May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. As we celebrate their contributions to this country and continue vital conversations about how to address climate change, we must first come to terms with the complex history of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people here in the United States. We are currently experiencing a devastating increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans that have, in part, been fueled by racist rhetoric around the COVID-19 pandemic. This violence is not new and is also an extension of the mistreatment and discrimination that AAPI have suffered since immigrating to America; as well as the racist rhetoric used to blame Asian and Southeast Asian countries for climate change. The only way we will achieve true climate justice is by acknowledging and working through this ugly part of our history.
Climate justice frames climate change not only as an environmental issue but also as a political and ethical one. Political and ethical climate justice conversations must include countries throughout the world and include environmental justice considerations. For this to happen, we must become more comfortable taking responsibility for our environmental shortcomings without immediately focusing on what other countries can do better instead. For example, conversations about waste management systems around the globe often focus on the challenges that Asian and Southeast Asian countries like India and Indonesia face and how they can do better. These conversations fail to mention those same waste management struggles happening here in the United States This is not to say that we should never critique other countries when it comes to environmental issues with global impacts, but too often the blame is placed on Asian countries while the American responsibility is rarely fully addressed.
What are the chances that violence against AAPI and the blame for climate change is related? We certainly know that the sharp increase in violence against the AAPI community is related to COVID but placing unfair blame on non-white communities is not new. There are years of painful history between the United States and Asian and Pacific Island countries that have translated into the feeling that AAPI are a threat to our way of life here in the United States. The term “Yellow Peril” has been around since the 19th century and represents how these feelings have manifested in American culture. Yellow Peril is the fear that Asian people are going to invade the country, take jobs, and threaten our safety and way of life. While the term “Yellow Peril” has not been used in years, the ideas behind it have been used to push anti-Asian rhetoric and to justify, discrimination, imprisonment of entire families during World War II, and the most recent spate of violence. This continues to result in many people holding implicit biases against Asian American and Pacific Islanders that make it easier to blame them for many issues in the world. It has also helped lead to a paralysis in dealing more aggressively with climate change and feeds misinformation campaigns about the pandemic, threatening the very lives of AAPI friends and families in this country.
We need to do better. Large scale problems like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be solved if countries place blame instead of collaborating on a solution. There is room for the nuances of responsibility for climate change, but not if the United States refuses to own our part that we have played in the past and present. True climate and environmental justice addresses the full, not sanitized, histories of countries around the globe, including the United States. It also means that we have a responsibility to address our country’s role in damaging the environment and the structural racism that means communities of color are much more likely to live near heavy pollution. No longer can we play the blame game with our sister countries when there are people and our planet at risk if we want to build a more just and sustainable future. Nor should we let racism go unchallenged among ourserlves, the world, and our fellow Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.
For more information about the Stop AAPI hate movement click here.
Marissa McClenton is the author of this blog and a student at University of Delaware as well as the Clean Water Team’s Grassroots Organizer. Stay tuned for more insights and resources from the DEIJ Corner and Marissa in the future!