Chinese Americans as well as those who look Chinese, are having to bear a double dose of the national anxiety amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They are anxious like the rest of us about venturing outside and getting infected, but they are also increasingly anxious about venturing outside and experiencing hostility from non-Asians of all sorts, in the form of verbal harassment and physical threats.
In the space of just one week in March, the New York Daily News noted that Asian Americans reported more than 600 such incidents across the United States. Even in relatively ‘safe’ cities with large Asian American populations, like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, Asian Americans have been cursed at, spit upon and punched. They find their neighborhoods suddenly festooned with white supremacist stickers. Asian-owned restaurants and businesses were the first to feel the economic devastation that all small business owners now feel, which will mean they will likely be the last to recover.
Clearly, at least some of this can be laid at the door of Donald Trump and his Republican allies. Not only has the president repeatedly called our pandemic the “Chinese virus” but another White House official named it the “Kung Flu,” a joke that went viral. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that… has been the source of a lot of these viruses.”
Actually, besides the fact that every Southerner knows someone who has eaten snakes and alligators, fatal diseases that originate with animals are a global problem, not an Asian problem. Live Science reports that 2.2 million people around the world die each year due to ‘zoonotic’ diseases that pass from animals to humans. These include herpes B, E. coli, Lyme disease, mad cow disease, rabies, salmonella, and many more. The problem may be less cultural than capitalist: food practices that put safety and security last.
Whiteness as an elite club full of perks and protections has never been fully extended to all whites. And it has never really been extended to any non-whites.
Yet cultural explanations persist, suggesting that the old tropes of “Yellow Peril” never really went away. Even when street harassment is merely verbal, there can be lasting harm in creating a sense of permanent vulnerability and demoralized fatalism, especially after decades of social movement activism and concrete reforms. The current attacks will likely affect whether Asian Americans in general feel capable of stepping up to publicly visible positions for some time to come. Tucker Carlson and other conservatives are hammering home the general message that “diversity” is dysfunctional for the country as a whole, suggesting that it’s a delusion to think that any minority can be a model.
So how should we understand this resurgence of anti-Chinese racism? Is it even a resurgence, or simply a continuation of what has always been around since Chinese immigration began in significant numbers in the 1860s? Is it specifically aimed at the Chinese or is this just broad anti-Asian racism pure and simple?
Both anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism can be hard to detect. It can seem to be positive (‘They’re so smart!’) or complementary (‘They value education!’) or appreciative (‘They’re so thrifty!’). And according to all we know at this time, COVID-19 did start in China, so how is it racist to point this out?
Clearly, Trump, Carlson and others are knowingly playing up the national and ethnic angle which is actually irrelevant to understanding how to stop the pandemic or prevent the next one. They have pushed a trade war with China for the past three years and COVID-19 provides a convenient weapon. Further, by blaming the pandemic on the “Chinese virus” Trump’s own botched handling of the crisis, which made everything so much worse, gets pushed out of the frame. It’s fair to expect he will try to ride this all the way through the November election, using the anger and despair that people feel over the mass death and economic collapse to scapegoat a racialized other.
It is more important than ever that we raise our awareness of anti-Asian racism. The nature of racism is complex. It can be subtle and take quite different forms. Some groups have always been ‘admired’ in certain respects, which can make their situation seem quite different from those groups (such as my own) that are just considered inferior, pure and simple. Black and brown folks are viewed by racists as intellectually and morally inferior. This can look to be so far from what Asian Americans experience that some believe Asians have become white, enjoying all the club privileges that that implies.
We need to understand, though, that whiteness as an elite club full of perks and protections has never been fully extended to all whites anyway. And it has never really been extended to any non-whites. Asian Americans look to have achieved remarkable economic success, but this requires aggregating the Japanese with the Cambodians in ways that skew the numbers. In reality, some Asian groups are okay while others are very much not, and Chinese Americans are such a large and diverse group that no meaningful economic conclusions can be drawn except that some Chinese Americans have indeed ‘made it.’
Yet even those who have reached the middle class report persistent social exclusion from their wider social networks. And Asian cultural representation lags significantly behind other groups. Only 1 percent of Hollywood’s leading roles go to Asian Americans, though they are about 6 percent of the U.S. population. Having money does not immunize one against racism, and can in fact make one a target of racism, as Jewish Americans know well.
The problem of racism always involves some over-generalization, but the generalizations take crucially different forms. Some groups seem to get a lot of positives while others get almost nothing but negatives. The key is to look at the combinations. To say that Asians are ‘smart’ is to assume that one’s race or ethnicity is a cause of intelligence, an idea that leads directly to seeing other groups as having inferior intelligence as part of their group features.
Moreover, if we can classify whole groups as intelligent, we can then classify them as ‘clannish’ or ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘inscrutable,’ thus associating their likely ‘positives’ with unavoidable ‘negatives.’ Their intelligence then becomes a threat, not a benefit to all. And ‘untrustworthiness’ is a bad characteristic to be tagged with in a pandemic.
Fusing Racism With Anti-Communism
Throughout January and February, the corporate media in the United States was focused on the Chinese government’s malfeasance. There was real malfeasance, without a doubt. Local officials in Wuhan actively distorted information about the spread and danger of the disease and punished a brave whistleblower who later died from the disease. But China eventually corrected its errors and now appears to have become a model for how to slow the spiking numbers.
Nonetheless, the New York Times and other mainstream journalism outlets continue to report State Department claims about “Chinese spies” in the United States and focus endlessly on the “draconian” measures curbing individual freedom in affected areas, the overly positive spin of the Chinese government’s official statements, and the advantage China would have in new global trade wars caused by the virus. This vitriol is likely connected to the media’s disdain for China’s communist government. For liberals and conservatives alike, the rise of China can mean only one thing: We are all doomed.
Anti-communism may look to be just a political position, unconnected to racism and animosity to communism is supported by lots of evidence from the truly sad story of many communist states through the 20th century. Yet perhaps we should connect the dots here. The Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cubans — ready-to-hand images of communist countries benefit from a double billing: a “bad” form of politics in the hands of “inferior” non-European peoples, communism in the hands of people who are already thought to have a ‘horde’ mentality since their cultures do not value individual life.
This primes U.S. audiences to become hysterical when a two-sided view of communist countries is floated in the most mild-mannered way, such as when Bernie Sanders praised Cuba’s early literacy campaign. There can be nothing positive about the communist legacy, at least in these countries.
Today the “draconian” measures of Wuhan are being emulated in the United States. The Chinese government’s comprehensive approach to public health is contrasted with the United States’ refusal to mandate paid sick time. The question of private capital profiteering off critical resources has replaced attention to tariffs and “communist” doctors traveling from Cuba and China to afflicted countries are lauded around the world for their sense of social responsibility beyond the borders of the nation-state.
The refusal of the United States to learn from non-white countries is endangering our collective global health. The insistence on continuing the sanctions on Iran is nothing short of murderous. Racism can be subtle; it can also be deadly.
Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College. She is the author of The Future of Whiteness.