The Science Policy Community’s Responsibility to Address Anti-Asian Xenophobia

March 24, 2021 | 3:58 pm
Houston Stop Asian Hate Vigil and RallyMelody Tan
Christopher Tonnu Jackson & Melody Tan

As early-career Asian American scientists pursuing science policy professions, we have witnessed the weaponization of scientific research against people who share our heritage as our communities in the United States face the consequences of this rhetoric. 

This past week’s violent hate crimes against Asian American* women in Atlanta are the latest assault in a year-long escalation of anti-Asian violence, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a reflection of broader 

US policy that has always otherized Asian Americans since our country’s early history. We call on our science and science policy communities to recognize their role in this violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and take steps to eradicate white supremacy and xenophobia in messaging and decision-making.

The recent attack on Asian American women in Atlanta is part of a long narrative of structural racism and xenophobia in the US. In 1875, the Page Act specifically targeted “undesirable” East Asian women who were alleged to engage in prostitution, effectively prohibiting their entry into the US. This was followed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which, alongside other policies, severely limited immigration until 1965. Likewise, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II reminds us that these xenophobic policies are deeply embedded in the US consciousness.

Asian American scientists continue to suffer this discrimination. Just over two decades ago, Taiwanese American scientist Wen Ho Lee, a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was arrested, jailed for nine months, and falsely accused by the FBI of providing nuclear secrets to the Chinese government. Last year, the Trump administration canceled the visas of more than a thousand Chinese students amid accusations of espionage. The Department of Justice’s China Initiative directs federal investigators to target Asian Americans and immigrants, particularly those of Chinese descent, working in science and technology. A broad coalition of cultural and civil rights organizations have highlighted how this national origin profiling is deeply problematic, creating fear among Asian American scientists and fueling bigotry against the larger Asian community.

Our experience as Asian Americans has meant being both targeted and invisible. As STEM researchers, we are well aware of the harmful model minority myth that has masked deep inequities within the AAPI umbrella while being used to drive a wedge between the AAPI community and other communities of color. We have seen how quickly Asian Americans are scapegoated in the face of a crisis. In 1982, amid the economic downturn in Detroit driven by competition with Japanese automakers, Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men who never spent a day in jail for his murder. Over the past year, xenophobic messaging from elected officials at every level of government, including calling COVID-19 the “kung flu” and “China virus”, has been directly correlated with a steep increase in racist incidents against Asian Americans.

The importance of denouncing these overtly bigoted and racist statements is obvious. However, the anti-Asian rhetoric that has been normalized throughout history and is now pervasive in our policymaking process must also be addressed. Science policy has fueled the American military-industrial complex from nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands to perpetual wars in Asia, including the nuclear bombs detonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II and bombings and chemical warfare throughout Southeast Asia in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Over the past decade, science and technology policy has been increasingly focused on competitive rhetoric against China, on both sides of the political aisle. For instance, the Safeguarding American Innovation Act and SECURE CAMPUS Act target researchers and students, respectively, for their presumed ties to the Chinese government. Even policies that aim to bolster STEM research and development in the US, such as the America LEADS Act and the Endless Frontier Act, are inextricably linked to anti-China rhetoric. Similarly, President Biden has promised “extreme competition” with China.

The scientific community must also go beyond condemning overt racism to recognize the more insidious role that science and technology policy has played in perpetuating anti-Asian sentiments. There are direct implications for Asian Americans in the policy space. Recently, Rep. Andy Kim discussed his experience at the State Department where, despite his top-secret security clearance, he was preemptively restricted from working on Korea issues. When our elected officials employ anti-China talking points as a dog whistle for white nationalism, as was previously the case with Japan in the 1940s, they place targets on the backs of all Asian Americans across the country.

There are no excuses for the severe human rights abuses by the Chinese government, which should be held accountable for such violations. However, sweeping rhetoric that demonizes an entire population and conflates a people with its government is already being co-opted and leading to the harm of Asian Americans who share, or are perceived to share, the same heritage. In contrast, people in the science and science policy communities managed to criticize the Trump administration without extrapolating their stances to represent the views and actions of all Americans. Similarly, the policy community has a responsibility to not employ charged messaging that projects actions of the Chinese government on people from China or other people of Asian heritage, within and outside the US.

Language and messaging matter. When US science policy is justified primarily through antagonism, Asian Americans in the space are caught in the position of wondering, “Have I been in this country long enough for you to feel differently about me? Assimilated enough? Contributed enough to research? Contributed enough to the economy?”

Having personally faced escalating discrimination over the past year, we refuse to accept institutionalized and professionally accepted instances of racism in the workplace. As we choose to enter professions in the science policy space, we have no desire to spend the rest of our careers cringing at xenophobic rationale for our work and having to prove that we belong. Asian Americans should not be put in the position of constantly having to denounce China, or any other countries, to justify our place in this country or within the science policy field. Furthermore, the extent to which we have assimilated should never determine whether or not we face racist violence.

The science policy community, having recently voiced a commitment to equity and justice, has a responsibility to follow through on anti-racist and anti-xenophobic efforts. The COVID-19 pandemic, alongside other global challenges such as climate change, requires international collaboration. We cannot claim to welcome and support international students and undocumented immigrants as part of our scientific community while justifying the need for their research with language that harms them and demonizes their homelands. We cannot benefit from the labor of immigrant and international researchers, scientists, engineers, and workers while decrying their origins.

We noted that science policy groups have  condemned anti-Asian racism related to the pandemic; however, addressing this issue also requires internal action to correct how policy decisions have historically been framed. We call on leaders in the science and science policy communities to recognize the broader impacts of their messaging and do better. Asian Americans should not be celebrated only when they win Nobel Prizes and conveniently ignored when our lives are endangered. Regardless of profession, gender, class, immigration status, or any other factors, no one should be forced to live in fear of discrimination and racial violence, or have their right to belong questioned. It is past time that the science policy community stops perpetuating harms in the name of advancing science.

*This language is used to reflect the harm of the most recent attacks that have specifically targeted Asian American women. At the same time, we recognize that xenophobia and racism have and continue to impact Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, who may not fully identify with the Asian American label.

Christopher Tonnu Jackson is a PhD Candidate in Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, where his research focuses on using nanomaterial tools for plant gene delivery and biological sensing. He currently leads the Science Policy Group at Berkeley and serves as the workshops director for Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally. He has previously served as an editor for the Journal of Science Policy & Governance, the Berkeley Science Review and as the president of the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative. Chris frequently writes and advocates for public policy related to science, energy and climate, immigration, and equity.

Melody Tan is a PhD Candidate in Bioengineering at Rice University, where her research focuses on using optical imaging to improve the detection of oral cancer. Throughout her doctoral program, she has developed several initiatives equipping students to engage with policymakers, including founding Rice SciPol and the Texas Science Policy Fellows program. She is also involved with the National Science Policy Network, where she leads the State Fellowships Committee. Motivated by the need for healthcare access and immigration reform, Melody spends the rest of her time registering voters and volunteering on political campaigns.

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