COVID-19 Exposes the Limits of Our Education on Race and Racism: Why Harvard Kennedy School Must Aspire to Be an Anti-Racist Institution

Emily Chi and Charlene Wang
Emily and Charlene are second year MPP students at the Harvard Kennedy School

Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange
Description: “Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading "I am an American" placed in the window of a store, at [401 - 403 Eighth] and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war.”

This May has been an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month like no other. Usually it is a time for Asian Americans to reflect on and celebrate our heritage, predecessors and ancestors, and contributions to our communities. Instead, this year we find ourselves defending our basic right to be in the United States in the wake of COVID-19.  

Those of Asian descent are being targeted with increasing discrimination and hate crimes, with more than 1500 reported incidents in one month alone; more than 30% of Americans have reported witnessing COVID-19 related bias and discrimination. The Trump Administration’s framing of the pandemic as the “China virus” and the false attribution of the spread of the disease to Asians and Asian-Americans has propelled the destruction of AAPI-owned businesses, physical violence, verbal harassment, acid-attacks, and mistreatment of Asian healthcare workers who are fighting the virus on the frontlines. While the surge in global xenophobia against those of Asian descent is appalling and reprehensible, we aren’t witnessing a new phenomenon.

History has repeatedly shown us that racism rises during unsettling times. The human instinct to self-protect can lead to the scapegoating of the “other.” The unfamiliarity often falls along boundaries of race, ethnicity, or religion, sowing hatred and bigotry. Nazi Germany blamed the Jewish people for its economic woes, the United States detained Japanese-Americans in incarceration camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Americans condoned hate crimes and racial-profiling of anyone that appeared to be of Muslim heritage following 9/11, and political hysteria in the 1980s over the “War on Drugs” led to the ever-increasing criminalization and disenfranchisement of Black Americans.

Today, some public leaders choose to neglect history and instead succumb to the same tactics of stoking fears of “the other” to score cheap political points. The U.S. and China have blamed each other throughout the crisis, harping on their on-going geopolitical competition; but politicians have a responsibility to discern between criticizing a head of state or governing body and condemning an entire people or culture. Candidates from both parties are spreading misinformation about the origins of the disease and deploying anti-China messaging. As a result, roughly 60% of Republicans and 30% of Democrats conflate COVID-19 with “specific people or groups,” simultaneously jeopardizing the safety of Asian Americans and intensifying misperceptions that can spread the disease. This isn’t a problem unique to the United States: political parties and groups in the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and Germany have all promoted xenophobic and anti-immigrant narratives, officials in Guangzhou have racially profiled against African residents, and Australia is also reporting an increase in racist incidents against Asian Australians, the majority which were directed at women.

Harvard Kennedy School students aspire to emerge as the next generation of global leaders. Without confronting the history and continuing legacy of racism, we are destined to repeat the past. 

Graduates cannot combat increasing xenophobia in a COVID-19 world without learning about how Chinese residents were blamed for the spread of smallpox to justify the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Graduates cannot fix broken public health systems in minority communities without studying how Chinese, Black, and Mexican American neighborhoods were burned to the ground at the order of health officials under the guise of containing disease—only for the land to be redistributed to the wealthy. Graduates cannot address structural inequalities that lead to higher rates of COVID-19 exposure and death in Black American communities without knowing that the U.S. government knowingly infected Black men with disease and denied them treatment.

Kennedy School students have repeatedly petitioned for greater equity initiatives at the school. These calls to action are more relevant than ever. The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates why these changes are more necessary at a public policy school. Therefore, we are calling on the Harvard Kennedy School again to implement:

Mandatory Anti-racism and Bystander/Intervention Training:

Policymakers are directly responsible for countering racist rhetoric that leads to hate crimes, harassment, and violence. Every student who hopes to become an effective policy leader should understand how white supremacy and racism permeate the world, classroom, and our own lives. All of us have been raised in a racist society; we must learn to critically examine our own biases. Every graduate should leave transformed: well-versed in historical and present-day racism, and equipped with the tools to mitigate hateful language and intervene appropriately.

Anti-Racism training is not a radical idea. In fact, the Boston City Council conducted mandatory training for staff over the summer. It’s a thoughtful way to purposefully discuss the topics of race and prejudice with professional guidance. The fallout from the Bell Harbor Exercise demonstrates that HKS needs help to navigate conversations around race.

Many Asian Americans have been subjected to “yellow peril,” and treated as perpetual foreigners for generations. Others were privileged enough to be spared from first-hand racism until the pandemic. Too many of us are uncertain of how to grapple with this new reality or appropriately de-escalate racially-charged conflict when we experience or witness it. Imagine if our schools had trained and transformed us to take personal responsibility for mitigating harassment and discrimination. We would already be in the habit of regularly standing up for our Black and Brown classmates. And, we would have been equipped and ready to confront similar racism when it shifted to target our own families and communities, with the confidence of knowing our classmates would stand with and for us as we had for them.

Classes on Racism, Genocide, Colonialism, and Inequality:  We must recognize the origins of our societal problems to solve them. All students should be required to master this history before they graduate and are put in positions to shape the future.  Offering a handful of optional courses is not sufficient. While recent hires like Professor Sandra Smith and new electives like “Race and the State” are a step in the right direction, the institution is a long way from adequately addressing the lack of faculty of color who critically study the interaction of race, gender, class, and power or fostering an environment in which these faculty can thrive.

If all students learned how race is correlated with health outcomes, how economic policies have historically disadvantaged people of color, and how disease was used as a weapon to destroy indigenous populations, public leaders could have anticipated the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minorities. It wouldn’t have taken a global health crisis for Asian Americans to realize that there is a history of excluding, scapegoating, and manipulating Asians for the purposes of fortifying white supremacy.  Public leaders like Andrew Yang would have rejected racist calls for assimilation if they understood the painful history of Chinese-Americans being forced to demonstrate their loyalty to America throughout the “Red Scare.” An entire nation would not need to be reminded that a neighbor’s race or ethnicity does not make them a disease carrier.

As the Class of 2020 prepares to graduate at the end of this month, many of our professors are urging us to enlist in public service to fix the broken systems that have produced this public health crisis. These professors fail to acknowledge that it is the public officials and politicians who have graduated from institutions just like this who are culpable for escalating and exacerbating this pandemic. If the Kennedy School misses its opportunity to reeducate students, there is nothing to prevent us from becoming just another generation of graduates that perpetuates historical fear mongering. We won’t solve the COVID-19 crisis; we’ll create more of them.


The Citizen is the independent, official newspaper of the Harvard Kennedy School. Our mission is to seek the full truth on university and community affairs. In doing so, we challenge assumptions and spark meaningful dialogue on the identity and ideals of HKS. We strive to help the school achieve its own goal: allow people to leave safer, freer, and more prosperous lives. 

We are looking for editors for next year, including associate editors and chief editors. If you’re interested in finding out more, e-mail us at the_citizen@hks.harvard.edu, or drop-in to our Zoom info session on June 2nd from 6 pm to 7 pm EST [https://harvard.zoom.us/j/96357592256]. 

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