Randall Akee and KJ Ward
Thursday, May 13, 2021
Recent events have made clear the pervasive and continuing animus towards various race and ethnic groups in the U.S. The current COVID-19 epidemic has become the latest impetus for acting on old biases of “otherness” or not belonging towards Asians and baselessly holding them responsible for the pandemic. It has been reported that residents of border towns near the Navajo Nation have targeted Native Americans in their insults as vectors of COVID-19 and demanded that they return home to the reservation. Front-line workers, many Black and Hispanic, who have long endured the disrespect of entitled customers, are now dealing with the ire – racist epithets and even physical assault – of those who are angry at being required to cover their mouths and noses while shopping. In the absence of systematic data on this topic, we are left to these anecdotal instances, and that makes it much more difficult to identify pervasive patterns and behaviors in society. In the media, these instances are often noted, but they can easily be dismissed as outliers or attributed to a single “bad actor.”
Even when data are collected, smaller race groups are often not included in national surveys or have so few observations that separate analysis cannot be conducted. These small populations tend to be clustered in an “other” category.
From a scientific point of view, this practice is not generally viewed as problematic. If a “representative sample” of 2,000 respondents happens to completely exclude Alaska Natives this may not raise eyebrows because the population of Alaska Natives in the U.S. is less than one percent. This oversight, however, renders invisible the unique lived experience of this population. Not only is this a barrier to any policy discussion that might address the realities of this and other small groups, in the case of the experience of racism, it is a missed opportunity to understand racism as structural and pervasive as opposed to anecdotal and isolated incidents. In other words, if a survey can only explicitly and statistically demonstrate that African Americans and Hispanics report being the targets of discrimination and cannot describe the experiences of discrimination experienced by Khmer immigrants or Pacific Islanders then it is harder to understand that racial discrimination is a function of structural white supremacy and not the “problem” of a couple race groups.