Xenophobia: An American tradition amidst the coronavirus

By Aditya Bhalla (PO ’23)

Over the last few months, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a marked increase in racially motivated attacks and xenophobic sentiment, particularly towards the Asian-American community. As early as January, when the threat of the virus began to seep into media outlets around the world, anti-Asian rhetoric began filtering into the global psyche. French newspaper Courier Picard ran a headline on January 26th reading “Yellow Alert,” a cheap, degrading attack on Asians everywhere. The United States has also seen a rise in such rhetoric. For students at the 5Cs, a doctor from Ontario, California reported that her son was cornered at school by children who wanted to test him for the virus only because he is half-Chinese. On a New York subway trip, Jeni-Erbes Chan, an architect, was yelled at by another man who claimed that, “‘her’ people had brought the virus.” This has even extended to Washington, with a White House official referring to the virus as “Kung-Flu” when speaking to a reporter from CBS News. 

While such vitriolic actions are rising in the midst of the pandemic, this pattern is not unique. Increases in xenophobia have been commonplace during times of crisis. Such rhetoric among sections of the public is often amplified by government interference, exacerbating and reaffirming racist and nativist sentiment. During the Great Depression, up to 1.8 million Mexicans, many of whom were American citizens, were deported to reserve scarce job openings for whites. The Hoover administration even used the slogan “American Jobs for Real Americans,” implicitly approving of the local governments that were arresting Mexican-Americans and sending them to Mexico.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II, President Roosevelt held over 117,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps in the western interior of the country under the premise of national security. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in Korematsu v. United States, as Justice Felix Frankfurter justified the internment as, “martial necessity arising from the danger of espionage and sabotage.” In his dissenting opinion, Justice Robert Jackson acutely called out the racist implications of the decision, saying the act “falls into the ugly abyss of racism.”

More recently, hate crimes against Muslims increased by almost 17 times the previous year after the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, the Bush administration’s Patriot Act represented an attack on the civil liberties of everyday Americans, none more so than the nation’s Muslim community. The Patriot Act expands the government’s ability to surveil ordinary Americans through monitoring of cell phone and email communications, collecting banking statements, and tracking internet activity. To this day, the government continues to use these expanded powers to target entire communities, specifically Muslims and Arabs.

Furthermore, rises in xenophobia are also historically tied to pandemics and diseases. Between 1890 and 1924, 15 million (mostly European) immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island, and about one percent of those immigrants were barred entry every year due to medical reasons. On the other hand, between 1910 and 1940, about 100,000 East Asian immigrants entered the United States through Angel Island, and about 17 percent of them were not allowed entry for the same reason. Sinophobic attitudes during the time period led to the requirement of stool samples from the majority of Asian immigrants coming to West Coast ports, while those immigrating to the East Coast were only occasionally required to give samples.

Even the commonly known name of the H1N1 virus of 1918—the Spanish flu—is misleading. The virus did not originate in Spain, and its title represents an attempt to associate new viruses and diseases to that which is foreign. In a similar manner, AIDS was also originally called “Gay-related immune deficiency” even though calling HIV a “gay” disease is simply medically false. As we can see, pandemics have often fueled demeaning rhetoric towards marginalized communities.

This targeting of minority communities is not only a baseless way of scapegoating those who seem foreign. It also serves to shift attention away from the proper public health measures that more effectively bring the crisis to an end. Rather than focusing on increasing testing, supplying healthcare workers, and employing the public health strategies that experts are putting forth, xenophobic and racist paradigms only hinder the nation’s ability to properly attack the true enemy: the virus. 

For example, the Trump Administration’s use of the term “Chinese Virus,” isn’t just a denigrating attack on Chinese people across the world; it’s also a political tactic, consuming the media and shifting attention away from scrutiny over the government’s handling of the crisis. Rather than critiquing the federal government’s response and inability to control the virus, major media outlets debate whether it’s okay to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” (hint: it isn’t). 

Just last month, members of the House introduced legislation to condemn China for their handling of the coronavirus and calls for the country to “publicly state that there’s no evidence COVID-19 originated anywhere else but China.” Some states have even decided to sue China over the virus, and President Trump has floated the idea of imposing new tariffs on China due to their handling of COVID-19. But what do these actions truly accomplish? Condemnation and forcing the nation to accept that the virus originated within their borders will not end the medical and economic suffering of millions of families. Imposing tariffs on other nations hurts American consumers, as ordinary citizens often pick up the costs. These actions only exacerbate tension, fear, and anger among the public. 

Although xenophobia is woven into the fabric of this nation, diseases like the coronavirus require coordinated national and international response to mitigate the crisis. Blaming a particular ethnicity has never been and never will be effective; rather it represents an easy, unsubstantiated way of assigning culpability to an entire group of people. 

To combat COVID-19, it’s important to amplify the voices of epidemiologists who are recommending proper public health policies and implore governments to follow these suggested guidelines. Effective management of international crises is never easy. It requires research, understanding, and work. But to assign blame to an ethnic group rather than advocating for proper public health and economic policy is doing a disservice to humanity as a whole. After all, the global community is facing this catastrophe together.

So, in times like these, perhaps it is worth asking what your government can do for you. If you feel angry because you have to stay home, angry because you can’t see friends and extended family, angry because millions are suffering from financial and medical turmoil; direct that anger towards those truly responsible. Criticize your local, state, and federal government and demand that they do better. But to direct that anger towards any specific ethnicity will only continue a woeful American tradition of xenophobia and ethnocentrism. 

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