In the recent escalation of anti-Asian violence, there are important immediate causes and then more enduring societal ones.
In March 2020, I wrote in Raw Story: "The greatest risk factor of disease and death is not being considered, and that is Donald Trump. If he continues in this presidency, he is on course for having three main effects: First, he will make a deadly pandemic much worse. Second, he will stoke divisions between 'believers' and 'unbelievers' in his alternative reality. And third, he will vastly augment suffering, which he will … direct into widespread violence … by calling the novel coronavirus 'Chinese virus,' simultaneously deflecting blame and creating new targets for attack."
As his presidency continued full-term, without repudiation or any reckoning for the violence he has incited, Asian-Americans have become victimized. Mental health professionals have since the beginning warned of his psychological dangerousness, among which is his tendency to project his own unacceptable actions onto others, as he did when he scapegoated Asians through derogatory phrases such as, "Chinese virus" and "Kung flu."
Just as his dehumanization of immigrants and desperate migrants led to unprecedented hate crimes and mass shootings, we have seen a more than an 800 percent increase of reported verbal and physical assaults over the course of a year, which is most certainly a gross underestimate. Furthermore, the recent mass murder at the Georgia spas made clear that Asians, particularly women and elders, are not safe.
Meanwhile, we now know that Donald Trump was responsible for at least 40 percent of the now 560,000 Covid-19 deaths, according to a Lancet report; that up to 97 percent of the deaths were unnecessary, according to a Columbia University report; and that all deaths beyond a hundred thousand "could have been mitigated," according to the former White House coronavirus response coordinator. This immense suffering has been displaced onto Asian-Americans as scapegoats, through the former president's unique, pathological ability to read his followers and to re-channel blame for his own failures onto others.
The Trump presidency was a public health emergency from the start, and violence is a societal and cultural disorder, more than an individual one. Individual circumstances may vary, but of greater significance is the cultural shift that pushes vulnerable individuals into violence where previously they may not have been. The January 6 insurrection, the mass killing of Asian-Americans, and the reign of white supremacist terrorism and intimidation are all interrelated and exacerbated as the result of a former president being so "successful" in avoiding accountability for his actions.
After two impeachment acquittals—which he and his followers interpret as exonerations—and no other prosecutions yet in sight, he is well-positioned to continue to inspire responses that make the pandemic worse, to embolden those who subscribe to his version of reality where he never fails and is never responsible, and to redirect the suffering of the populace against his targets of choice. We need vigorous delegitimizing of his actions and influence, to curtail a violent culture that will give rise to epidemics of violence, including anti-Asian violence.
Societally, we need to recognize that the deadliest violence occurs through societal structures, not through individual actions. Structural violence, be it economic inequality, sexism, or racism, is responsible for more than 10 times all the suicides, homicides, and deaths from civil strife or wars combined—that is, all deaths from behavioral violence, year after year. Structural violence such as racism is also the most potent stimulant of behavioral violence, giving rise to epidemics of hate crimes, murders, and acts of terrorism.
We must call out these cultural forces that threaten safety and our collective thriving. We must hold leaders responsible for their destructive rhetoric, and oppose legislation that disadvantages minority groups, such as voting restrictions, which is essentially the usurpation of the people's voice.
Asian-Americans have been self-silencing and silenced, alternately valorized or feared and othered. They have, in general, tried to fit in with the dominant culture in order to secure safety and survival, but this is a false sense of security through compliance and collusion.
Striving for true unity in diversity, not by conformity but by emphasizing our common humanity, equality amid differences, and justice for all will benefit all of society. African-Americans have a long history of such struggles, meeting oppression and hate with nonviolent strength, humanity, and compassion. We need to emphasize how much we have to learn from and are interdependent with all non-dominant groups and join forces. African-American struggles are also Asian struggles. Native American struggles are also Asian struggles. Latinx-American struggles are also Asian struggles. And so on.
In order to heal from the societal sickness that starts in the mainstream white American culture but spreads through the externalization and projection of its problems, and the generation of inter-generational trauma for non-whites, we need first to name our wounds and affirm our diverse identities. By embracing and drawing upon our cultural roots of who we are, and by cultivating a sharing of our uniqueness and commonality in working through the suffering we feel in our lives, we can help all of us, including the dominant class, to heal.
The World Mental Health Coalition, which is dedicated to promoting societal mental health, has recently launched a Project for National Healing with a series of Truth and Reconciliation Town Halls. Its inaugural town hall was held on March 13, 2021, with the theme: "Racism, White Supremacy, and Societal Mental Health." We need concrete steps to call out the societal problems that the four years of Donald Trump's presidency have represented, magnified, and spread. At the same time, we are called to share the gifts of our unique backgrounds as Blacks, Latinx, Native Americans, and Asians, as part of the life-affirming restoration that must occur.