May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which is dedicated to paying tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history. But instead of celebrating our community’s contributions to American society, we have become the new scapegoat for a health and economic crisis that continues to devastate families and economies the world over.
In these difficult and unprecedented times, it’s easy to point fingers and blame others for these challenging circumstances, but this does nothing to advance solutions. To the contrary, it fuels division and distrust. Instead, our leaders should forge a new path by embracing diversity as an economic and moral imperative. And as we face the economic rebuilding ahead, business leaders can lead the way in creating a more resilient, prosperous, and inclusive country than the one we knew just months ago.
For many communities of color, this moment is painfully familiar. Uncertainty has fueled fear and anxiety in the past — leading to bigotry, discrimination, and biased narratives against minority groups. When I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, there were very few Chinese families — and to my parents, that was one of the biggest draws: having heard about the racism and discrimination Asian families faced on the coastlines, they hoped living in a community with fewer people of Asian descent would be less threatening to the majority — thereby sparing their children from the brunt of anti-Asian bigotry.
In some ways, it worked. I can’t recall being subjected to any open, ugly bigotry during my childhood, and it wasn’t until the murder of Vincent Chin—a 27-year-old Chinese-American man who was beaten to death with a baseball bat in 1982 — that I fully understood the reality of anti-Asian bias and racial violence in this country. In the 1980s, Japanese auto manufacturing was growing in the United States, all while the U.S. auto industry was experiencing rising unemployment. Chin was assumed to be Japanese, and therefore responsible for the hardship his attackers were experiencing. His tragic death awakened not only me, but Asian-Americans across the country, to the very real dangers we’re up against, catalyzing the creation of an AAPI political and civil rights movement that continues to grow to this day.
Change and progress can arise out of tragedy and hardship. We have a similar opportunity today, as we confront a crisis unlike anything most of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes. It is a time when we must overcome the fear that drives us to divide and discriminate, and raise ourselves up together to fight the twin health care and economic crises before us.
Most important, this is the time to stay focused on our most vulnerable workers, and to make sure we do not leave women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ and disabled workers behind. This pandemic has brought into focus the need for urgent action to support the most vulnerable communities — including the more than two million Asian American and Pacific Islanders working in healthcare, transportation, and service industries who are facing xenophobic and racial discrimination in the workplace on top of the health and economic risks associated with the virus. Women and minorities have faced deeply entrenched structural barriers for generations, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how precarious current business practices are, underscoring the need for paid sick leave, family leave, affordable child care, and other basic protections.
While the U.S. government is taking steps to alleviate the health and economic burden on Americans, and many businesses have stepped up since the COVID-19 crisis began, far too many workers are still being left behind.
To stem the harm and build a more just and resilient future, business leaders can take a leadership role. In the immediate term, that means businesses can consider the possible disproportionate, exclusionary or discriminatory impacts of new health and safety measures, including the six-feet social distancing requirements, and the limiting of in-person attendees in meetings. This “new normal” can have adverse consequences for women, especially young women and women of color, by providing them with fewer opportunities for growth. And in the long-term, business leaders can commit to making worker-friendly policies, such as paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave, affordable child care, and policies to end pregnancy discrimination, a permanent fixture in their workplace.
They should also recognize that these policies are not just nice-to-haves — they are economic necessities. There is an impulse in an economic crisis to put issues affecting women at work on the backburner — but real, lasting change will come more quickly as businesses — and by extension, governments — see how fundamental these issues are to their success. The private sector employs almost 130 million workers, and the actions that businesses take, especially in times of crisis, can have a transformative effect on our economy.
In fact, policies such as paid sick leave are critical during economic downturns — research has found that productivity drops by 20 percent when employees work when they are sick. And providing paid sick days could save employers up to $1.8 billion each year through fewer absences from reduced spread of flu-like illnesses alone. In addition, by attracting diverse talent through these critical benefits, companies can retain the best workers and reduce turnover, thereby improving their bottom lines. And there is a direct correlation between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance, according to a study by McKinsey.
In the midst of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, coronavirus, and one of the worst economic disasters in modern history, we are at a crossroads. We can ignore the lessons of the past and suffer the consequences of inaction. Or, we can create tangible, systemic changes that will make our businesses more prosperous, our workforce stronger, and our economy and country more resilient. Which path will we choose?
Tina Tchen serves as president and CEO of TIME’S UP Foundation, which works to change culture, companies, and laws in order to make work safe, fair, and dignified for women of all kinds. In 2017, Tina co-founded the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund; since then, the Fund has connected thousands of people to legal or PR support for sexual harassment across dozens of different industries.