Read The Work Ahead to learn about the first five years of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
As UCLA made plans to ramp down operations and reduce population density in the residence halls amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one question was always on Jerry Kang’s mind: How will this affect students on the margins, those who are not in the mainstream?
When UCLA transitioned to remote learning and students began to leave campus, Kang — vice chancellor of UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) — knew the news would be better received by well-resourced students, whose parents could quickly move them out or get them on a flight home. For others — international or first-generation students, or those who feel more comfortable being away from home — the news would be traumatizing. “I wanted to make sure we got it right,” Kang says. “We told our students that we were asking people to leave, but I think we did it with a certain kind of grace and flexibility. And we always reminded them that if they needed to, they could stay.”
Indeed, UCLA, like other universities nationwide, is navigating a new normal as classes continue virtually and much of the country shelters in place. While the medical community works to discover a treatment for COVID-19, Kang, a distinguished professor of law and Asian American studies and an expert in implicit or unconscious bias, examines the virus through the complex lens of diversity and inclusion, from both a campus and a global perspective. Here, he shares his expertise on the nature of crises, the power of words and the grace of strangers, which might help us muddle through to the other side.
DO WORDS MATTER?
According to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, after President Donald Trump called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” in March, more than 650 incidents of discrimination against Asian Americans were reported in just one week. In “COVID-19: What’s in a Name?,” Kang wrote about how calling the virus by anything other than its precise name reflects “intellectual laziness and stereotyping” (for which he received his share of hate mail).
“Unwittingly or not, it’s a form of ‘name calling’ that increases the chances that people of Asian descent will be teased, bullied, harassed or just made to feel like they don’t belong,” he writes. “It’s so unnecessary in a moment when we need unity, not division; care, not contempt; solicitude, not sarcasm.”
In April, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams compared the coronavirus pandemic to two historic tragedies: the attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11 — events that Kang knows a thing or two about as a published author on both the Japanese American internment camps and the war on terrorism in the wake of 9/11. Not content to merely share his point of view, he invited UCLA students to an online Fiat Lux seminar to explore and engage with him on various topics, including scapegoating, racial profiling, freedom of speech and the connection between words and violence.
“At the center of every profiling argument and justification is the claim [that it is] accurate, and thus a rational response,” he said at the seminar. As hands went up, the class unpacked hard questions together. Why was it OK to call the Spanish flu by that name, but not OK to call this the China flu? Do words incline people to physical violence? Are people just being too sensitive?
“I think it’s important for people to recognize that just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do,” Kang argued. “And in some ways, it’s deep immaturity and insufficient humanity to say simply, ‘Because I can, I will.’ We can do better, and I think once people get reminded, almost everyone does.” It’s a reminder he shares with the campus community, which has faced challenges with students and faculty using names or labels for the virus that stoke anxiety among Asian Americans.
THE OBVIOUS BROUGHT TO LIGHT
While COVID-19 itself doesn’t discriminate, the pandemic has shed light on the boundaries that exist at the intersection of health disparities and socioeconomic status, as communities of color across this country have been disproportionately affected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national report on the coronavirus, Black people account for about 30% of COVID-19 cases, despite being about 12% of the nation’s population. (The CDC acknowledged that race data were missing from 75% of the cases it examined.) Kang says this should not come as a surprise, because comorbidities associated with the virus are not evenly distributed throughout the population, due to the systemic roots of health disparities and the reality of racial bias in medicine.
Another important way that racism affects health is through hypervigilance, according to Chandra Ford, associate professor of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and director of the Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health. “To remain on guard against threats of social discrimination, rude treatment or violence for extended periods of time is to keep the body in a state of chronic stress,” Ford says.
Kang adds, “What COVID-19 has done is put a stark punctuation mark on things that many already knew.” He notes that people are seeing for the first time what others — including many experts at UCLA — have long been working to address.
DONNING THE MASK
Kang wears many hats: administrator, academic, lawyer and father, just to name a few. But when asked how COVID-19–related racism makes him feel on a personal level, he answers, “It’s heartbreaking.”
When Kang donned a mask for a plane ride — a short time before the CDC recommended wearing face coverings — he recalls feeling a deep sadness. “A part of my mind could not but recognize that here I go, marking myself as different,” he says. “And for many people, it will be effortless to see me as being foreign, and therefore ‘the other.’” He is quick to note that he in no way wants to compare that experience to what a Muslim wearing a hijab experienced after 9/11. But he also didn’t want to suggest that just because Asian Americans are well assimilated, they are somehow liberated from racial hierarchies. “For Asians, there’s a moment where putting on a mask signals and reminds us how we’re always a little bit marked as not belonging to the mainstream.”
A crisis exacerbates racism, triggers fear and often brings out the worst in people, says Kang. Yet he remains optimistic, partly because of what he sees within the UCLA community. When Zoom classes were disrupted by racist remarks, the Office of EDI found that the perpetrators were random outsiders. And though there have been cases of individuals using racist or insensitive language, Kang says UCLA is bound by the First Amendment, so not every offensive remark is investigated or recorded.
“My general sense is that the overwhelming majority of Bruins have come together and realized what a hard time this is,” Kang says. “I think what we’ll find is that the only way we’ll muddle through to the other side is by the grace and kindness of strangers. Think about the first responders and health care providers who are different genders and different races, different classes of people who have sacrificed their lives in some ways to make sure that we are well. The only way to respond to this virus is for all of us to recognize a certain kind of common fragility in our humanity.”
Kang believes that in order to understand how COVID-19 is affecting us, we need the full richness of smarts that a great university like UCLA has across all disciplines. We need to explore not just the science, but also the importance of names and their connections to violence, which sociologists, media scholars and lawyers are examining now. We need to think about human behavior and how we respond to the safer-at-home orders. “I like the fact that I’m part of UCLA as we struggle through this global challenge,” he says, circling back to the students and the questions that are always on his mind.
“Most people are wondering what happens in the fall,” Kang says. “If we have a fork in the road and have a genuinely hard decision to make, then I’m constantly asking: Does the choice look different if we privilege the perspective of the people who are the least well-off? What is the best thing we can do as a university to promote our basic values of equity, diversity and inclusion?”