Coronavirus, Racism, and the Health of Our Communities

Chinese Americans protesting xenophobia in San Francisco’s Chinatown

Across the world and in the United States, we have seen a rise in vocal public statements by major public health and medical institutions concerning how to deal with the coronavirus epidemic. Their recommendations have been quite basic and simple:  wash your hands frequently and do so each time with soap for 20 seconds or more, use hand sanitizers with alcohol if washing is not possible, and try to avoid crowded and contaminated spaces by practicing social distancing.  Yet, as we have seen with the spread of the virus, scientific experts and their expertise have not been taken seriously.  Rather, various pseudo-scientific, ad hoc religious, and other problematic discourses about the coronavirus have been taken seriously whereby jeopardizing national and global health. 

With the casual manner by which millions of people in the United States are understanding the virus and its transmission, we do have serious events taking place.  As cases of coronavirus continues to increase, however, the response in many areas of the country, especially in New York City and in our CUNY colleges, is to attack certain groups of people instead of the virus.  The virus has become associated with certain regions of the world and certain communities of people.  As a result, there has already been a spike in anti-Asian and anti-Asian American bigotry.

To add to this matter, Donald Trump, President of the United States, has publicly and intentionally misnamed the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”  With an economy taking a serious nose dive, with growing numbers of people recognizing the importance of universal healthcare for all, and with the startling but not surprising proof that Trump has not sought the advice of medical and scientific experts to address the virus, the shift from coronavirus to “Chinese virus” is a political strategy with both a short and long history in the United States.  During the years 2014-2016 and during his current term as President, Trump strategically used the case of anti-Muslim racism and the rising Islamophobia as a populist tactic to engender, embolden, and consolidate the white supremacist right and the masses.  By using derogatory portrayals of Muslims and implementing Muslim bans and refugee bans, Trump managed to hide the wide assortment of failed and problematic policies, lack of a really substantial public health infrastructure, collusion with Russia on electoral tampering, and the regression of civil rights wins for people of color, women, and LBGTQI minorities.  As a result, we saw a wide assortment of attacks on people deemed to be Muslims across the country and increased anti-Semitism. 

Here we go again.  Or at least, that is what it looks like.  Calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” ignites white and mainstream racist ideologies against the Chinese, Asians, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders more broadly.  It has already led to a variety of attacks on Asians and Asian diasporas across the globe and in the United States.  By labeling the virus as the “Chinese virus,” we see the nation and government’s take on the virus. What we see here is the transferring of the meanings of pathology linked with the virus to an entire geography and people.  It blankets over the shortcomings and fault lines in our own public health system by blaming the Chinese.  This highly racist discourse by Trump marks China as a whole as pathological and all its people, both in China and in the diaspora, as contagious and as contagions.  Accordingly, it represents the U.S. as a pure and healthy country whose health has been jeopardized by the “Chinese” instead of larger systems of capitalism, wars, corporate greed, and outsourcing that are the reason for such movement of people across the globe.  As we know by now, capitalism thrives off and needs accumulation coupled with extraction.  By comparing people and communities and regions to viruses, we are extracting the very humanity and dignity of these people in order to justify exploitation, war, and other violent measures.

In fact, western civilization has had a long history of movement and crossing of borders through the “white savior complex” that used the idea of medically, spiritually, and racially cleaning up non-white countries.  Such discourses can work to hide the history of how many of the serious plagues started and spread from the west onwards.  The spreading of diseases that nearly completely erased Native American nations can be traced to western settler colonialists.  Yet, the ways in which white nativist racism and Trump’s racist discourses work are by projecting China and Chinese people as the virus, as the transmittable, dangerous, and pathological sites.  In the process, we see how we stigmatize only certain bodies that move across borders.  Such stigmatizations then serve the purpose of keeping the national U.S. body as clean and pure by justifying any violence that is aimed at getting rid off or contain viruses and people of color. 

The stereotypes of the Chinese in particular and Asian Americans in general as dirty, sickly, and prone to spreading disease is part of United States’ racist history.  What we are witnessing now is not new to this moment.  While the coronavirus and its presence as a global epidemic are new, the racist discourses used against Asians and Asian Americans are not new.  One can just look at the brilliant scholarship of Nayan Shah in Contagious Divides (University of California Press, 2001) where he examines the historic 1880s San Francisco’s Chinatown and its bachelor communities to demonstrate how the very emergence of public health institutions in the United States surfaced through a racial stereotyping of the Chinese, their isolated and crowded living conditions, and their uses of opium as contagious, uncontrollable, dangerous, and pathological.  There were gendered and sexualized meanings to these racist practices and racist representations of Chinese labor. 

Through the case of the Chinese in San Francisco’s Chinatown, we see how the growth of public health institutions aligned with new policies aimed at securing the white heterosexual patriarchy.  Not only were white women forbidden and threatened with the loss of property and citizenship when they married Chinese man, the representations of Chinese aligned homophobia with xenophobia.  In fact, the presence of Chinese men was not only a threat to white labor and white femininity, it was also represented as a threat to white heterosexual masculinity.  Thus, we see how the white nativist racism against Chinese labor early in U.S. history was already an attack on non-normative sexual practices and non-normative social relationships such as the forced “bachelor communities” and condensed male living quarters in Chinatown.  Therefore, we see how the discourse of the Chinese as pathological was built into anti-queer policies.  It was a way in which the Chinese man became contagious not only by his hygiene but also by his sociality and his sexuality.  These all-male communities become a site of anxiety and fear.  In this present moment, we have to worry about how this shift towards anti-Chinese racism will lead to forms of individual and state violence against LGBTQI communities and other marginalized communities.  We have to be aware of “Chinese virus” and Chineseness can be used and employed for a wide variety of violent policies.  

Similarly, we can see how such anti-Asian sentiment is also used throughout the United States, in the past and in present times, to regard Asian flora and fauna brought to the United States, such as kudzu, carp, Japanese beetles, and snakehead fish, as invasive, dangerous, and a threat to a national well-being.  In fact, Karen Cardozo and Banu Subramaniam, in “Assembling Asian/American Naturecultures” (Journal of Asian American Studies, 2013) explain how anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiments stick onto other non-human species and perpetuate the powerful racist discourse of the “yellow peril.”  We also saw similar racial language emerge during the SARS outbreak. 

As academics and social justice activists in this time of anti-Black racism, Muslim Bans, Latinx children in cages, and on-going wars in the global south, our colleges house international Asian students and a very vibrant Asian American community who are now targets for this growing anti-Asian and anti-Asian American bigotry.  Attacks geared towards these communities have been such that they have mapped out the coronavirus onto Asia as a geographic area and onto East Asian Americans as incubators and carriers of the virus.  It has thus given license to people to verbally, symbolically, and physically attack Asians and Asian Americans.  One response is to create a syllabus and offer teaching material that will enable historic and contemporary interdisciplinary discussions of anti-Asian racism and the coronavirus.  Dr. Jason Chang has initiated this process of formulating a syllabus.

We must be aware of how such stereotyping does also divert energies from addressing the emergence of the virus as a result of certain socio-historical conditions rather than as something innately Asian/Asian American.  For example, it has diverted our attention from the tremendous shortage of testing supplies, resources, and gear at the same time we increase our production of weapons of mass destruction and begin the early stages of a war with Iran. 

Furthermore, our nation’s response to the virus and our foreign policy has expansive global implications.  The sanctions on Iran has a tremendous impact not just on Iran but the global south as a whole.  The sanctions on Iran are limiting the flow of medical care, NGOs, and structures of support. 

By sanctioning Iran, we see a greater adverse effect on the minorities in Iran who are facing the coronavirus with even less resources.  In particular, the Kurdish region of Iran has been greatly impacted by the coronavirus.  As a minority community already facing anti-Kurdish state policies and genocidal campaigns by the Iranian state, our sanctions are impacting the Kurdish community adversely.  When we come back stateside to the United States, we have to think about how we have continued to create profit through the building of public and private prisons (see the amazing Golden Gulag by Ruthie Gilmore).  With so many communities of color becoming the main population of prisons in men’s and women’s prisons, the closed living quarters and the ability to easily transmit the virus means that we need to safeguard our prison population: inmates, medical professionals, and staff.

The media and heads of state are spreading the stereotypes by constantly depicting the spread of the virus and its impact by using images of Asians with face masks. People wearing the masks as a protective measure for themselves, rather than a result of being ill, have been shunned or attacked.  The very medical language of viruses as pathology, uncontrollable, and dangerous is being used to mark people as the problem.  It is a dangerous discourse that puts Asian Americans in precarious situations, especially with the rise of white ethno-national populism and xenophobia.  Thus, as leaders and members of educational institutions, we write to condemn such bigotry and forms of hate crimes that take place in the name of community health and protection.  We ask that all individuals contact medical professionals and public health officials to seek advice on medical preparations to stave off the coronavirus.  Racist language and attacking Asian/Asian Americans are not a way to protect oneself from the coronavirus.  If you are a victim of anti-Asian racism and forms of discrimination, please contact the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council.

It is our time for our academic institutions and our local government to stop racist acts against Asians and Asian Americans.  We cannot expect such ethical statements from top leadership in the United States.  Let us deal with the coronavirus and find ways to protect ourselves and each other epidemiologically.  It is a public health issue both where we can empower ourselves with the information posted across our campuses, staying updated on data and recommendations from the Center for Disease Control, and through conversations with medical professionals while condemning racist acts.  Washing your hands is an important strategy.  Refraining from traveling to level 3 countries is an important strategy.  Stopping all forms of domestic and international travel must be a top priority.  As there are no clear and uniform symptoms of the coronavirus, we must condemn the practice of targeting Asian and Asian American communities.  Saying racist things and racist acts against Asians and Asian Americans are not acceptable.  Don’t be racist, wash your hands instead.  Practice social distancing and physical distancing, do not practice racism as that jeopardizes the physical and moral health of our communities.  We must condemn acts of racism in the name of virus.

Stanley Thangaraj is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the City College of New York (CUNY).  His interests are at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship.  He studies immigrant and refugee communities in the U.S. South to understand how they manage the black-white racial logic through gender, how the afterlife of colonialism takes shape in the diaspora, and the kinds of horizontal processes of race-making.  His monograph Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015) looks at the relationship between race and gender in co-ethnic-only South Asian American sporting cultures.  He has co-edited volumes: Sport and South Asian Diasporas (Routledge, 2014) and Asian American Sporting Cultures (NYU Press, 2016).  His newest research is on Kurdish America which received the 2015 American Studies Association “Comparative Ethnic Studies” award.