Crises have a tendency to heighten tensions between communities. A spike in patriotism, nationalism, and racism occur in times of crises such as acts of terror, war and national catastrophes. The coronavirus epidemic, or COVID-19, reportedly originated from Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, in late 2019. As of April 29, 2020, the number of people that contracted the respiratory virus reached 3,179,494, with 226,173 fatalities recorded worldwide (John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, April 2020). The country most affected by COVID-19 at present time is the U.S. President Donald Trump has been critical of the Chinese government, blaming it for allegedly hiding information that would have helped other countries to take the necessary precautions to curtail the rapid spread of the virus. Trump has continuously referred to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’, thus adding racist connotations and another layer of threat and vulnerability for Chinese and other Asian communities. “A very basic definition of discrimination tells us that to discriminate is to distinguish between things, usually in ways that imply a judgment about what is better or worse” (MacKinnon, p.7). In the case of the COVID-19 epidemic, Chinese nationals have become victims of discrimination. Direct attacks on Chinese nationals, the refusal to eat at Chinese restaurants and racist comments like ‘Kung Flu’ have all played a part in growing anti-Asian racial discrimination.
Racial discrimination is an ongoing phenomenon in the U.S. “Race still remains as a powerful concept with deep historical roots which helps to explain ongoing inequality and discrimination” (MacKinnon, p.8). Racial supremacy, racial privilege and racial inferiority are rooted concepts that surface in times of crisis, and ideals of equality are pushed back in what becomes a blame game. Chinese integration to the U.S. has a dark history. From as early as the 1850s, when a few thousand Chinese workers arrived to North America, anti-Chinese activists have used gender, race and sex to discriminate against them.
“Anti-Chinese activists, politicians, and journalists throughout the Americas characterized Chinese in strikingly similar ways as thrifty and hard workers, on the one hand, and as conniving, diseased, dirty and uncivilized, on the other” (Young, 2014, p.13). The demarcation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (them being Chinese) got stronger between Caucasian communities and Asians in the U.S. when political, financial and social factors came into play. For example, in the late-19th century, mass migration of Chinese nationals and a downturn in the economy led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For 10 years, Chinese immigrants were not allowed to enter the country for work. Chairman Mao Zedong and the People Republic of China’s rise to power in 1949 prompted anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. also. These are only a few examples of how tensions escalated and became a potential source of institutional racism. Today, because of the COVID-19 epidemic, attacks on Chinese nationals in Europe and the U.S. have hit new heights since the end of the Cold War. Some political executives, Trump included, have racialized the virus, bringing with it ‘Sinophobia’. Hate crimes against Chinese-Americans and Chinese students have spiraled out of control over the past two months. This is primarily because a large percentage of Americans blame China for the disease entering the U.S. and the consequences it has had on the country.
According to a study by IPSOS “about 3 in 10 Americans blame China or Chinese people for the pandemic” (IPSOS, April 2020; see survey results below). Republicans in particular believe the Chinese government, Chinese labs, or China-based animal wet are the reason behind the current global health crisis. A small minority of politicians within the Republican Party have legitimized racism by frequently arguing that COVID-19 is a biological attack by China. In April 2020, Trump said the Chinese government might have allowed the virus to spread on purpose instead of intervene against it leaving the Asian continent and reaching Europe and North America. Such comments are an example of conscious action, which contributes to the inequality and oppression of ethnic minorities. Furthermore, allegations regarding the lack of intervention against hate crime directed at Asian-Americans suggest the oppression and racism may be more systematic than initially thought (Campbell, April 2020).
Throughout U.S. history, there have been contradictions to the principle of equality and justice, particularly against African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans. While Asian-Americans do not experience as much of the profiling that is prevalent against African-American and the Hispanic community, they are perceived more as a threat to the U.S. and the American way of life. Tchen and Yeats (2014) elaborates the fear of East Asians, including the Chinese, as an existential threat to the Western world. ‘The Yellow Fever’ is a terminology used to underline the alleged upcoming Eastern invasion into Europe and North America. The rise of China as political and economic hegemon has added more validity to the claims made by racists. Throughout the 1960s, the fictional character Fu Manchu made it to the big screen as a Chinese villain trying to conquer the world. The script involved lines like “conquer and breed, Kill the white man and take his women!” (Tchen and Yeats, 2014, p.9). Fu Manchu was depicted not as a male but alien like features to differentiate Asians and demonize them.
In conclusion, a long timeline of deep-rooted discrimination against Asian-Americans have once again resurfaced with the pretext of COVID-19. Asian-Americans whom may have never even been to China are being targeted in racist slurs and physical abuse. The U.S. President and some members of his administration have worsened the situation by linking the origins of the virus to the Chinese government and Chinese people. Discriminatory language that and unwelcoming behavior Asian-Americans were confronted with in the 19th century have resurfaced in the latest global crises. Swift solutions are unlikely to materialize to worsening discrimination and the stigma surrounding COVID-19.
- Campbell, A. F., & Ellerbeck, A. (2020, April 16). Federal agencies are doing little about the rise in anti-Asian hate. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/federal-agencies-are-doing-little-about-rise-anti-asian-hate-n1184766
- COVID-19 Map. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html
- Forth-Seventh Congress – Session 1, 1882. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/historical-docs/todays-doc/index.html?dod-date=506
- Kelley, A. (2020, April 7). Attacks on Asian Americans skyrocket to 100 per day during coronavirus pandemic. Retrieved from https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/equality/490373-attacks-on-asian-americans-at-about-100-per-day-due-to
- Mangan, D. (2020, March 18). Trump defends calling coronavirus ‘Chinese virus’ – ‘it’s not racist at all’. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/18/coronavirus-criticism-trump-defends-saying-chinese-virus.html
- New Center for Public Integrity/Ipsos Poll finds most Americans say the Coronavirus Pandemic is a Natural Disaster. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/center-for-public-integrity-poll-2020
- Porter, T. (2020, April 19). Trump said China may have started the coronavirus deliberately, as top advisers claim attacking Beijing may be the best way for the president to save his job. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-says-china-may-have-started-coronavirus-deliberately-2020-4?r=US&IR=T
- Tchen, J. K. W. (2014). Yellow peril!: an archive of anti-Asian fear. London: Verso.
- Young, E. (2014). Alien nation: Chinese migration in the Americas from the coolie era through World War Ii. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.