As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread globally, with more than 3.2 million confirmed cases as of May 2, racist and xenophobic sentiments toward minority groups continue to spread with it.
In fact, such sentiments were promoted by President Donald Trump in his refusal to defer from the term “Chinese virus,” claiming that this term was not racist, but factually accurate. Chinese restaurants have been heavily impacted by discriminatory evasion, with advocates warning that targeted government intervention is the only way for such businesses to survive. Of course, there have also been forms of physical violence and hate, as seen in the stabbing of three Asian family members in a Texas supermarket.
These frightfully recurring acts of discrimination are extremely concerning and seem to finally make federally encouraged anti-Asian racism recognizable on a scale similar to that of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This is important because despite lingering anti-Asian sentiments, these systemic forms of racism are not as visible as, say, the Japanese internment camps created during World War II. Still, this is not to say that all visibility is beneficial; to say such a thing would be a disgrace to all Asians today facing debilitating forms of racism.
What I do want to say is that the highlighting of such negative interactions can work to show us that racism toward Asians has never gone away, it has simply changed. We have a long way to go before Asians are treated as equals, and this is only perpetuated by the “model minority” myth which links high Asian economic status to equality. The myth is rooted in the ideal characterization of Asians as a polite, law-abiding racial minority who have achieved success equal to or higher than their white counterparts because of innate intelligence and perseverance.
Now that the conditions in Wuhan and other areas of China are improving so much that the city can be reopened, the next fear is a second wave. Ben Cowling, a professor of public health at the University of Hong Kong, said imported cases can significantly affect local epidemic control, citing Singapore as a country with initial success in a test-and-trace method and a sudden increase in cases due to travel. In an attempt to prevent this, more localized traveling restrictions have been set in place, including the use of a government-sanctioned app which tracks users and determines contagion risks.
However, Chinese citizens still fear the possibility of resurgence, especially at the hands of migration. The fear of infection has manifested into a new racial targeting of Africans in China. Guangzhou, a Chinese city with an estimated 320,000 Africans traveling to and from China on short-term business visas, has repeatedly made headlines for blaming Africans for the spread of COVID-19. The belief that black communities are responsible for a continuation of the pandemic has led to actions barring black people from entering restaurants, evicting black tenants and mandating testing or quarantine. African students have also been unable to leave their universities, and many black people have been forced to sleep on the streets. There have been very little to no reports of perpetrators facing charges, as Guangzhou police initially placed the order to bar African customers from restaurants and other establishments.
Given the racist attacks on Asians throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, one would reasonably assume that Asians would be less inclined to inflict such discriminatory practices on another minority group. However, issues in Guangzhou continually prove this not to be true. Lisa Marie Cacho, an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggests that actions similar to those observed between Asians and Africans now are linked to the idea of social death. She defines social death as the result of certain minority groups being ineligible for personhood, as race is understood through categories of devaluation. This devaluation allows not only white people to understand themselves as people that are not black, but also perpetuates a system in which minority groups understand each other by degrading the other.
Devaluation is not completely the same as intersectionality, which involves the interrelations and overlapping between social categorizations and the discrimination practices it creates. Instead, there is a comparative analytic which we can observe in Asians literally and metaphorically distancing themselves from Africans — one that suggests Asians have a higher social value as dictated by society because they claim to be somehow better than the other: the allegedly infected African. Cacho writes that “the most vulnerable populations … are often represented as if they are the primary sources of the others’ social denigration. And because they are represented this way, they are recruited to participate in their own and others’ devaluation.” Therefore, there is a detrimental and cyclical process of recuperating social value by degrading other minority groups, so as to reach some greater level of personhood. This is what Cacho means when she says certain populations’ humanities are represented as something that one can eventually become or achieve.
Though overwhelmingly negative, the process of social denigration can be improved by forcing ourselves to evaluate the mechanisms behind racial minority groups’ perceived social values. For example, although research shows that COVID-19 kills more black Americans than white, we must consider how our racially exclusive economic system has created this state of vulnerability. Under the current system of capitalism, African Americans are repeatedly forced to live in areas of systemic housing crises, work the minimum wage jobs we have now deemed essential and experience decreased access to health care.
We also must reconsider our understanding of anti-Asian racism to be present and tangible. Although the “model minority” myth encourages Americans to view Asians as a somewhat “less” oppressed racial minority, the xenophobia cited here proves Asians are not any closer to racial equality. There is no nonracist method to claiming Asians or Africans are responsible for COVID-19, whether they live abroad or in the United States. By examining our determinants of social value and the lawful enforcement of racism, minority groups can be encouraged to dismantle the cycle of devaluation.
Kaitlyn Liu is a sophomore majoring in English.