The genocide of Native Americans and the original and unexpiated sin against blacks aside, it can be difficult to rate the victims of American bigotry in any order of persecution. There’s been so many over the years: Women, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Irish, Italians, atheists, Latinos, Asians, unionists, Arabs, anyone not heterosexually Puritan, anyone not a Puritan, as was our founding Plymouth crock, everyone on welfare, and so on. At least what Hawthorne called our “persecuting spirit” waxes and wanes. Yesterday’s enemies can become today’s tolerated citizens, if not occasional heroes, particularly when new enemies are recycled.
Asians had an especially hard time over a century and a half. Until the recent Muslim ban, which affects 11 countries (most of them with Muslim majorities, with a couple thrown in to pretend otherwise), only Asians had been subjected to wholesale immigration bans. We had the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, expanded in 1917 to include a so-called “Asiatic Barred Zone,” and again in 1924, by which time the immigration ban included almost all of Asia. In 1942 over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, most of them at least as American as Douglas MacArthur, became the only Americans locked up in concentration camps for the duration of World War II. The U.S. Supreme Court corrected that offense in law only two years ago–in the same decision that upheld the Muslim ban.
More recently Japan sustained all that bashing in the 1980s and early 90s when its economic prowess seemed on the verge of overtaking America’s. The bashing soon shifted to China, whose economy is set to overtake America’s in the next decade or two. So it’s not a surprise that Donald Trump, a racist by instinct and default, tapped into that old Yellow Peril tradition and started calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” ordering staffers to do likewise. Their excuse: well, the virus started in China, didn’t it?
There’s little question that it did, or that China lied, downplayed and mishandled the outbreak in its earliest weeks (rather as Trump has since, long after China got its act together). But that’s not why anyone calls it the “Chinese virus.” They do so–you do so, if you’re in that herd–for ideological reasons, which in this case are indistinguishable from racist motives. At a cultural festival celebrating diversity and heritage you can say that so-and-so is of Iberian descent, of Asian descent, of Middle Eastern descent. It’s not offensive. It’s like fluttering another country’s flag in ancestral celebration. The context is clear.
Just as clearly, when the context is political, polemical, adversarial, when you refer to someone’s ancestry, you’re doing so for no other reason than to differentiate, to raise a suspicion of foreignness you know your audience is lapping up, assuming your audience is the lapping kind. You’re certainly not honoring the subject. You’re not being geographically correct. You’re being a bigot, and a cowardly one at that if you hide behind that claim of strictly factual innocence no one believes, including you. You know what you’re doing, unless you’re an idiot, which you most certainly are not.
The consensus among most scientists is that the Spanish flu of 1918 emerged in barracks in Kansas. No one calls it the Kansas flu, the Midwest flu, the American flu, though by Trumpian standards, the smear might fit. The only reason it was called the Spanish flu is because unlike the American, French or British press at that point in World War I, the Spanish press was not censored, and unlike the American press, the Spanish press reported on the pandemic honestly. For that, Spain was tagged as the implicit originator of the worst pandemic in history. Spain has hated it since. (Six years ago National Geographic reported the findings of a Canadian historian who theorized that the 1918 pandemic was brought into the Western Front by Chinese laborers, which would make China the origin of that virus as well. But theories abound, including claims that space is to blame. It’s another reason why geographic tags of viruses are themselves diseased.)
In 2015 the World Health Organization issued its best practices on naming new diseases. Geographic locations, people’s names, occupational references or “terms that incite undue fear” should all be avoided, the WHO claimed, for obvious reasons: those terms target entire populations rather than inform in a neutral way. And viruses are, if anything, neutral: they can emerge anywhere. They respect no borders. They don’t carry passports. They kill as indiscriminately as a hurricane or any other “act of god.” (I realize that by dropping the WHO’s name here, the lappers will go a-yapping all over the place about the WHO’s worthlessness. It’s detractors’ easiest tactic, focus on a peripheral detail to avoid addressing the subject at hand. For the sake of argument, let’s ascribe the WHO’s recommendations to, say, Pope Benedict or your aunt Martha, if you prefer, and go gladiatorial on the WHO some other day. Deal?)
We can call the coronavirus by its clinical name. We can call it something neutral. We have choices. Right now, calling it the virus seems to be enough, though spiking it with a damn once in a while couldn’t hurt. No one would mistake it for ebola (named, unfortunately, for a river in the Congo) or AIDS (once called the “gay” disease). But it takes a certain kind of malice to call it the “Chinese virus” or one of its other xenophobic variants–the “foreign virus,” the “Wuhan virus,” or that choice poison of vulgar bigots, “Kung Fu,” apparently favored by Trump’s aides–because no one is ignorant of the connotation.
Four months into this gorgon-headed plague, no one can claim that calling Covid-19 by these names is not xenophobic name-calling, or claim ignorance of the fact that Asian-Americans are being “beaten, spat on, yelled at and insulted from coast to coast,” as the Times reported in March. These aren’t isolated incidents. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council reported in late April 1,500 claims of hate against Asian-Americans in a single month. Call it the “Chinese virus,” and you’re complicit in the violence. It’s not just coast to coast of course. Earlier this month the Secretary General of the United Nations said “the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” across the globe. He urged governments to “act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.”
Trump could have responded accordingly. He could have done what George W. Bush did after 9/11, when he repeatedly extended amity to Arab and Muslim Americans to minimize backlash against them. Instead, Trump doubled down.
Americans collectively are facing more challenges than at any point since the Depression. We have at least 40 million unemployed. Millions are mourning the deaths of 100,000 of us or contending with recovery from a virus with endless new ways to harm, even after recovery. We face uncertainty for months or years. This president is busy willfully stoking bigotry against a sixth of the planet’s population and its expats all over the United States, spreading conspiracy theories, and appealing to Americans’ basest instincts, which so often are indistinguishable from his base.
It’s too early for herd immunity against Covid-19. Herd immunity against hate is not as uncertain. It costs nothing. It can be immediate. Presidents worthy of the name might start by setting the nobler example. Lacking that, it’s up to us. Our deplorable history of degrading Asians and Asian Americans is long enough. Let’s call this virus by its name and not weaponize it more than it already is, considering that half our household goods and nearly a fifth of our foreign debt are made in China.