When MEA member Richard Mui was growing up in Ferndale, not many Asian Americans lived in the community, which he believes accounted for the discrimination he encountered – teasing and racist comments about his perceived culture and language.
“I learned to have a tougher skin, but it created an awareness of some injustices that are out there,” the longtime Canton High School teacher and football coach said. “It’s partly why I got into teaching and it’s partly why I do the (Asian Pacific American) club at school.”
Now amid worries about reports of rising anti-Asian American discrimination and assaults across the U.S., Mui has joined forces with Eastern Michigan University which is hosting a one-hour conversation about mental health and anti-Asian racism in the shadows of the COVID-19 crisis.
“I hope educators will become aware that it’s an issue, that it’s more relevant now because of the pandemic, and learn some practical steps they can take if it does come up,” Mui said of the Back-to-School Essential Townhall scheduled for 2-3 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 26.
The event will feature health experts assembled by the Center for Health Disparities Innovations and Studies (CHDIS) at EMU, a department headed by Dr. Tsu-Yin Wu, recently named the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2020 Health Equity Award winner.
The ways that spread of the coronavirus has played out in American politics and the media has contributed to scapegoating and targeting of Asian Pacific American communities, according to experts monitoring a steep increase of reported incidents since January, ranging from verbal abuse to spitting and assault.
The problem is exacerbated when political leaders such as President Donald Trump repeatedly refer to the public health crisis as “the Chinese virus,” or “kung flu” – even as the World Health Organization advises against linking viruses with countries for just this reason, Mui said.
“That creates the conditions for more discrimination.”
It’s a problem with deep roots in the U.S., says Mui, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History and Civics at the high school where he’s worked for 24 years. Historically discrimination against immigrants has stemmed from economic reasons and crossed over to cultural, Mui said.
“So it quickly goes from saying ‘they take our jobs,’ to ‘they look funny, have a different religion, speak a different language, eat different foods.’”
In his APUSH class, Mui teaches about major touchstones in the U.S. immigration debate from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers – to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Immigration Act of 1965, the Refugee Act of 1980, and today’s debate around H-1B visas.
“This debate is not new,” he said, but current political tensions could be newly reflected in schools. Districts with small populations of Asian American students might be even more susceptible to discriminatory behavior than more diverse areas, he added.
His Canton students who belong to the Asian Pacific American club at school have not had much contact with schoolmates since March, but some have mentioned seeing racist references on social media, he said.
“I think sometimes we get caught flat-footed in our response and it’s not until reflecting on it later that we think to ourselves I wish I would’ve said this or that.”
The fight against Anti-Asian American discrimination has roots in his personal story as well as the history he teaches, Mui said.
His parents knew Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American man beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 after being mistaken as Japanese and assaulted as a scapegoat for the auto industry’s decline. Chin’s murder sparked a resurgent movement for pan-Asian American rights.
A generation later, Mui volunteers with the non-profit Asian & Pacific Islanders Vote Michigan organization, encouraging youth civic engagement and participation, and he’s committed to raising awareness of educators.
“Things have come a long way, but there’s still progress to be made,” he said.
To learn more about the issue of anti-Asian discrimination or to report an incident or hate crime, go here.