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XENOPHOBIA, ANTI-ASIAN RACISM AND COVID-19

By Aggie J. Yellow Horse & Karen J. Leong

The “coronavirus disease 2019” (COVID-19) is a novel strain of coronavirus, first detected in Wuhan, China in December, 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the rapidly spreading “COVID-19” as a pandemic (i.e., “a global outbreak of diseases”) on March 11, 2020. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States occurred on January 19, 2020 in Washington State – by a 35-year-old man who traveled to Wuhan and returned to Washington on January 15, 2020[1]. As of March 24, 2020, at least 49,619 people that have tested positive for coronavirus in the United States .

The response to COVID-19 in the U.S. has unveiled the persistent xenophobia against Asian Americans. Despite the memo sent by WHO to governments and media organizations at the end of February and against CDC recommendation, some U.S. politicians and elements of the media are intentionally using the racialized terms, such as “Chinese Virus” or “Asian Virus”. The term “Wuhan Virus,” originated from the media and continued by some politicians, conflates a specific Chinese province with national and continental locations (China and Asia) that historically have been racialized and connected to persons of Asian descent in the U.S.  As California representative Ted Lieu tweeted, “[t]he virus was also carried into the U.S. from other countries & U.S. travelers. Calling it Chinese coronavirus is scientifically wrong.” This mislabeling enables xenophobic and racist responses towards Asian/Americans. In fact, the reported cases of racist attacks against Asian Americans have skyrocketed since January and are occurring in all parts of the country, including places with large Asian American populations like New York, and places with smaller Asian American presence, like New Mexico.

This hysteria against Asian Americans is not new. The U.S. has a long history of using “others” as scapegoats by associating diseases with “foreigners.” In fact, how institutions have shaped meanings of race and citizenship through public health discourses is an important part of Asian American history (and the history of race in the United States)[2]. Late 19th century anti-East Asian racism, deeply rooted in the Yellow Peril xenophobic ideology, viewed East Asians as a threat to the Western world[3]. Nativist policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924, singled out Asians and Asian Americans as a racial group targeted for immigration restrictions and quotas, and made ineligible for citizenship. This institutional racism has contributed to the continuing practice of seeing Asian Americans as the perpetual foreigner stereotype. Asian Americans thus are perceived as foreign despite the long history of families in the US for generations. This xenophobic “othering” contributes to Asian Americans being targeted for racial stereotyping for interpersonal discrimination through “microaggression” (“Where are you from?”) and racially-motivated hate crimes.

Anti-immigration and anti-Asian sentiments converged on March 10, 2020 when the U.S. President tweeted “We need the Wall more than ever!”[4] in response to Charlie Kirk’s March 10 tweet, “With the China Virus spreading across the globe, the US stands a chance if we can control our borders”. This response from the nation’s current commander-in-chief contrasts with the actions of former President George W. Bush after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Although his administration did not fully protect the Muslim American community after 9/11, to say the least, Bush visited a mosque six days after the attack and gave a speech in which he explicitly condemned anti-Muslim violence. Brian Levin, a professor of criminal justice who researches hate crimes, has argued that political rhetoric matters, and attributes the sharp drop in hate crimes against Muslim Americans after the speech to Bush’s explicit stance. Moreover, by focusing on China as a source of the virus (only as the cause of the problem), we also overlook potential lessons that China and other Asian nations may offer in their efforts to halt its spread. Take for example South Korea’s response to the coronavirus. COVID-19 cases dropped sharply in South Korea but are exponentially increasing in the US, yet both countries confirmed the first case on the same date – January 19, 2020. What explains these differences? What might we learn from South Korea so that we may better cope with the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.?

The President’s refusal to distance himself from racialized descriptions of the virus only contributes to a climate of fear that disproportionately burdens Asian Americans who are associated with the pandemic. For example, an international student from China enrolled at the University of New Mexico was subject to a “prank” where his dorm room door was sealed off as a biohazard. The student was forced to move off campus out of concerns for his safety. Anecdotal reports of Asian/Americans suggest that verbal harassment and even being forced out of public spaces by threats of violence circulate and spread fear among Asian American communities.

The current health strategy to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic has called for “sheltering in place,” and “social distancing.”  To succeed, these critical steps require social cooperation on a large-scale level. It is useful to note, however, that social distancing already has taken place. Asian Americans have been shunned, threatened, and harassed – a different and violent form of distancing that is not informed by science and altruism, but fueled by xenophobic and racist assumptions. The fears triggered by racial discrimination constitute another threat to our society. Discrimination against Asian Americans and other individuals in the time of a pandemic may have serious consequences for everyone, as individuals may try to hide their illness or refuse to seek health care.   Our society’s gun-centric approach to self-defense also has led some Asian Americans to arm themselves as a form of protection, regardless of its actual effectiveness.

The absence of a clear national message condemning xenophobic and racist assumptions allows ignorance and fear to multiply, and feeds violence. While we have seen local leaders and celebrities step up to address these fears and urge caution and care, it is on all of us to think carefully about our response to this crisis. As some agencies and volunteers are reaching out to elderly persons who are practicing isolation to ensure they are not alone, or as some are securing necessities for those who fear exposure to the virus, how can we also reach out and support those who fear exposure to hatred and violence, including Asian Americans, immigrants, and foreign visitors and residents?

During World War II, some Japanese American railroad workers in Winslow, Arizona were involuntarily confined to their housing by the Santa Fe Railway company as a “security measure.” Some American Indian workers, who lived next to the Japanese American workers, brought food so that the workers and their families would not starve during this frightening time[5]. Other European American neighbors and Mexican American workers supported Japanese American families in Mesa and Glendale, Arizona by selling their farm produce at the market when the Japanese Americans were not allowed to cross into military zones. In these precarious times, these are the examples of how our best protection against this pandemic might be looking out for each other, especially those most vulnerable due to health, age, race and nationality. How we increase social cohesion and collaboration in time of “social distancing” requires acknowledging our social interdependence with each other, even as we practice physical distancing to protect each and every one from harm.


Aggie J. Yellow Horse is a Korean American social demographer and a faculty in Asian Pacific American Studies and Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University. Dr. Yellow Horse is committed to generate empirical “evidence” to eliminate the racial and ethnic reproductive and sexual health inequalities.

Dr. Karen J. Leong is an Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies and Asian Pacific American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.  She is committed to interdisciplinary research that explores how inequalities of power are reproduced and resisted in our institutions, communities and every day interactions. 


[1] Holshue, M. L., DeBolt, C., Lindquist, S., Lofy, K. H., Wiesman, J., Bruce, H., & Diaz, G. (2020). First case of 2019 novel coronavirus in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine.

[2] Shah, N. (2001). Contagious Divides: Epidemics and race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. University of California Press. Molina, N. (2006). Fit to be Citizens? Public health and race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939. University of California Press. The authors also acknowledge that blaming specific ethnic communities for disease and epidemics has a long history worldwide, such as the persecution of Jewish people throughout Europe during the spread of the bubonic plague in the mid-14th century.

[3] Lyman, S. M. (2000). The Yellow Peril” Mystique: Origins and Vicissitudes of a Racist Discourse. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 13 (4): 683-747.  Lyman credits Kaiser Wilhelm with using the term to specifically refer to China as a military threat in 1895, with Arthur de Gobineau using the term to refer to the economic threat Chinese poised to labor in the early 20th century (688).

[4] “Build the Wall” is a frequently use anti-Mexican, anti-Latinx trope that this president employs as a political mobilization tactic.

[5] Russell, A.B. (2003). American Dreams Derailed: Japanese Railroad and Mine Communities of the Interior West. PhD dissertation, Arizona State University.  PhD diss., Department of History, Arizona State University.

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