State Representative Gene Wu speaking at an event.
LBJ Library/Jay Godwin

Gene Wu on Coronavirus and the Rise in Hate-Fueled Attacks Against Asian Americans

How comments from Trump, Cruz, and Cornyn inflame deep-seated prejudices against Asian Americans, further alienating them.


Jose L. Gomez, a 19-year-old charged with three counts of attempted capital murder, allegedly wanted to kill an Asian American family that included two young children because he thought they were Chinese and “infecting people with coronavirus.” 

A recent FBI analysis says the knife attack inside a Midland Sam’s Club last month is part of a recent surge in hate-fueled attacks against Asian Americans—one that will likely continue during the COVID-19 pandemic. While President Donald Trump calls COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” some Texas Republicans have similarly deflected from the sputtering domestic response to coronavirus by demonizing China, despite the Asian American community warning that the rhetoric fuels attacks by bigots who blame them for the pandemic. U.S. senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn have both peddled racist and debunked myths about the origins of the virus, and last week Kathaleen Wall, a GOP candidate for a Fort Bend congressional district, started running inflammatory campaign ads declaring that “China poisoned our people.” 

Such language alienates and inflames deep-seated prejudices against Asian Americans, says state Representative Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat who has been vocal on Twitter, flagging anti-Asian comments from Cornyn and others. The Observer recently spoke with Wu about the spike in prejudice against Asian Americans. 

Texas Observer: The FBI recently warned of a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans by people who blame them for COVID-19. What are you hearing from your constituents and others in the Asian American community?

Gene Wu: It’s a complicated situation. I think there are big differences in how this is being felt across the nation. We’re not hearing about incidents in Houston as much as we are in other places, and that could be for several factors. One, I think Houston is just a more tolerant place, it’s a place where most people have grown up around immigration, around Asian people, and everyone’s just sort of more chill about it. It’s a much more international city, it’s much more of an immigrant city, and if people have thoughts about that they probably just keep their mouth shut and or they move somewhere else. 

But I think another aspect could be that there are incidents, and they’re not getting reported in this area because we have an Asian American population here that tends to be more recent immigrants. So we have a lot of people who have been here for fewer than 10 years, a significant portion of the population. One of the ongoing problems that we’ve had in the Asian American population is this sort of social mentality of just keep your mouth shut, don’t rock the boat, don’t stick your head up. If you have a problem, just keep quiet and just keep working hard and maybe it will go away.

Some Republicans like John Cornyn are blaming China for the current crisis while spreading fake news loaded with racist tropes about Chinese people. How does that impact the Asian American community? 

I was on a big community conference call with Asian American community leaders from organizations across the state and some national ones. Some of the discussion was that people feel eyes on them when they go to stores, when they go to non-Asian areas. They feel like people are looking at them, like, ‘Look at this animal, look at this monster. What are they doing here?’ Now, I can’t say if that is actually what’s happening or if it’s the community’s perception because they feel all this negative attention. 

You have to understand that this is an issue the Asian American population has been struggling with since the dawn of Asian American community. No matter how long you’ve been in this country, no matter how successful you are, no matter how good your English is, you’re always seen as non-American. So no matter how many generations are here, you’re always seen as the other. And I think the Hispanic population and the African American population don’t get this type of reaction as much. I think there’s this sense that Asians are always alien. 

So the resentment about what Cornyn said and what other people are saying, the way they’re using language, it’s a reminder and it’s a provocation of this old trope that Asian Americans are not American—that we’re so different. And that is especially stinging at this time. It’s something that Asian Americans have pushed against. It’s something that’s deeply, deeply hurtful, and across political spectrums in the Asian American community, we deeply resent this language that Chinese Americans and Asian Americans are always loyal to their home country. That’s why Cornyn’s comments, Trump’s comments, Kathaleen Wall’s comments, that’s why it burns so much in the community. Because forever, we’ve always been seen as the other. 

“It’s a reminder and it’s a provocation of this old trope that Asian Americans are not American—that we’re so different. And that is especially stinging at this time.”

And here’s the rub for me: You know Americans don’t know the goddamn difference between Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Koreans, or anything. So when they go on attacks and they attack people for whatever China does, they’re not just attacking Chinese Americans, they’re attacking anyone who looks Asian. And the best example of this is what happened in Midland. This guy attacked a Burmese family. To Asian Americans, Burmese look nothing like Chinese—that’s really, really obvious to anyone in the community. But the fact that they looked Asian set them out as being alien. I mean, that person didn’t ask them where they’re from. He didn’t ask them, ‘Are you an American?’ He just attacked them because they looked Asian. In his mind, he thought they were Chinese. And that is a type of brutality that we’re concerned about. Because when Trump says these things, when Cornyn says these things, when Kathaleen Wall runs a freaking TV ad about these things, that is a go signal, that is a dog whistle to a certain population to say this is now fair game. 

How does this dovetail with rhetoric about Asian Americans that already existed in politics, at least in your region? Like Representative Pete Olson calling his challenger, Sri Kulkarni, an “Indo-American carpetbagger.” Or Representative Rick Miller’s racist remarks about Asians.  

I really want to point us back to this idea, this concept, this way of thinking, that says basically Asian Americans are not Americans. And everything from Rick Miller to Kathaleen Wall to everything else that’s been said—if you look underneath it, if you look at the statements and the thoughts that go into the statements, it’s this idea that Chinese Americans or Asian Americans are not American enough, or that they’re not Americans period. So when they want to run for office they’re not seen as really American. I dealt with the same thing when I ran for office. My first election cycle, I was knocking on Democratic doors when a lady told me point blank, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Asians were allowed to run for office.’ What am I supposed to say to that? 

People in the Texas GOP say you’re being the PC police or that this is all woke virtue signaling. What’s your reaction to people minimizing these concerns? 

And a lot of people on the other side say, ‘What does this hurt? What’s the big deal?’ And I say, it doesn’t even have to physically hurt anyone—which it already has. You have the Asian American population in the United States telling you this is hurtful, that this is painful for us, please don’t do this. That should be enough. 

I’ve had this argument with lots of people, and with a lot of them I say, ‘Guess what? You don’t live in this community, you are not a member of this community, you don’t’ get to tell us whether this hurts or not. You don’t get to tell us whether this puts our families in jeopardy. It’s my family that might get attacked, not yours. You don’t bear any pain for this.’ I tell people that I’m looking out for my family, I’m looking out for my children, I’m looking out for my mom when she goes out. I don’t want them attacked. I don’t want them to have the burden of this, this is not their fault. They’re Chinese Americans, they have nothing to do with what happens in China. 

The problem is that this has become so obviously political. Republican leadership doesn’t care, and I don’t need to convince Democrats because they understand it. This is not any different from Trump coming down the escalator and saying all Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers. You’re tagging an entire community in one fell swoop. This play is the same play the Republicans have done for the past four years, they’ve just changed up some of the names. And you know, they sort of do this bit where they go—‘What? What? What’s the problem, what’s going on? We don’t understand.’ They know damn well what they’re doing. 

In this long conference call we recently had with the Asian American community, this was a point of topic for at least a third, if not half, of the conversation. And there were Republicans on this call, there were Democrats on this call, there were people who are neither on that call. And the overwhelming consensus on this topic—on people like Kathaleen Wall making these kinds of statements involving China—people are unanimous that it is wrong and that the Asian American community has to stand against it. And people are pissed. There were people on that call who supported Republicans, who voted for Republicans, and the fact that it’s just complete crickets on that side right now when it comes to these concerns is very disheartening. I think a lot of Republicans are not understanding the amount of furor that this is creating, that for a lot of Asian Americans, this constant drumbeat of rhetoric just plays into this trope we aren’t really Americans. This will come back to bite them, this is a sensitive topic. 

And by the way, some people say Asians don’t really care about this, that they’re not really worried about this, all these statements about China and stuff. If you go through my Twitter feed, you’ll see I’ve been picking up and dropping off supplies almost nonstop for the past two weeks almost every single day—personal protective equipment, shields, protective garments, these materials our city desperately needs. Ninety-nine percent of what I’m delivering is coming from Asian American groups and Chinese groups. And they are specifically saying to me, and they’ve said it on their own terms too, that they are doing this in part to push back against this language targeting the Asian community. Pushing back against the idea that we’re not American enough or that we’re not part of the team. They feel like they’re under pressure to show that they’re good community members. And it’s not their fault.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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