HOW THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION TURNED PEOPLE AGAINST THE ASIAN COMMUNITY DURING THE PANDEMIC
Abstract: In this essay, we review how the coronavirus pandemic, which spread in the United States in the beginning of 2020, has elevated the risks of Asian Americans being subjected to xenophobia. The profound disparity inflicted by white supremacy, neo-colonialism, is exacerbated today as we deal with this deadly pandemic, where Black, Indigenous, and other people of color continue to be the most marginalized and the most insecure communities. The virus has unmasked the systematic racism that is prevalent in the United States. This paper seeks to understand how COVID has led to an increase in hate crimes and microaggressions as a consequence of demonizing the Asian community in mainstream media and by prominent political figures.
With more than 13,759,500 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States, it is guaranteed that the pandemic has put a lot of strain on the health care system and the economy. However, the endemic, which has no vaccine, remains racial discrimination and racial bias. The silent sufferers remain the Asian Americans—primarily, the Chinese community. A pandemic is hardly the best time for the emergence of hate crimes when infections are surging and the mortality rate remains at an all-time high, with dead bodies piling up in various cities. However, the widespread hatred that is being spread on social media and the pathetic treatment that is being given to the Black, Indigenous and Asian communities shows that we have not come very far from the civil rights movement days. The only difference was that racists were not as vocal as they have become during the coronavirus pandemic.
Twitter’s Streaming Application Programming Interface (API) collected 3,377,295 U.S. race-related tweets from November 2019–June 2020. The proportion of negative tweets referencing Asians increased by 68.4% (from 9.79% in November to 16.49% in March). Common themes include racism, blame, anti-racism and daily life impact. Even during the time of the pandemic, minority communities are being trampled. Therefore, is the theory that diseases do not discriminate false? Added to that is the far-right President of the United States of America and his administration, who have intensified and also managed to polarize people with their lax approach and, to some extent, provoked and encouraged people to speak against Asian communities. In matters of racial bias, can the State afford to take sides or pass controversial statements and target specific communities without expecting a surge in hate crimes?
Anti-Asian Sentiment in the United States
About four-in-ten U.S. adults say: it has become more common for people to express racist views toward Asians since the pandemic began. This is where the Marxist theory that views power as being distributed unequally in a class-divided society comes into play. As white supremacy gets a boost with the Trump administration, it can be seen that white Americans have more power (economically and in the social hierarchy) and support than their Asian or black counterparts. The perception of power thus changes, from being equally spread in the society to being located within structures from which certain individuals derive power from their location within a structure. The coronavirus pandemic threatens to unmask the systemic scapegoating that Asian communities have been subjected to in the United States. In such circumstances, the notion that power is the basis of being able to act as a morally responsible human being as was given by Hannah Arendt is challenged, because certain people from privileged communities threaten to challenge the basic rights of Asian minorities.
Unlike the racial bias that was faced by Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs during 9/11, where the Bush administration was openly and strongly condemning the hate crimes, we see a different xenophobic reaction to the Asian communities with the Trump administration promoting the usage of terms like “Kung flu” and “China virus”. We are seeing a surge in anti-Asian sentiments in social media as well as real-life encounters. A majority of Americans (56%) believe the coronavirus pandemic is a natural disaster: Republicans (60%), retirees (51%), and those without a college education (48%) are most likely to believe that specific people or organizations are responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. Asian Americans have been subjected to harassment and intimidation, among the 44% who say a specific group or organization is responsible, most blame China or Chinese people; 66% mentioned China. More specifically, 45% mentioned China or Chinese people generally, 13% say it was caused by a lab in China, and 9% blame the Chinese government according to the IPSOS poll. Around, 1,710 incidents have been reported to the STOP AAPI HATE online website, out of which 15% of those cases involved physical assault or being coughed on or spat at.
Figure 1 Rise in cases of discrimination (Graph By Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Centre published in BBC 2020)
The media has even reported cases of restaurants and hotels, not entertaining Asian customers, due to fear of contracting the coronavirus. Recent reports give statistics that people in America would rather go to a French, Indian or Moroccan restaurant rather than going to Thai or most of all Chinese restaurants. Extremists in some states have even committed heinous crimes since Trump’s statements and media coverage has managed to vilify the Asian communities. For example, in Texas, a man stabbed a Burmese American family which included a father and two young children (ages 2 and 6) because he thought they were Chinese and were infecting people with the coronavirus. In Brooklyn, a man poured acid on an Asian woman while she was taking out the trash in her home, severely burning her head, neck, and back. In midtown Manhattan, a Korean woman was grabbed by the hair and punched in the face. Added to that is the discrimination that is being faced by frontline workers such as nurses, doctors, pharmacists (social science research council). Many Americans do not want to get medical help from doctors and nurses who look ‘Chinese’.
The Anti-Asian tweets and conspiracies rising by 85% after Donald Trump’s diagnosis according to reports by the Anti-Defamation League (a civil rights group) prove that the current administration and its supporters are prejudiced against Asian communities vocally. It is evident that COVID-19 does not impact everyone equally, it has had a much more negative effect on Asian communities in America, making them prone to harassment, racial bias and hate crime. Thus, we see a struggle against power by Asian communities, which are being subjected to discrimination by the current administration—with more and more celebrities, and the international communities condemning Trump’s strong usage of words against the Asian especially the Chinese community.
Thus, the pandemic can be seen as giving rise to a pandemic of hate—revealing the complexities in the current power structure in America, where immigrants are inferior to the general population.
Freedom House reported a significant decline in the quality of United States democracy from 94/100 to 86/100 as separation of powers, free press, legitimacy of elections, independent judiciary are called into question under the Trump regime; it is safe to say that America is not as vibrant democracy as it used to be.
Political reaction to the novel coronavirus
At the beginning of the pandemic, Trump repeatedly praised Chinese President Xi Jinping's response to the crisis, saying he has handled it "really well" and that he was doing "a very good job with a very, very tough situation”. On the contrary, now he is openly criticizing an entire community for COVID-19 and not realising how it is promoting racial bias in an already polarized and divided America. It does not come as a surprise that the Republicans have blatantly shifted the entire blame on the Chinese population for their own delayed and lax reaction to the deadly pandemic. This is supported by his conservative allies and friends in the media resulting in disastrous consequences. The Kansas governor said that his town is safe “because it had only a few Chinese residents” (Lefler & Heying 2020) and Texas senator John Cornyn openly justified the blame on Chinese advancing racist tropes about Chinese people eating bats, snakes and dogs. Mindless conspiracies are also being spread by top authorities. For example, US senator Tom Cotton suggested that a Chinese lab has developed the virus. The elites do not realise that by associating certain communities with something that has had a negative impact like the ongoing pandemic, they are shaping mass attitudes which may have policy implications that are critical for the health and well-being of stigmatized racial groups. This can be observed on social media, where we see spikes in covid being associated with China and usage of words like “Kung – Flu “, “China virus”, “Wuhan virus” and the likes after it was used by top politicians and media sources. The proportion of tweets referencing Asians that were positive declined beginning in February to April, this is about the same time when Trump issued anti-China statements.
Figure 2 Tweets referencing racial and ethnic groups (Exploring U.S. Shifts in Anti-Asian Sentiment with the Emergence of COVID-19 International’ Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health In Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health Amani M. Allen ,David H. Chae , Dina Huang ,Erica Hsu , Gilbert C.Gee, Isha Yardi , Jessica Keralis, Leah H. Nguyen ,Lynn Phan, Pallavi Dwivedi (et al)
However, this is not something new, a specific argument advanced in the late-1800s was that the Chinese “ignore all laws of hygiene and sanitation, bred and disseminated disease, thereby endangering the welfare of the state and the nation” (Trauner 1978, 72). This led to the introduction of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In addition to being treated like perpetual strangers, immigrants have also been stereotyped as culturally exotic, dirty and disease carriers. Thus, in the pandemic context, it becomes difficult to rely on Foucault’s definition of power, as currently, it does seem oppressive for ethnic minorities, for which they are being ostracized by society.
Figure 4 Media Coverage and Google searches (In New York Times)
The power that is held by the American President is immense, but given today’s scenario, it cannot be said that great caution is being exercised by him. In early April 2020, ex-Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang called on Asian Americans to fight racist attacks by embracing and showing “American-ness in ways [they] never have before,” as if Asian Americans politics, groups and identities are responsible for hate crimes against their communities. If history is any guide, cultural assimilation and intellectual prowess are no protection from racism in a society, where racism is deeply rooted in its core institutions. Trump’s White House does not remain truly democratic as they shift towards authoritarianism where information is not freely flowing and the state is responsive to the needs of all its citizens. On the contrary, Trump has managed to do the same things for which it was criticizing China, downplaying the pandemic, using bullying tactics, undermining the suggestions made by health experts, propagating false information and encouraging xenophobia. As the United States of America loses credibility in the international community under Trump's leadership, it has become important to realise that there has been a shift from a democratic leadership to one that is leaning towards authoritarianism, where minorities live in terror. With Biden winning the 2020 presidential election, there remains some hope to undo the damage that was caused by Trump.
Government leaders, top officials, and the mainstream media have been responsible for directly or indirectly provoking hate crimes and xenophobia by using anti-Asian rhetoric. With 60% of the Asian community witnessing someone blaming Asians for the spread of the pandemic as compared to only 27% of the white community witnessing the same according to an IPSOS poll, the Trump administration has used the Covid-19 pandemic to advance anti-immigrant, white-supremacist, ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic conspiracy theories that have demonized and alienated refugees, foreigners and Asian communities. The UN committee responsible for monitoring compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which 182 countries have ratified, has recommended that governments adopt “national action plans against racial discrimination.” Plans have been laid down to combat racism and discrimination, from enhanced policing of hate crimes to public messaging and education programming encouraging tolerance. Governments need to take urgent action to adopt new action plans to address the wave of Covid-19 racism and xenophobia.
This situation proves how oppressive state power can get when not exercised with utmost caution. When Donald Trump demonizes marginalized groups, he not only primes attitudes toward those groups but also, over time, emboldens the most racially conservative members of society to more openly express and act on their prejudices (Newman et al. 2020; Schaffner 2018). Trump rose to power partially by tapping into a deep vein of white racial grievances and nostalgia, scapegoating foreigners and immigrants for America’s ills and he continues to do the same. As we see vaccines being made for the pandemic, we also must realise that the only possible vaccination for xenophobia, remains public support for marginalised communities and the demand for a more inclusive government, which will not have adverse implications on minorities. Seeing the ever-changing power structure in pandemic times, it has become more and more important to maintain a neutral perspective in a world of social media where misinformation and hate are being spread by users, not realising how this corners the Asian American community.
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Cover Image: NY Times
About the author: Devika Mishra is a first year law student from Jindal Global Law School. She is interested in international relations and wants to pursue her higher education in that field.