Sacramento’s top health official referred to Asian Americans as “yellow folks” during a board of supervisors meeting on Tuesday.
County Health Director Dr. Peter Beilenson used the phrase, which many Asian American advocates consider a racial slur, while speaking in support of a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.
“It’s a crucial thing we need to be doing to address the issues of the African-American, and brown, and yellow folks, as well as the white folks” Beilenson said while speaking inside the county chambers, wearing a mask over his chin.
The term “yellow” has been used in the past to evoke exoticism and danger in regards to specifically East Asian people. Terms like “Yellow Peril” were common in the early 1900s to support racist, anti-China policies.
Beilenson told CapRadio that he’d misspoken.
“It was a significant mistake, I was put on the spot for giving my comments and obviously should have said ‘Asian American,’” Beilenson said. “As someone who’s really prided himself on 30 years of a career fighting racism, I very much apologize for my use of the term, and would certainly never do so again.”
Aarti Kohli, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, says “there’s no reason to use that term whatsoever, and it shouldn’t be used.”
“I think at this moment, we’ve seen words matter, and with the rise of anti-China rhetoric, and this idea of Asians as foreigners, the word ‘yellow’ just kind of promotes that sentiment,” Kohli said. “The term connotes this idea of fear of ‘other,’ of fear of disease, and it’s not a term that Asian Americans have embraced.”
For the Asian American community, the use of the term “yellow” comes at a particularly challenging time. President Donald Trump has repeatedly denigrated Asian and Chinese Americans during the pandemic, referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” and “Kung-flu.”
A group called Stop AAPI Hate has recorded over 2,700 incidences of racism, discrimination or hate crimes relating to COVID-19 against Asian-Americans since the pandemic began.
“Using that phrase very much hearkens back to that history of xenophobia and, basically, what is language to exclude and otherize Asian American/ Pacific Islanders to make it seem like they don’t belong here,” said Monika Lee, communications manager for the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.
Beilenson’s use of the slur came after members of the public demanded County CEO Nav Gill and other executive leaders be fired or investigated for misconduct and misuse of federal coronavirus stimulus dollars.
“I’m calling to have Nav Gill removed,” Paula Spanos, a former public defender and law professor, told the board during a public comment via phone. “I left Sacramento County after 20 years because of the toxic environment of intimidation and discrimination against women perpretatrated by Nav Gill.”
Public health directors and managers also sent a letter to the board on Nov. 9 accusing Gill of sexism, bullying, racism and disregard for public health. The letter was signed by eight county health directors and managers, including current public health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye and retired officer Glennah Trochet.
Last month, Supervisors Phil Serna and Patrick Kennedy asked Gill to resign after he presided over an indoor meeting with more than three-dozen county staff, many of them not wearing masks, including the CEO.
“As you are well aware, we have had as a board and individually, several difficult conversations of late calling into question your patterned behavior and decision making,” the memo from Serna and Kennedy read. “We no longer have confidence in you as Chief Executive Officer and call for your resignation.”
In a written statement, Gill told CapRadio that he “categorically denies any allegations of wrongdoing,” but that he “cannot comment further as it is a personnel matter.”
Gill and county executives also have been criticized for allocating most of its $181 million in federal coronavirus aid on the sheriff’s office payroll and benefits, approving just $24 million for public health.
During Tuesday’s board meeting, a woman who gave only the first name Bri called-in to decry the county’s executive leadership.
“Hearing the stories from dedicated staff of the county of Sacramento about how the county CEO failed to prioritize public health and created a hostile work environment for women of color and other women is horrifying,” she said.
Ryan McClinton, a county resident, was one of several callers, whose public comments lasted nearly an hour. “I don’t feel safe in my home community by the administrators of our community. That’s a problem,” he said.
Gill has defended his use of the federal stimulus dollars and told CapRadio that his “budget procedure” prevented “huge reductions in General Fund departments that provide critical services to the community and are on the frontline during this pandemic.”
The county’s resolution to establish racism as a public-health crisis, which was proposed by Serna and approved by the board, commits to broad, non-specific goals, such as applying a “racial equity lens” when considering policy and programs, and creating at “Sacramento County Racial Equity Policy Cabinet” that would report on racial equity efforts.
Monika Lee with the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network says her group has been pushing for a similar acknowledgment of racism as a public health crisis at a statewide level. It was concerning to her that the county’s top health official didn’t demonstrate knowledge about the Asian American community at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I think this is what happens when you don’t have diversity in the room, you don’t have somebody who’s able to push back, and this is what happens when you don’t have cultural competency,” Lee said. “I think he needs to educate himself on why that term is not appropriate, because somewhere in his mind he thought it was.”
Beilenson’s use of the slur comes as advocates are pointing out that Sacramento region data on COVID-19 rates within the Asian/Pacific Islander (API) community is severely lacking.
Surveys have indicated that Filipinos and Pacific-Islanders have high rates of COVID-19 cases among API residents, and the Sacramento Hmong community says there have been very few resources put out in their language regarding COVID-19 and safety practices by the city or county.
“This idea that Asians and Pacific Islanders, because we’re unilaterally viewed as the same, we’re quote, unquote ‘The Model Minority,’ and that’s a fallacy,” said Roy Taggueg, a researcher at the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies at UC Davis.
He wants leaders to look at the Asian American community through a different lens.
“You’ll see some groups might be OK, but a lot of them are not. And because we disappear under this aggregate, then policymakers don’t think of it as an issue, that this pandemic might be affecting us in a different way,” Taggueg said.