April 09, 2020

Fear, Race and the “Yellow Peril”

Myron strong author photoBy Myron Strong

As the globe grapples with COVID-19, violent attacks on Asians and Asian Americans continue to climb. There are continuing horror stories coming from the United States, Europe, and Australia: stories of people irrationally screaming profanities, telling them to go back to China and news reports of Asian and Asian Americans violently attacked. As a matter of fact, NBC news reported that there were over 650 racist attacks against Asian Americans last week alone.

The anti-Asian racism demonstrates how history can inform our understanding and interpretation of the outbreak in China. The messages attached to the COVID-19 virus have a history.

The attacks are a new manifestation of the “Yellow Peril” ideology that emerged during the nineteenth century. This irrational fear of Chinese persons was allegedly justified because at the time, the Chinese were viewed as invaders and real threats to western values, such as democracy, Christianity, and technological innovation. 

“Yellow Peril” originated during nineteenth century Chinese immigration to the west to build the Transcontinental Railroad. The resulting anti-Chinese sentiment led to many acts of violence and death. Eventually, it culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which made it illegal for Chinese laborers to enter the country and denied citizenship to those already in the United States. Legal sanctions continued as anti-Asian racism resulted in the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 preventing immigration from Asian countries. Furthermore, during World War II, 110,000 Japanese Americans were placed in concentration camps based on unfounded fears of espionage.

These legal and illegal actions against Asians show the danger in anti-Asian racism, and how the consequences are often fatal. This fear of Chinese or Sinophobia can still be seen in some media outlets and in the rhetoric of politicians framing the virus as a Chinese disease as a threat. Terms like “kungflu,” “Wuhan virus,” “Chinese disease” trend on social media as many users laugh and delight and wonder why people are mad.

Donald Trump declared war on the “Chinese disease” and assured victory. Senator John Cornyn of Texas was heavily criticized for claiming China was "to blame" for the spread of the COVID-19 because of a "culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that." He doubled down by proclaiming:

These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that's why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the Swine flu, and now the coronavirus, so I think they have a fundamental problem….

He is wrong; by most recent accounts the disease did not originate in Wuhan. But his comments s point to larger history of blaming racialized minority groups, including Asians for the spread of disease them.

Erika Lee, historian and author of America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States discussed that during the outbreak of the bubonic plague in San Francisco in 1900, Chinatown was blocked off and its residents were barred from leaving after the first case was traced to a Chinese immigrant living there. An outbreak of the plague similarly led to the quarantine of Chinatown in Honolulu. In an interview with NBC news, Merlin Chowkwanyun, an assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University also stated Chinese, Japanese and Mexicans were scapegoated for tuberculosis and smallpox outbreaks.

Sen. Cornyn’s comments illustrate how diseases are racialized and how color-blind ideology perpetuates inequalities. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the Swine flu was first detected in the United States in 2009, and MERS was first identified in Jordan in 2012.

To the surprise of many, the Spanish flu did not originate in Spain and sickle cell is not a “Black” disease. Before they that became White, groups like the Irish and Italians were also blamed for cholera and polio. Haitians were demonized and denied entry to the U.S, during the HIV/AIDS crisis, according to Chowkwanyun.

According to Lee, the xenophobic stereotype of China suggests that Chinese people and Chinese faces are unsanitary, teeming with millions of people who live in crowded and dirty conditions and have weird habits that no civilized people would deign to follow. This stereotype is constantly being reinforced by the portrayal of Asian countries on television. Many Asian countries shown on television are portrayed as “unclean” and not “industrial.”

For example, in season four of the Amazing Race, the teams arrive in Mumbai and gaze upon the poverty on the streets. Reichen and Chip wonder how the city got so grotesque and ask, “What happened?” Kelly states, “This is my worst nightmare,” in response to crowdedness and stench of the area.

90-day Fiancé, a show that features Americans in long distance relationships with individuals from other countries, typically showcases individuals from Asian and African countries in “poor” environments without necessities like functional bathrooms and kitchens. Amazing Race reinforces an otherness by controlling the circumstances with the American dollar and by visiting areas that reinforce preconceived notions.

Stereotypes and hatred masked as concern for public health perpetuates toxic stereotypes, fuels irrational fear, and makes life more dangerous for Asians and Asian Americans. The responses indicate that even though we like to think of ourselves as a racial democracy, racism continues. It also shows that old ideas like ”Yellow Peril” are still with us, illustrating the precariousness the citizenship of Asians is in the west.


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I wonder if a part of the reason this issue doesn't gain as much traction (there are various reasons) is because it forces us to open a more difficult conversation about racial tensions between communities of color. When we look at the hate crimes against Asians in the past month or so in New York City, for example, it's disproportionally coming from black attackers (I could be completely off on this but it's what I've observed from the stories that have gotten news coverage). These tensions aren't new and if mass media decided to really focus attention would it risk flaming conflict like what we saw spill over during the LA riots between Koreans with Af. Americans and Latinos? Trump deserves criticism for the rhetoric he's used and when white people attack Asians its easy for us to make that connection and point the finger at him for enabling such racism. But if we notice a pattern of people of color who don't support him doing the attacking that causal line becomes more nuanced. If we use the understanding of racism that it has to involve power, do we not consider such attacks as racist hate crimes? Or does that understanding of the concept of racism get reconsidered?

I think it's productive to address this rather than ignore it and it creates an opportunity to heal racial divisions that get overlooked. The challenge is having these conversations in a way that leads to healing and doesn't just become another racial wedge between people of color.

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