The Need for an Ongoing Effort: Reacting to Anti-Asian Violence

The wave of anti-Asian violence needs a better response than mere words.

COMMENTARY

Just about a year ago, on March 27, 2020, I wrote an article for “Coronavirus Chronicles,” the series I curated for Psychiatric TimesTM. This particular article was titled “Coronavirus Chronicles: Coronasiaphobia,” as I tried to coin a term for the developing fear of Asians due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which seemed to start in China.

There was disagreement in one of the professional listservs about how important scapegoating was in view of the life-and-death impact of the virus. Yet, we know from what happened in Nazi Germany and Rwanda that when scapegoating is politicized, the danger to those scapegoated escalates. Although then-President Donald Trump called it the “Chinese Virus,” he countered that by saying that, “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian-American community in the United States, and all over the world.”1 However, that protection was not adequate, and the harassment and harm to Asian Americans continued over this past year, including a recent escalation in the San Francisco area, and a killing of an Asian American man who was walking in his neighborhood.

Nevertheless, I knew of no concerted effort by my professional associations, by neither the American Psychiatric Association (APA) or the American Association for Community Psychiatry (AACP), to prevent this escalation of scapegoating. How could we, then, be surprised by the killings of the Asian women outside of Atlanta?

Today, on March 18, 2020, the APA released an alert titled “APA Condemns Violence Against Asian Americans in Georgia.”2 It confirms that “there has been a well-documented uptick in hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander Communities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” although that seems like an underestimate of these incidents. (To make matters worse, Asian Americans have long been underserved in psychiatry.) Yet, the only suggested action is “condemnation.” From my 50-year history of treating the underserved and developing the first model curricula on cultural psychiatry, I know that condemnation does very little to change anything, although it might make us feel like we are doing something. Sometimes, due to confirmation bias, it actually backfires, as the hate of the haters even escalates. Community vigils after the tragedy, which are common nowadays, helps the grieving process, but nothing more.

Seems to me that what is needed is a much more focused, concerted, and ongoing effort, either in the form of a Think Tank or Task Force composed of a variety of cultural psychiatry experts to address this challenge internally, just as the field has been doing with Black American racism. More than that even, a broad overall focus on addressing all kinds of scapegoating and discrimination in America and psychiatry is necessary for issues like sexism, ageism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, transphobia, and more. Since we have a built-in tendency to fear the “other,” a countering effort has to include childrearing and school education for the public, and intensive continuing education for psychiatrists.

To supplement that, psychiatry needs a representative at the highest level of our country’s government to be included on President Joe Biden’s health care and COVID-19 teams. This psychiatrist, or psychiatrists, needs to have cultural psychiatry expertise as one of the qualifications in order to produce effective messaging and strategies for the public.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He has recently been leading Tikkun Olam advocacy movements on climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board ofPsychiatric TimesTM.

References

1. Reuters staff. Trump: Asian-Americans not responsible for virus, need protection. Reuters. March 23, 2020. Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-trump-asians/trump-asian-americans-not-responsible-for-virus-need-protection-idUSKBN21A3V6

2. APA Statement on the Shootings in Georgia. American Psychiatric Association. March 17, 2021. Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/apa-statement-on-the-shootings-in-georgia