When President Trump started referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” in March, he changed how Asian communities across the U.S. experienced the pandemic. The racialization of a disease perpetuated fear and, in some cases, violence against their communities.
“If you stigmatize a group, that opens up and gives license to direct hate and to direct violence against people. It dehumanizes people, objectifies people and equates us to a virus,” said Russell Jeung, chair and professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University.
Jeung worked with civil rights groups to found a hotline to track discrimination called STOP AAPI HATE. Since March 19, it’s gotten reports of more than 1,700 racist and xenophobic attacks.
The U.S. has a long history of fomenting hate toward the Asian communities. In 1882, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese immigrants from entering over fears that they were taking jobs from white people.
When the Bubonic plague emerged in San Francisco in the 1900s, the local government ordered a quarantine on Chinatown, evacuating white families, and blaming the plague on immigrants rather than on the rats, who were actually spreading the disease.
“Our loyalty, our identity and our sense of belonging has always been questioned in the U.S.,” Jeung said. “And that’s why we were excluded. We were denied the right to be naturalized.”
But even with increased awareness about xenophobia being directed toward Asians and with more outlets reporting anti-Asian incidents, Jeung worries that the nightmare will only get worse.
“As we’re being sheltered in place, and as unemployment grows, and as politicians make U.S.-China relations a campaign issue, and as the deaths from COVID-19 mount, the anger and fear is only going to increase," he said.
Cover: CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang asks questions as President Trump participates in a press briefing at the White House on May 11, 2020. (Associated Press)