The History of Asian American Discrimination in Public Health

tags: racism, coronavirus, Asian American History

Stanley Thangaraj is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the City College of New York (CUNY).  His interests are at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship.  He studies immigrant and refugee communities in the U.S. South to understand how they manage the black-white racial logic through gender, how the afterlife of colonialism takes shape in the diaspora, and the kinds of horizontal processes of race-making.  His monograph Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015) looks at the relationship between race and gender in co-ethnic-only South Asian American sporting cultures.  He has co-edited volumes: Sport and South Asian Diasporas (Routledge, 2014) and Asian American Sporting Cultures (NYU Press, 2016).  His newest research is on Kurdish America which received the 2015 American Studies Association “Comparative Ethnic Studies” award. 


Here we go again.  Or at least, that is what it looks like.  Calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” ignites white and mainstream racist ideologies against the Chinese, Asians, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders more broadly.  It has already led to a variety of attacks on Asians and Asian diasporas across the globe and in the United States.  By labeling the virus as the “Chinese virus,” we see the nation and government’s take on the virus. What we see here is the transferring of the meanings of pathology linked with the virus to an entire geography and people.  It blankets over the shortcomings and fault lines in our own public health system by blaming the Chinese.  This highly racist discourse by Trump marks China as a whole as pathological and all its people, both in China and in the diaspora, as contagious and as contagions.  Accordingly, it represents the U.S. as a pure and healthy country whose health has been jeopardized by the “Chinese” instead of larger systems of capitalism, wars, corporate greed, and outsourcing that are the reason for such movement of people across the globe.  As we know by now, capitalism thrives off and needs accumulation coupled with extraction.  By comparing people and communities and regions to viruses, we are extracting the very humanity and dignity of these people in order to justify exploitation, war, and other violent measures.

In fact, western civilization has had a long history of movement and crossing of borders through the “white savior complex” that used the idea of medically, spiritually, and racially cleaning up non-white countries.  Such discourses can work to hide the history of how many of the serious plagues started and spread from the west onwards.  The spreading of diseases that nearly completely erased Native American nations can be traced to western settler colonialists.  Yet, the ways in which white nativist racism and Trump’s racist discourses work are by projecting China and Chinese people as the virus, as the transmittable, dangerous, and pathological sites.  In the process, we see how we stigmatize only certain bodies that move across borders.  Such stigmatizations then serve the purpose of keeping the national U.S. body as clean and pure by justifying any violence that is aimed at getting rid off or contain viruses and people of color. 

The stereotypes of the Chinese in particular and Asian Americans in general as dirty, sickly, and prone to spreading disease is part of United States’ racist history.  What we are witnessing now is not new to this moment.  While the coronavirus and its presence as a global epidemic are new, the racist discourses used against Asians and Asian Americans are not new.  One can just look at the brilliant scholarship of Nayan Shah in Contagious Divides (University of California Press, 2001) where he examines the historic 1880s San Francisco’s Chinatown and its bachelor communities to demonstrate how the very emergence of public health institutions in the United States surfaced through a racial stereotyping of the Chinese, their isolated and crowded living conditions, and their uses of opium as contagious, uncontrollable, dangerous, and pathological.  There were gendered and sexualized meanings to these racist practices and racist representations of Chinese labor. 


Read entire article at Tropics of Meta