I originally submitted this on 7th April to The Atlantic, and got sick of waiting for their promised response. I pitched to a couple of other outlets, and email conversations dwindled to nothing. So here it is, three weeks later.
The spread of COVID-19 has reignited anti-Asian bigotry in the United States, particularly following President Trump’s repeated reference to the novel coronavirus as “the Chinese virus”. Reports of racist and xenophobic incidents against Asian Americans spiked after this shift in terminology, reaching nearly 1,500 reported events over the past month. Understandably, this has led to questions over how to best to stop these incidents, which have ranged from verbal or online harassment to physical assaults. One argument that has received substantial discussion over the past few weeks has been that Asian Americans should demonstrate their “Americanness” by very visibly engaging in volunteer or front-line efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19.
Respectability politics all over again
At its heart, this approach to combating racism is merely a resurrection and repackaging of respectability politics. The intuition is that, by highlighting socially-lauded activities or adopting the dominant group’s social norms, the group being targeted by racism will be viewed more positively, becoming less of a target for racism. This response to racism has a long and storied history, particularly in black American politics, where its roots can be traced back to W.E.B. du Bois. However, what might have worked in the distant past will not necessarily work in the present.
Modern America has a much broader commitment to diversity than it did a hundred years ago. Even so, respectability politics often rears its head when minority groups come under attack. One of the most visible examples of this was in the wake of 9-11, when Muslim Americans and Arab Americans were both called to exhibit their patriotism and subjected to abuse.
Asian-American “respectability” in historical context
Even if we just focus on the historical Asian-American experience, the politics of respectability cannot be viewed as a success. Japanese Americans, who could have been considered an assimilation success story, were subjected to internment camps during World War II, even though some served in the US military with great distinction. These sacrifices were not remembered in the 1980s when Japan’s emergence as a potential economic rival to the US led to bigotry against Japanese Americans.
The historical Chinese-American experience is somewhat similar in the failure of the search for “respectability” to prevent racism. In the 19th century, the racist abuses faced by Chinese immigrants culminated in the Page Act of 1875 and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The response eventually coalesced to one of economic and cultural assimilation; by giving up any social or cultural sources of otherness, it was hoped, Chinese Americans would be accepted into America’s WASP-dominated society, in what can be viewed as an economics-driven approach to respectability. During WWII, 20% of adult Chinese-American males joined the US military, while countless other Chinese-American adults served the American cause in other ways. Economic success paid its own dividends, but cultural acceptance did not come. In American English, the term “Oriental” gained such pejorative connotations that today it still remains an ethnic slur in American usage. Likewise, racist attitudes and acts toward Asian Americans have persisted.
Flaws in the respectability politics argument
Moving beyond its historical failures, the politics of respectability is morally problematic. The fundamental assumption of respectability politics is that the targeted group is somehow inherently unworthy of equal treatment or respect. This notion runs counter to the fundamentally American ideal in which all people are regarded as equals. If this implicit underlying inferiority is repeated not only by out-group members but also by prominent in-group members, it is likely to significantly increase the mental-health toll of those targeted by racist abuse.
Another important consideration rests in the burden of responsibility over social behavior. Respectability politics places this burden on the shoulders of the victim: rather than expecting or requiring behavioral modification of the instigator, the respectability-politics argument is that the victim must reform. For Asian Americans, behavioral reform by the victims has often necessitated the giving up of valuable aspects of cultural heritage, something that has never been demanded of the perpetrators. If anything, the perpetrators of racial attacks should be made to bear the burden of responsibility for their antisocial activities; this load should not be foisted upon the victims.
Finally, the feasibility of the respectability politics argument rests upon an extremely strong assumption: economic and social visibility will change prejudiced attitudes. There is little evidence that this works; rather, racist individuals are likely to view such activities as confirmation for their prejudicial beliefs.
Equalities of opportunity?
The respectability-politics argument when applied to Asian Americans additionally relies on strong assumptions of equality of opportunity. That is, the costs of visible civic engagement are implicitly assumed to be low for all Asian Americans. In a world of Asian-American doctors and lawyers, this might not be problematic, but the population of Asian Americans is far more diverse than a handful white-collar professions.
Even within the Chinese-American community, socio-economic divisions exist, in part based on immigration background. Descendants of early Chinese immigrants experienced significant intergenerational economic and socio-political mobility, moving from farm laborers and laundry workers to academics, doctors, and lawyers. Similar examples in upward economic mobility can easily be found among the descendants of post-1965 waves of Chinese immigration from Hong Kong and Taiwan; however, these patterns are not necessarily repeated among descendants of mainland Chinese immigrants. Look beyond Chinese America to the broader Asian-American population, and it becomes clear that upward intergenerational economic mobility and socio-cultural assimilation patterns vary widely between different groups of Asian Americans. 
Consequently, one cannot assume that civic engagement is a costless, or equally low-cost endeavor for all. For immigrants – or the descendants of immigrants – who have not obtained a vaunted white-collar profession or the ability to work remotely, the current crisis presents a very real threat to survival. Public civic engagement is an unnecessary burden on people simply trying to put food on the table for their families.
Another way forward?
Diagnosing the problems of respectability politics is easy. Identifying viable solutions is more difficult. If responsibility politics are unlikely to curb racism against Asian Americans, what might work instead? Research by social psychologists suggests that positive interactions between groups reduce prejudicial attitudes, particularly when these interactions reflect our common humanity. At a time when communities are locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, these sorts of in-person interactions are limited. But experiences shared on social media may serve a similar function, building awareness and empathy where it did not exist before.
As Dalip Saund, the first Asian American elected to US Congress said, “Prejudice thrives in all countries and climates, but in a democracy things can change; people do change.” Ideally, observations of shared humanity will contribute to a decline in prejudicial incidents. This is unlikely to reduce sources of prejudice on its own, and leaders of all stripes need to loudly condemn racism and bigotry in all of their forms. Looking forward, Asian-American leaders also need to continue to push against institutional racism and seek new ways to reduce the extent to which Asian Americans continue to be seen as outsiders in their own country.
 It has also notably been debated in the contexts of feminist and LGBTQIA rights.
 Jamal, A. and Naber, N. eds., 2008. Race and Arab Americans before and after 9/11: From invisible citizens to visible subjects. Syracuse University Press.
 Kurashige, L., 2000. The problem of biculturalism: Japanese American identity and festival before World War II. Journal of American History, 86(4), pp.1632-1654.
Fugita, S.S. and O’brien, D.J., 1985. Structural assimilation, ethnic group membership, and political participation among Japanese Americans: A research note. Social Forces, 63(4), pp.986-995.
 Erika Lee writes about this in The making of Asian America: A history. 2015. Simon & Schuster.
 The Chinese Exclusion Act was formally repealed in 1943, but it was not until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that Asian immigration was placed on equal footing with European immigration. Bill Ong Hing discusses this bill and its effects. Defining America: Through immigration policy. 2012. Temple University Press.
 Lee, E., 2015. The making of Asian America: A history. Simon and Schuster.
 Two recent examples: Gómez, Á., Dovidio, J.F., Huici, C., Gaertner, S.L. and Cuadrado, I., 2008. The other side of we: When outgroup members express common identity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(12), pp.1613-1626.
Christ, O., Schmid, K., Lolliot, S., Swart, H., Stolle, D., Tausch, N., Al Ramiah, A., Wagner, U., Vertovec, S. and Hewstone, M., 2014. Contextual effect of positive intergroup contact on outgroup prejudice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(11), pp.3996-4000.
 “The Salesman”, Time, December 16, 1957.