Anti-Asian racism during COVID-19 has historical ties in United States

Shannon Harper

Shannon Harper

AMES, Iowa — Anti-Asian hate crimes during health crises are unfortunately not new, according to a new academic paper examining the history of this phenomenon.

The paper, published recently in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Criminal Justice, was co-authored by Shannon Harper, assistant professor of criminal justice at Iowa State University; Angela Gover, professor of criminology and criminal justice at University of Colorado Denver; and Lynn Langton, senior research criminologist at RTI International.

The team looked at how anti-Asian hate crimes – including verbal harassment and physical violence – during the COVID-19 pandemic have furthered the historical “othering” of Asian Americans and reproduced inequalities.

“COVID-19 has allowed for racism and xenophobia to spread because the majority population looks for someone to blame who looks or seems inherently different from themselves, which may be why anti-Asian hate crime appears to have increased during the pandemic,” Harper said.

Politicians’ use of derogatory terms such as the “China virus” inappropriately associates the disease with an ethnicity, Harper says. Placing blame on China in this way, the team wrote, leads to unwarranted suspicion and fear toward Asian Americans, “creating the perfect climate to cultivate hate crimes.”

A history of Anti-Asian discrimination

Harassment and violence toward Asian Americans have existed since the first large group of Asian immigrants came to America during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, the authors found.

Individual-level racism and xenophobia eventually fueled institutional rhetoric and policies, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the face of housing segregation policies, many Chinese American communities formed Chinatowns in the late 1800s – which led to violent attacks by whites.

Racism and xenophobia continued into the early 20th century with the “yellow peril” myth and the U.S. government’s Japanese concentration camps during World War II.

After the Immigration Act of 1965 led to a wave of East Asian immigrants into the U.S., another stereotype evolved: that of the “model minority.”

Because the United States is a nation of immigrants, newcomers of all ethnicities have historically borne the brunt of discrimination and blame for infectious disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first public health crisis for which Asian-Americans have been scapegoated. The authors described the bubonic plague in San Francisco in 1900, when public health officials quarantined Chinese residents in Chinatown, and the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, when East Asians experienced stigmatization worldwide.

Racist policies and political rhetoric toward Asian Americans persisted, including during the current pandemic.

“Unfortunately, eruptions of xenophobia have historically followed close on the heels of pandemics,” the authors wrote. “Especially when viral outbreaks are deadly, fear often drives those at risk to place blame on some ‘other,’ or some group external to their own national, religious, or ethnic identity.

“Sickness cultivates fear, which in turn cultivates bias.”

Today, social media plays a significant role in exposing anti-Asian hate crimes, particularly when bystander videos are posted and then referenced by the news media.

“Not only is it critical to stop the spread of COVID-19, but also the racial hatred it has produced,” the authors wrote.