19. Fueled by politicians throughout March calling SARS-CoV-2 the "Chinese virus," Chinese Americans, and other Americans of Asian descent who are confused with being Chinese, have increasingly been the targets of racist tirades and worse as the pandemic spread throughout the U.S.

Meanwhile, in the words of a Medscape commentary, COVID-19 has "unveiled a tale of two Americas," as it has ruthlessly exploited entrenched health disparities in black and Hispanic Americans who have long suffered the effects of structural racism. Nationally, black Americans are three and a half times more likely, and Hispanic Americans twice as likely, to die from COVID-19 than white Americans. You can see this on a local level in the District of Columbia, where the largely minority-populated Northeast and Southeast quadrants have had many more cases diagnosed than the largely white Northwest quadrant, and black residents (who comprise just 46% of the population) have suffered a stunning 86% of the deaths. As Ed Yong wrote in his latest article in The Atlantic:

Vulnerability to COVID-19 isn’t just about frequently discussed biological factors like being old; it’s also about infrequently discussed social ones. If people don’t have health insurance, or can afford to live only in areas with poorly funded hospitals, they cannot fight off the virus as those with more advantages can. If people work in poor-paying jobs that can’t be done remotely, have to commute by public transportation, or live in crowded homes, they cannot protect themselves from infection as those with more privilege can. These social factors explain why the idea of “cocooning” vulnerable populations while the rest of society proceeds as normal is facile. That cocooning already exists, and it is a bug of the system, not a feature. Entire groups of people have been pushed to the fringes of society and jammed into potential hot zones.

Thousands of Americans have taken to the streets this weekend to protest the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery by Minnesota police officers and self-appointed vigilantes, respectively. Whether the offenders will receive punishments commensurate to these crimes, or if they will be let off with slaps on the wrist, like Ebens and Nitz in 1982 or George Zimmerman in 2013, remains to be seen. But in a larger sense, the protests are about more than simply the unjust deaths of individuals. They are about the continuing tolerance of too many Americans to fatal inequalities in our systems of justice, housing and health care that stack the deck against persons of color and rob them of more than a decade of life. Whether it's the President of the United States repeatedly lying about the impact of COVID-19; the closing of essential hospitals in underserved minority or rural communities; or a modern-day epidemic of amputations in black Americans in Southern former slave states; these protests are an expression of deep-seated rage about an epidemic of inequality that men and women in power have long minimized, dismissed or ignored.