The “Chinese Virus” is Yellow Peril

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In his efforts to kill one virus, President Donald J. Trump is helping spread another, in the process jeopardizing the health and welfare of the entire country. Case in point, this past Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter to sound off about COVID-19; but rather than refer to it by its scientific name, he instead insisted on labeling it the “Chinese Virus.”

This, unfortunately, is just a recent example of a trend in American history, where racism against Asian Americans is heightened as public discourse aims to blame and punish them for perceived connections to a national or global health emergency. “Yellow peril” is thought to have been coined by Wilhelm II, the emperor of Germany, who commissioned a painting, completed in 1895, that became one of the most influential political illustrations at that time. It called on the “civilized” nations of Europe to defend against Asian conquest. This racial civilizational logic led to Chinese Exclusion in 1882 and set the stage for a broader culture of political scapegoating.

Racist anxieties and stigmas have persisted in American culture, as Dr. Gary Y. Okihiro describes in his 1994 book “Margins and Mainstreams,” “the fear, whether real or imagined, arose from the fact of the rise of nonwhite peoples and their defiance of white supremacy. And while serving to contain the Other, the idea of the yellow peril also helped to define the white identity, within both a nationalist and an internationalist frame.”

This is not a new phenomenon with the current Administration. Trump’s arrogant belief in American exceptionalism has often resulted in the scapegoating of other nations — Mexico, for example. And those nations tend, generally, not to like it. Here, he’s antagonizing China at the absolute worst time. We need to be learning from Chinese doctors and officials, not causing an international incident.

At a time when the president of the United States should be acting as a unifying figure, he is instead sowing the destructive seeds of xenophobia that have become hallmarks of his presidency. And just as we saw following his rhetoric against Latinos, the violent trickle-down effect is clear. There have been numerous examples of Asian Americans’ being targeted in the past few weeks.

Using the label “Chinese Virus” will further inflame racial tensions in America. And it has nothing to do with public health, as experts have warned that relegating the disease to a geographic identity will actually hinder our efforts to contain it.

This disease we are fighting on a global scale may have started in China, but just like so many other epidemics, it is blind to the social divisions being sown by the ignorant.

For further reading: Yellow Peril Scapegoating, or Coronavirus Racism, or What We Should Be Learning From China