Why Asian-American racism is rampant during the coronavirus

Professor of English Josephine Park discusses the history of Asian-American racism in the U.S. and how it connects to today’s use of ‘Chinese virus’ to describe COVID-19.

Two Asian parents kiss their child

Mixed up in the language of the COVID-19 pandemic has been repeated use of the term “Chinese virus,” uttered by White House officials and most notably President Donald Trump. 

Critics and experts have argued the term fosters xenophobic attitudes and perpetuates anti-Asian—specifically anti-Chinese—sentiment. Asian Americans, all the while, according to reports, have faced harassment in public. 

It’s not the first time Asian Americans have experienced discrimination in the U.S., whether during initial years of immigration (and immigration restriction) in the 19th century or Japanese internment. In 1899, says Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies Eiichiro Azuma, Honolulu’s Chinatown was burned down due to the perception of Chinese Americans carrying bubonic plague. The following year, he adds, San Francisco also singled out Chinese—and Japanese—populations as carriers of the disease and ordered a lockdown of Chinatown while also forcing immunizations. 

To tease out the implications of the “Chinese virus” language, Josephine Park, professor of English and director of the Asian-American Studies Program, speaks with Penn Today about the common perception of Asian Americans in the U.S. and the current instrumentalization of discrimination toward those communities.

What is the first instance historians would think of as discrimination against Asian Americans? I imagine it was letting them in the country at all.

Right, it’s from the second Asians were in this country. That’s pretty much when it starts. But there are some highwater points this problem resonates with more. 

There’s a long history of anti-Asian racism—and of course racism of every kind in this country—but Asian discrimination tends to be overlooked and widely tolerated, even among educated classes. You’ll find it’s very well-tolerated, in part because of this relative privilege of Asians in relation to other minorities in the U.S., so that’s always a kind of tricky thing to manage. That’s on the domestic scene.

On the other hand, in the 20th and 21st centuries, all of our great power struggles have been with Asia. And the competition with China right now has a primary factor in the kind of anti-Asian racism we’re seeing today.

Would you say some of this rhetoric has been going on anyway, with what’s been in the news these past few years about China?

I think so. And obviously I’m interested in this ‘Chinese virus’ language that Trump has been using. It was such a deliberate naming on his part, right? We know he uses these schoolyard tactics and loves name-calling, but it’s the very deliberate ‘Chinese virus’ that’s inseparable from this contest with China. We’re in a trade war with China and have a cyberwar with China and this is a contest. 

In that way, I think it has a lot of connections to the anti-Japanese racism during the Pacific War. And in both cases, that’s really important to warfare—to dehumanize the enemy. In the Japan case, it’s fascinating the level of racism [they experienced]—it’s almost unbelievable by today’s standards. Not that it’s gone away. But the sub-human and superhuman presentation, which is how Japanese were seen, that’s actually quite typical. That same characterization had been used with Chinese before it switched to Japan in the Pacific War. And now you see it very clearly here. 

But these are imperial contests and Trump’s decision to use ‘Chinese virus’ is a highly instrumentalized use of that term, which is quite different from the news coverage about the ‘yellow peril’ discourse in France or the straight-up anti-Chinese racism in Australia; that all follows different national contexts for them. 

For us, I really see [this racism] within this larger context of foreign policy and imperial contest.

It sounds like racism as politics.

Absolutely. And I think anti-Asian racism in particular is so widely tolerated because it’s so instrumental. This terrain of racism—China is also very interested in it. They’re kicking out American journalists left and right through this charge of racism. It’s a discourse and it is this terrain of warfare that’s really active right now. And honestly, China is achieving its repressive ends because they don’t want any oversight. They’re using that charge very effectively.

What has surprised you in how people have reacted to this? How people are reacting to such a blatant use of racism in the wake of the pandemic.

To me, when I hear this ‘Chinese virus’ language, it’s such a different kind of racist attack. Here we’re seeing the resurgence of white supremacy, the kind of attacks against Black and Brown people and women—it’s a blanket nightmare. But it’s such a sneering attack on political correctness and for me, personally, it’s a way of getting at the liberal intellectual class. And of course, it has horrible consequences of people being attacked on the subway in New York, and happenings like that, and it has a very terrible mob mentality that corresponds to white supremacy against any kind of minority. 

But for me personally, I feel baited by this. And I think we all feel this experience of having to reiterate the most basic tenets of democracy—it’s exhausting. It’s this sneering attack on political correctness that’s having terrible repercussions on the street.

There’s a recent New York Times story that talks about gun sales spiking among East Asian people in one community, which is fascinating to think they feel a need for a gun.

It’s interesting. Asian populations in the U.S. do not necessarily correspond to a political spectrum all the time. With Obama, you saw a lot of Asian Americans going left, but that’s not always been the case. Particularly because of the importance of anti-communism to Asian immigration to the U.S., right? And so, you’ll find a bit of red-leaning among Asians.

I hadn’t seen the [news] about buying guns. That’s so interesting because it jumbles up categories in my head. There isn’t a stable categorization for Asians. And a problem is that one of the main forces of anti-Asian racism is this longstanding rhetoric that we can’t tell them apart, so even though in some ways the anti-Chinese rhetoric is a targeted attack, the larger scale repercussions don’t respect those national divisions. Any Asian becomes subject to it. And that’s how anti-Asian racism always works.

That must be difficult to fight back against, when one particular nationality is singled out. Would East Asians coalesce in unity?

On the one hand, I do think there is a political organization and there is political solidarity among Asian Americans. And even people who choose to use the term ‘Asian American,’ that reveals a political solidarity. That’s a kind of chosen term, because the default would be to say, ‘I’m Korean; I’m Chinese; I’m Thai.’ That would be the default. But if you hear people claiming Asian-American identity for themselves, that is someone who has learned this discourse. And there’s a lot of interesting work in Asian-American studies about becoming Asian American as a mode of political awareness, and in part because there aren’t actually natural alliances between different Asian nationalities. Often, there’s no reason for Chinese and Japanese people to get along.

So, calling yourself Asian American is to claim group solidarity. For me, in the culture, it’s actually been very effective; colleges and universities have been on the front lines of educating Americans about political categorizations of Asian Americans, and not ethnic identity of being, say, Japanese. That education has worked. 

Still, you’ll find Asian America is a vast, heterogenous group. And in local communities, you’re not going to find that solidarity.

One comparison that’s been made that’s recent is how Muslim people were treated after 9/11. Meaning that even people who weren’t necessarily behaving in ways that were racist before suddenly were. It’s hard to imagine what the consequence is when you have something like that happening and there’s no pushback—former President George W. Bush at least tried to defend Muslim communities in his own way, right?

He made the gesture there ‘are good Muslims.’ Which, that was a really fascinating discourse, of the ‘good Muslim.’ Many of us in Asian-American studies connected that to Pearl Harbor. Everyone did. And in that period, there’s no category of a ‘good Japanese’; they were a pure enemy, which is how they could be interned. How else could you do that? Especially to a U.S. citizen who’s U.S.-born. 

That was incredibly important in the post-9/11 response to have the category ‘the good Muslim.’ I think that category of the ‘good Muslim’ was a terrible confining category where often the ‘good Muslim’ was someone who disavowed their faith. There were certain people paraded around for their really oppressive value systems, stuff like that, and there was attacking of their origin. 

So, not that that was a great model, but that category—it’s hard with anti-Asian racism because it’s so pervasive. It has such a blanket effect, and in Asian-American studies, the big case that rejuvenated solidarity was the Vincent Chin case, which was in the 1980s at the height of the contest with Japan—especially the auto contest. A Chinese American was murdered in Detroit for being mistaken for a Japanese auto businessman. But he was Chinese—it didn’t matter—and that case was important. Because the two people who killed him, it was a bar fight and they never claimed that they didn’t, and they never served a day of jail time. [Editor’s note: They pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to three years’ probation and a $3,000 fine.] 

That cognizance of that mistaken identity, and anti-Asian racism always operates on this mistaken identity. It can’t be specified on nationality. Often, it’s still sparked by global contexts, but in the domestic scene it just turns into this blanket.