By Kai Curry
For Northwest Asian Weekly
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Seattle hosted a webinar titled “Community Solidarity at a Time of Crisis with WA-10 Congressional Candidates” on May 26 to discuss how to combat the trend of increased racism and bigotry. Along with candidates from the 10th district, which comprises parts of Thurston, Mason, and Pierce counties, spokespersons from prominent local Asian American organizations attended. The question: what can we do and what will you do as a candidate for federal office? The answer: speak up, show up— together.
The Jewish community has historically stood with minority groups to demand justice and equity. Former Tacoma mayor and candidate for Congress, Marilyn Strickland, said, “One thing that I know is that, as an African American woman, as a Korean American woman, the Jewish community was side by side with African Americans during the Civil Rights struggle, unity can bring results.”
AJC board member and panel host, Sam Jefferies, echoed this sentiment. “As representatives of the Jewish community, we stand in solidarity with the Asian American communities in Washington, and across the country…we know that hate and racism don’t discriminate. This pandemic has brought out ugly expressions of bigotry that, while they may have begun against Chinese Americans, they’ve since spilled over against other Asian American communities and increasingly, in expressions of anti-Semitism against Jews.”
Similarly to racist accusations currently being spread about the Chinese, a conspiracy theory that Jews might be responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak is being touted by white supremacists in the United States and Europe. Jews are also being accused of starting the virus in a lab in China, as a deliberate ploy to gain power. In recent weeks, this kind of hate speech has proliferated on the internet, and has erupted into face-to-face acts of violence against all minorities, up to and including the death of George Floyd.
“We’re at a very difficult time in our country’s history where racism, hate, and fear is once again beginning to override hope, civility, and constitutional law,” said Dale Watanabe, executive director of the Japan America Society of Washington State.
As everyone on the panel agreed, racism in this country is nothing new, yet grows stronger in times of stress, with no help from our current administration in stemming the hate. One of the main solutions offered was that we need to act together.
“The coronavirus crisis has, once again, demonstrated our vulnerability and our interdependence,” said Winston Lee, president of the Washington State Chapter of United Chinese Americans. “It offers further evidence that in order for us to survive, let alone thrive, we must come together, fight for our common destiny and common humanity. This is perhaps the greatest global crisis that we are witnessing. Whatever difficulties, whatever divisions we have had in this country, at this point, as long as on a people-to-people level we are together, we are going to survive. Act now to strengthen our communities…against the virus of hate.”
Former state representative Kristine Reeves, also running for Congress in the 10th, emphasized the need for communication.
“I think that’s something that, quite frankly, we’re missing a lot of in this country right now, is the ability to talk to one another, to work to understand our lived experiences, and what drives our hopes and our dreams and…what drives our fears and insecurities.” Reeves, who grew up in foster care, and was homeless at 16, has been, as she says, “fighting racism and bigotry and, quite frankly, discrimination, for my entire life…I know what it’s like to struggle. But I can also tell you, I know what it’s like when the community comes together to take care of each other.”
The most visible way to show up and speak out is to vote—for legislation and leadership.
“If we harness the political power of people of color in this country, there is so much we can do,” Strickland said. “This racism and bigotry that we’re seeing, it didn’t suddenly just happen,” but that President Trump “made it normal. He made it OK. He gave people permission.” But Strickland also insisted, “That’s not who we are. We are better than that as a nation.” Additionally, among her advice was, “If you see it, film it.”
“We need a massive effort to turn the tide here,” said state Rep. Beth Doglio, another of the candidates for the 10th district congressional seat.
“I will use the power of my office to advance policies that will combat the structural racism so present in our country.” Doglio, who sponsored a bill to require cultural competency training in Washington state schools, said she learned a lot as a kid going from door to door with her parents to canvass for public health care.
“We have to take responsibility for the future that we want, and fight for it.”
As each panel participant addressed how we can come together to fight this racist “virus,” a common source of the problem was agreed upon by all: President Trump. The common solution? Elect more progressive officials who can better represent and defend our communities.
“I think we need great leadership today, and we need leadership at all levels,” said Watanabe.
“A new, more progressive president, who will fight for the rights of all minorities in the United States,” said Dr. Jeffrey Roh, board member of the Council of Korean Americans in Seattle. “Until then, we must organize and mobilize all of our AAPI brothers and sisters to build and galvanize solidarity with our fellow partners in the Jewish, African American, Latinx, LGBTQ, and other minority communities…”
“The seeds of anti-Asian hate have been planted long ago,” said Stanley Shikuma, Seattle Chapter President of the Japanese American Citizens League. While dormant at times, Shikuma said it “springs to life whenever fertilized by scapegoating and hateful propaganda…it is not surprising that some people with racist leanings would jump to an anti-Asian stance. The failure of political leadership to renounce and discourage such racial targeting early on has given the virus of racism room to grow.”
Several of those present were reminded of the famous words about the Holocaust, where a man did not act because he thought the tribulations of others did not relate to him, until the Nazis came for him, too—and by then, there was no one left to help him. Shikuma put it in his own words, “Everyone needs to take the problem seriously and do their part. We cannot wait for ‘someone else’ to deal with the problem.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.