Anti-Asian Racism Amid COVID-19 Echoes US History Of Blaming Immigrants For Disease

President Trump, Republican lawmakers, and right-wing pundits' blame of China for COVID-19 has resulted in a surge of anti-Asian hate crimes in America.
Customers lining up to enter the supermarket in Wuhan during the coronavirus outbreak – January 2020. (Painjet/Creative Commons License)

Customers lining up to enter the supermarket in Wuhan during the coronavirus outbreak – January 2020. (Painjet/Creative Commons License)

Mark Potok is an expert on the radical right who for 20 years was a senior official at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.

The Center for Immigration Studies bills itself as an “independent, non-partisan, non-profit, research organization.” Its executive director, Mark Krikorian, has consistently denied accusations of racism, saying his organization’s opposition to most immigration has nothing to do with race, religion, or national origin.

But Krikorian recently updated his Twitter icon with something new: a digitally manipulated version of the Chinese flag in which its five yellow stars, set against a red background, have been replaced by five coronavirus particles.

That was only the latest evidence that China increasingly is being blamed for the coronavirus pandemic that has sickened enormous numbers of people around the world. Republican politicians and pundits in America have taken to calling the disease the “Chinese coronavirus” and “Wuhan flu.” And at the same time, reports have been rising of verbal and physical attacks on people perceived to be Chinese. It’s hard to say precisely what Krikorian meant with his new icon (which he’s since changed), but it seems obvious that he is suggesting that foreigners are people who harbor terrifying diseases.

Of course, the Chinese government clearly lied and covered up information about the emergence of the coronavirus in November and December, and that helped ensure the failure to contain it. Chinese leaders do deserve blame for this. But that does not mean Chinese people or culture generally are responsible

Krikorian is not alone in casting blame.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) recently warned that the United States “will hold accountable those who inflicted” coronavirus on the world, adding without any evidence at all that he thought that “Wuhan virus” may have originated inside a bioweapons laboratory in that city. Former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke Jr. suggested Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros may have been involved in what he described as “an orchestrated attempt to destroy CAPITALISM.”

Fox personality Laura Ingraham said that “China has blood on its hands.” Ben Shapiro, editor of the right-wing Daily Wire, alleged that China had purposely “unleashed coronavirus on an unsuspecting world.” And President Trump, who has repeatedly used the phrase “Chinese virus” to describe the pandemic, was forced to defend himself against accusations of racism: “It’s not racist at all, no, not at all,” he told reporters. “It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate.”

More recently, Trump bowed to the criticism and agreed to stop using those words. But at the very same time, NBC News reported that Trump’s administration was pushing the U.N. Security Council to explicitly name China as the source of the virus — a move that has infuriated Chinese leaders. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even barred the Group of Seven from issuing any communique regarding the pandemic because members wouldn’t agree to label it “Wuhan virus.”

Trump, of course, has a long history of ginning up hatred of foreigners. He began his presidential campaign by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists and drug dealers. He said “all” Haitians have AIDS. He worked to impose a ban on the immigration of all Muslims. He decried Africa and other places as “shithole countries.” He has long sought a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexican border.

This kind of xenophobia is hardly new. Throughout the history of our nation, nativists have used fear, and in particular, the fear of disease, to attack immigrants. And those typically false fears have in many cases unleashed racist violence.

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America’s History Of Blaming Disease On Immigrants

Irish immigrants were blamed for cholera in the 1830s, and in 1853, a Staten Island, N.Y., mob, holding the Irish responsible for a typhoid epidemic, burned a large quarantine hospital. Accusations that Chinese immigrants were behind malaria, smallpox, and leprosy helped win passage of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the 1890s, tuberculosis was known as “the Jewish disease.”

In 1906, the Santa Ana, Calif., City Council ordered the burning of that city’s Chinatown after a dubious report of a Chinese man dying of leprosy. The city’s Fire Department stood by to prevent damage to neighboring structures.

In 1918, a deadly flu pandemic came to be known as the “Spanish flu,” leading to attacks on those seen as “Spanish.” As it turns out, that was because censors on both sides of World War I would not allow news of the pandemic. Only in neutral Spain, whose newspapers were not censored, was information about the pandemic printed. As a result, the virus was dubbed the Spanish flu.

It actually originated in Kansas.

This sorry list continues into contemporary times. Blame was laid on Haitians for the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, on Navajos for the hantavirus scare of 1993, on Mexicans for swine flu in 2009, on Africans for Ebola in 2014, and on unaccompanied Central American minors for a range of diseases the same year. A particularly nasty report from Fox News’ Todd Starnes cited unnamed sources to claim that many of those minors were infested with a variety of diseases. Starnes quoted an unnamed nurse saying “bugs [were] crawling through their hair.”

Krikorian’s Center for Immigration Studies — and other organizations founded by or linked to the late John Tanton, a racist and eugenicist immigration opponent — have long sounded similar notes. The center last year ran a story under the headline “Infectious Diseases Making the Border Crisis Worse,” and a more extreme Tanton group, The Social Contract Press, claimed a few years ago that bubonic plague had been found in “the Sanctuary City of Chicago.”

An especially well-known case is that of Lou Dobbs, who, while anchoring a major CNN show in 2005, claimed that 7,000 new cases of leprosy had appeared in a recent three-year period, apparently brought by immigrants. Although Dobbs would never admit it, his claims were entirely false — it turned out that those 7,000 cases were the total from a 30-year period. The New York Times ultimately concluded that Dobbs had “a somewhat flexible relationship with reality.”

Now comes the novel coronavirus, and with it a spate of new accusations, not all of them limited to the United States. Neo-Nazis and their ilk have come up with a series of conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the pandemic, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Many conservatives charge that the Democrats are hoping for a deadly outcome in order to weaken Trump’s reelection chances. In France, the Le Courier Picard newspaper ran headlines that translate as “Yellow Alert” and “Yellow Peril” next to photos of an Asian woman in a mask. In Italy, right-wing leader Matteo Salvini linked the disease to African immigrants.

And in Scottsdale, Ariz., Councilman Guy Phillips posted a claim that the official name of the virus, COVID-19, “literally stands for ‘Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease’ and the number 19 is due to this being the 19th virus to come out of China.” Phillips was completely wrong — the acronym stands for Corona Virus Disease 2019 — and he later apologized for his “reckless act,” saying, “The Asian community has since reached out to me and we had a good discussion about the repercussions of these types of propaganda.”

The reality is that very few, if any, contagious diseases are limited to one race or ethnicity or region. Viruses have no regard for national borders and the various quarrels that separate one people from another. In an ever more globalized world, only multinational solutions can really take on the threat of pandemics.

As a nation, we should beware of those who seek to hang the responsibility for disease outbreaks on one nationality or racial or ethnic group. History clearly shows these claims are not only typically false, but also have the rancid effect of demonizing immigrants and subjecting them to unwarranted hatred and violence. In an era when intergroup relations are especially fraught, it would behoove all of us to recognize that the real enemy of our collective health is disease, and disease has almost nothing to do with one or another group of immigrants.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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