The Virulent Hate Project

Melissa Borja, PhD, assistant professor in the department of American Culture and faculty member in the Asian Pacific Islander American Studies program joined the Michigan Minds podcast to discuss the Virulent Hate Project, an initiative to study anti-Asian racism and Asian American activism during the COVID-19 pandemic working to identify trends in how Asian Americans are experiencing and fighting racism.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I along with many other Asian Americans who are aware of the ways that Coronavirus fears have been associated with anti-Asian racism, have been tracking how Asian Americans have been experiencing harassment, discrimination, violence, and more,” she says.

Borja is the lead of the Virulent Hate Project — an initiative she started in 2020 in which a team of researchers from across the country study anti-Asian racism and Asian American anti-racism activism, specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She explains that researchers have read over 4,000 news articles from 2020 alone and more in 2021 related to racism, violence, and stigmatization, and how Asian Americans have responded to these problems. According to these articles, over 1,000 unique incidents of anit-Asian racism occurred in the United States. The information gathered has since been compiled into maps and resources that can be found on the Virulent Hate Project website.

Borja discusses previous incidents of anti-Asian racism such as the exclusion of Chinese migrants, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the treatment of Asian Americans in the 1980s in Michigan during the automobile decline. Looking at historical events, previously held fears have contributed to current acts of racism.

“One thing that is important for us to keep in mind is that, in many ways, the acts of racism and violence that we are seeing in the current moment is specific to the tensions of 2020 and 2021. Specifically the COVID-19 pandemic, but also rising US-China tensions. And that in many ways is specific to the current moment, but the anti-Asian racism that we’re seeing is expression of deep-rooted yellow peril fears,” she says, adding that “yellow peril is the idea an Asian and Asian American people are a threat to the health, prosperity and the racial purity of the United States.”

“Some of the same old stereotypes are reproduced. A lot of the incidents will involve people saying ‘go back to where you come from’ and that phrase invokes the perpetual foreigner idea, the idea that Asian Americans are not true Americans — and that pre-existed before the pandemic.”

Borja shares what Asian Americans are doing to help their community and how others can help combat anti-Asian racism, including educational resources for bystander intervention and de-escalation training.

“Practicing learning how to respond and interrupt when people are doing or saying harmful things is really useful. Taking a bystander intervention class or de-escalation class is really really helpful.”

The Virulent Hate Project is supported by Poverty Solutions, Center for Social Solutions, and other U-M departments through the Confronting and Combating Racism Grant Program.