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Asian Americans called ‘yellow folk’ by US health official during meeting about combatting racism

Nov 20, 2020
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Peter Beilenson referred to ‘yellow folks' (Sacramento County)
Peter Beilenson referred to ‘yellow folks’ (Sacramento County)

A California city’s chief health official referred to Asian Americans as “yellow folk” during a meeting about racism as a public health crisis.

Sacramento County health director Dr Peter Beilenson used the term, widely considered a racist slur, while speaking in support of the resolution earlier this week.

“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,” Dr Beilenson said, according to Capital Public Radio, which first reported the comments.

Mr Beilenson later apologised, telling the radio station it was a “significant mistake” and that he would not be using the term again.

“I was put on the spot for giving my comments and obviously should have said ‘Asian American’,” he said. “As someone who’s really prided himself on 30 years of a career fighting racism, I very much apologise for my use of the term.”

The term “yellow” has in the past been used to evoke otherness and danger regarding East Asian communities, and in the early 20th century culminated in popular expressions regarding the so-called “Yellow Peril” — a fear that Western societies would be overwhelmed by the Chinese.

It also comes at a moment when US president Donald Trump has escalated his divisive rhetoric around China — he has repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as the “China Virus” — and reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans are surging.

The resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, which was approved by the board, said it was “incumbent on all locally appointed and elected policy makers to embrace, nurture and protect the diversity of our community”.

It committed to broad but non-specific goals to address inequality in public policy and programmes, and said a “Sacramento County Racial Equity Policy Cabinet” would be established to report on anti-racism efforts.

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