Coronavirus Pandemic Gives Rise to Another Contagion — Xenophobia


By Aisa Villarosa, Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy

While issuing a proclamation of national emergency to help curb the spread of one virus, the President and other American leaders have actively promoted another contagion.

Condoned by the single most powerful figure in our government, the resurgent xenophobia tied to Covid-19 — also referred to as “Wuhan virus” and “kung-flu” by White House officials, politicians, and the media — has become weaponized and widely disseminated.

Nationwide surges in anti-Asian violence are again a norm, buttressed by harmful misinformation and further legitimized by institutions and communities. Universities have assured students that “fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia” are acceptable reactions. Many deploy the term “China virus” as if those of Chinese or Asian heritage are themselves a walking, breathing plague. Boycotts of Chinese restaurants and assaults on business owners, workers, and customers persist, driven by racist narratives of Asian food, services, and people being unclean and dangerous.

We are fighting two viruses — coronavirus and racialized hatred — and right now, one is much more relentlessly pernicious than the other. Far from isolated, this new era of “yellow peril” is the latest chapter in a deep American history marked by racism and xenophobia.

In Asian American Dreams, journalist Helen Zia chronicles the rapid ascent of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian sentiments she witnessed during the 1980s economic downturn. Blaming Japan (and anyone appearing to have Japanese heritage) for a failing U.S. auto industry, politicians and public figures deployed racist slurs and condoned anti-Asian violence. Owners of Japanese cars were shot at while driving, as though the culling of any “foreign” presence would turn the economy around.

As the national leader in auto manufacturing, the City of Detroit quickly became a flashpoint of mass layoffs and racialized hostility. On June 19, 1982, two white auto workers beat to death 27-year-old Vincent Chin, a Chinese American celebrating his upcoming wedding in Detroit. One of them told Chin shortly before his murder, “It’s because of motherfuckers like you that we’re out of work.” Chin’s killers were arrested but never convicted.

The novel coronavirus does not discriminate. We do.

As ambiguous as the Trump administration’s messaging around Covid-19 has been, the xenophobic rhetoric surrounding it is crystal clear: To immigrants and people of color, this nation wants your full cooperation and contributions, but not your whole selves.

While our nation benefits and our businesses profit from the work of immigrants and people of color, scores of punitive immigration laws and extractive criminal justice policies simultaneously cement the notion that they are “a hopeless burden” to be locked up, deported, or otherwise quarantined.

The mass business closures across California and the nation have and will leave many without jobs. Millions of people employed by Asian businesses and working in Chinatowns have been experiencing these losses for even longer, given the absence of tourism from China (which pumps an estimated $250 billion annually into the global economy, according to the World Tourism Organization) and the rampant stigmatization and boycotting of Asian and Chinese establishments. In the Bay Area and across the country, restaurants and stores ground to a halt this week; through lost revenue and business fueled by xenophobia, many Asian-owned establishments have been reeling for months.

Our elected officials must do all they can to assemble a stimulus package to these small business owners and workers, rather than a bailout to corporations that have long exploited their workforces to turn a profit. Simultaneously, local government, community advocates, and all of us, together, can help undo the toxic narratives surrounding Covid-19 by calling out discrimination, continuing to support small businesses hanging on by a thread, and urging others to do the same.

Since our country’s founding, Asian American businesses have been the bedrock of neighborhoods and cities — generating an estimated $700 billion in revenue nationwide, with California housing more Asian businesses than any other state. It is essential, and in our collective benefit, to see to it that the very people who have given so much to enrich American life make it through this crisis.

Immediate emergency relief for those most in need will not just keep small businesses afloat, but sustain the hardworking individuals and families who run and rely on them.

In California, the Insight Center has calculated that 3.3 million households — and nearly 30 percent of all Asian households statewide — are living paycheck-to-paycheck, wondering how they will pay for next month’s rent and feed their families. This snapshot of economic inequity was taken in 2018, before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Without urgent, comprehensive interventions, things will go from bad to worse for millions of Californians who have already been struggling to keep the lights on.

We are fighting two viruses. Only with the complete acknowledgement and protection of each other’s worth, needs, and humanity can we defeat both.



Insight Center for Community Economic Development

The Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s mission is to help people and communities become, and remain, economically secure.