A Q&A With Prof. Merlin Chowkwanyun

May 24, 2022

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a public health historian and assistant professor of sociomedical sciences in the Center for History and Ethics. He is a leading scholar of American health activism and policy. In July, he is releasing his first book, All Health Politics Is Local, which examines how different neighborhood and local-level contexts shape the provision of medical care and environmental policy. He teaches classes in health policy and the history of public health.

In 2017, Chowkwanyun and David Rosner created Toxic Docs (www.toxicdocs.org), a digital repository of historic documents on corporate complicity in health hazards. Chowkwanyun also organizes the annual Sophie & Alex Rosner Seminar Series on Health, History & Social Justice. He is passionate about his hometown Los Angeles, particularly the Los Angeles Lakers basketball franchise.

How did you get into history and public health?

It really started when I was a Columbia undergraduate, and I took Eric Foner’s class “American Radical Tradition.” That class incubated my interest in social movements and activism, which continues today. I also started taking a lot of classes in African-American history, which led me to Sam Roberts, who is on the SMS and history faculties. His class “African American History in Public Health” opened my eyes to what public health even was. I learned that what people consider to be public health has shifted throughout history—and that the public health enterprise, for all its triumphs, was also centrally implicated in the racism of the American past. I went to Penn for a PhD in history and a masters in public health. David Rosner, whose work spoke to both the interests of historians and people in public policy, really influenced me, and was someone I wanted to emulate, along with Tom Sugrue and the late Michael Katz, two of my advisors at Penn whose historical work intervened in a number of social science and policy debates.

Has there been an evolution of your thinking on race and racism?

I was born in Los Angeles. It’s both a place that brings a lot of different people together, and a place with a lot of fractures. I first became aware of those fractures during the uprising after the first Rodney King verdict. That got me asking questions about who was marginalized. I didn’t think of how Asians were a part of the uprising until later. The racial discourse in this country still hasn’t caught up to demographic reality. It is still largely a Black/white binary, maybe a Black-Latino-white binary. If you’re an Asian, it’s hard to think about how you fit into this story. Even in my own scholarly work, I’m guilty of what I call jokingly the “Asian rounding error.” Because Asians are only a tiny percentage of the whole United States population, you can just ignore them. There was a point not long ago when Asians were only 4 percent. It’s now almost double that and is projected to go as high as 10 percent by 2050. All of us—including me—need to think more critically about how to include Asians in racial discourse.

Did you have Asian mentors or models on your way up? Do you serve in this role today?

In undergraduate and graduate school, I didn’t have any Asian American professors or mentors. There just aren’t that many Asians in the humanities and the non-quantitative branches of the social sciences. Asian American historians tend to study Asian American history, and I wasn’t doing that, in part because there were almost no offerings at the time. But if the question is whether there were people who helped navigate some of the challenges that come with being an Asian—or a person of color generally—in the academy, the answer is yes. One was Sam Roberts. The other was Adolph Reed, a political scientist at Penn. Both are Black scholars who entered fields that contained no small share of parochialism at the time, especially when it came to studying “race.” In different ways, they both shared what it was like to feel a little out of place. If students come to me because I’m Asian or because they feel marginalized for other reasons, I try to pay their generosity forward.

What are your thoughts about the recent rash of Asian American violence?

As a historian, it doesn’t surprise me. The fortunes of Asian Americans have always been wedded to the geopolitical context, particularly various Asian-Pacific wars, from our interventions in the Philippines to the Vietnam War. In the current moment, China is challenging American economic supremacy, and it has created two decades of economic anxieties. And now because the first COVID cases came from China, the result has been a lot of blame and scapegoating that has boomeranged to everyone who looks Asian in the U.S. I’m also concerned about suspicions cast on Asians doing scientific research. The government says they want to ferret out academics who are giving away secrets to China. But a lot of questionable investigations have taken place under the China Initiative, even though the plug has been pulled on the program for now.

What can we do?

On campus, I hear from Asian students and colleagues who feel unacknowledged. Yet there are significant numbers of Asian people on campus doing important work for the university, especially in the health sciences and STEM fields and often in lower-paying but critical capacities, like labs. Given their centrality, we can’t keep pretending they don’t exist. More broadly, I want to see Asians incorporated into a more complex racial discussion. But it shouldn’t just be something facile like: “Talk about Asians more.” We shouldn’t think in terms of racial blocks that are separate from each other. The way Asian people are thought of in this country affects how Black people are thought of in this country and vice versa. The same goes for other groups. So you have to have a more relational discussion. To go back to the 1992 LA Uprising, that resulted in many different frustrated, angry groups colliding with each other. You can’t fully understand something like it without understanding all of those constituencies.