When Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., confronted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., about his repeated use of the term “Chinese coronavirus” roughly a month ago, she was disappointed. While critics noted the term could perpetuate a racist association between the coronavirus and Chinese people, putting Asians in harm’s way, Meng recalled McCarthy being dismissive of her concern.
“I thought he would care a little,” she told NBC Asian America. “I thought being a member from California, this is something that might be on his radar. These are his constituents, possibly.”
She added: “I think I realized as a Congress member that many of my colleagues can't tell the difference, or don't want to tell the difference, between Chinese and Chinese Americans.”
McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.
Meng, who is the first Asian American elected to Congress from New York, described the interaction as a watershed moment for her. It served, in part, as a glaring indicator of attitudes held not only by her colleagues, but many in American society, as those of Asian descent faced rising hate attacks and violence related to the pandemic.
So in March, Meng proposed a resolution in the House calling on it to condemn all forms of racism and scapegoating, and to demand that public officials denounce any anti-Asian sentiments. The bill, which received support from more than 100 lawmakers within the first day of its introduction, was swiftly followed by other measures, including a companion resolution in the Senate.
The resolution and the support it garnered made Meng feel that an Asian American issue was finally being viewed as a legitimate, societal concern by her colleagues.
“For the first time, I felt like they saw my issues as their issues as well,” Meng said. “I think for one of the first times in my congressional career, I feel like my colleagues see our Asian American issues as something they're concerned about, too, which is a good feeling.”
Meng, a native New Yorker, who represents Queens, including the heavily Asian-American neighborhood of Flushing, has long been familiar with challenges affecting her Asian American constituents. But she said that it has been difficult bringing the community’s issues to the fore. Asian Americans are the country’s fastest growing demographic, yet make up just 3.8 percent of Congress. Meng, who’s served in Congress since 2013, explained that she often attends meetings and realizes that she’s the only Asian American there.
“I might be the only Asian, the only minority there, and … I came to advocate for higher ed in general, but no one's talking about our community, which is fine. But they're talking about every other community, which makes it not OK,” she said. “That happens a lot. People think of ways to help other communities, and ours? ... Most of the time it's left out.”
She and her fellow colleagues in the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus made efforts to explain why language like the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus”perpetuates a dangerous stereotype, as many of her peers were genuinely confused about the terminology’s power, she said.
This time around, Meng said she is grateful to find a great deal of support, particularly from members of other congressional caucuses that represent minority communities. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was among the first members of Congress to reach out to Meng and show support for the resolution.
“I am obsessed with what we call here on the Hill ‘the Tri-Caucus’ — communities working together, Black, Latino, Asian,” she said. “I think it gives us added credibility when people from other communities are also looking out for us.”
Meng said that at the time, many of her peers were looking for ways to show support even though they didn’t know how. Signing on to the resolution proved to be an important gesture despite the bill having no legal teeth, she explained.
“Even though this is just symbolic, it gives people a tool, in the meantime, to start fighting back and start reminding people that Asians are Americans just like them.”
Such gestures could have tangible impact, research shows. One study that examined President Donald Trump’s inflammatory remarks toward the Latinx community suggests that language could indeed have what researchers call an “emboldening effect.” After hearing his remarks, individuals were more likely to express or act on their prejudice. Though criticisms condemning his rhetoric did not successfully negate the emboldening effect, it did mitigate it.
“What the research shows is that the rhetoric of our political leaders makes a difference,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of the civic engagement nonprofit AAPI Data, said earlier this month. “It is important to consistently call out rhetoric and behavior that are beyond the pale and beyond the norms of American society and of political discourse.”
Meng says the current climate may cause some Asian Americans to feel that the movement for greater visibility has slightly regressed. She points out that current threats could mean many are “revisiting a lot of the insecure feelings we may have had growing up,” she said. However, the inroads the racial group has made in recent years, in sectors spanning from entertainment to politics, shows that Asian Americans are in fact getting to a place where they have a bit of a platform, she said.
Meng is firm that those who have a seat at the table, as a result of decades of activism, use their reach to speak out for the community, regardless of the situation now.
“Everything we do does matter for the purposes of history,” she said. “We are in a very unique time, and even more so can harness the platforms we have.”