Weaponizing Racism in the Wake of COVID-19

Poster on the storefront window of the Mei Lai Wah restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood in October 2020. (Wikimedia Commons)

In recent days, Chinese Americans have reported being spat at, threatened and physically attacked

The rise in anti-Asian assaults at grocery stores and schools, and in subway stations and neighborhoods, has not spared children: A 16 year-old boy was attacked at his San Fernando Valley High School in California, as classmates accused him of spreading COVID-19.   The boy was briefly hospitalized out of fear that he may have received a concussion from the assault. 

Nor is this a problem isolated to physical spaces: Online attacks and micro-aggressions against Americans of Asian descent in virtual spaces and social media have also escalated in the wake of COVID-19—so much so that a website has been launched by San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department to track online harassment.  

Sadly, anti-Asian sentiment is not new in the United States—and neither is using the public health as a proxy for expressing it. 


On August 1, 1883, The New York Times ran an article, “Mott-Street Chinamen Angry; They Deny That They Eat Rats.” The article and what it describes was typical of the anti-Asian racism propagated at the time in the United States. 

Sadly, anti-Asian sentiment is not new in the United States. Pictured: August 1883 New York Times article, “Mott-Street Chinamen Angry; They Deny That They Eat Rats.”

Anti-Asian sentiment ran deep and persisted for decades in news, cartoons, movies, novels and immigration policies.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, or the beloved Dr. Seuss, also illustrated political cartoons. One of his most controversial cartoons was a caricature of a Japanese man next to Hitler, published in the newspaper “PM” on March 5, 1942. (Dartmouth)

The recent attacks associated with COVID-19 reveal the dangerous reaches of fear, racism, and xenophobia in our society, especially in times of health crises and national security threats. 

In this instance, the horrific rise of hate-motivated crimes against Chinese Americans has much to do with racialized fears associated with the spread of COVID-19—magnified all the more by American politicians, including President Donald Trump, irresponsibly referring to it as the “Chinese Virus.” 

Trump defends his comments with the following: “It comes from China, that’s why. … I want to be accurate.”

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, went so far as to tell reporters, “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that … that’s why China has been a source of a lot of these viruses.” 

Never mind that Senator Cornyn’s home state boasts about their smoked, fried and roasted rattlesnake as culinary delights: One hotspot in Austin is said to be known for smoked rattlesnake sausage topped with jalapeno sauerkraut.

Hog head cheese—another Texas delicacy—has nothing to do with cheese, but made from harvesting various parts of the hog, including the tongue and importantly the head (sometimes the brain).  Discerning diners in Texas can also spot the difference between skinned raccoon and possums.  One headline, which captures the love of wild game in Texas reads, Raccoon Meat: A Texas Treat.  

Containing the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the risk of its spread will not be achieved through pandering to xenophobia, racial stereotypes or weaponizing racism.  

Let’s not forget that in 2009, H1N1, otherwise known as “Swine Flu” began in the U.S., causing an international pandemic.  It spread quickly throughout the world, infecting 1.4 billion people within the year.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that up to 575,000 people died from the virus. 

And although the WHO declared the pandemic over in 2010, H1N1 continues to circulate, “[causing] illness, hospitalization and deaths worldwide every year.”  

In other words: The notion that China has the market on pandemics or food-borne illnesses ignores H1N1 and misreads even recent history.  This brand of racism has nothing to do with food or what people find appetizing.

Racializing COVID-19 or any other disease harms society and serves no legitimate governmental or public policy purpose. 

In fact, it actually undermines rigorous epidemiological approaches to protecting public health and containing the spread of disease, muddling people’s understanding about the virus and diverting attention from what is important.  

Weaponizing racism in the wake of COVID-19 also distracts attention from the poor federal response to the disease—including the president’s claims that the virus is hoax, no more serious than the common cold and the Trump administration’s rejection of tests that were offered months ago.

Here’s a look back at how Trump has spoken about COVID-19 since January 2020.

Racism in this case, also conceals the president’s unwise dismantling of the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council. The directorate had its own staff, and was headed by Beth Cameron, a senior Obama Administration official, who reported to the national security adviser.   

In essence, strapping the “Chinese Virus” to our public policy response to COVID-19 underscores how ill-prepared the United States is to effectively and seriously address the virus and its spread in the United States. 

It serves only to shift accountability and responsibility to protect and serve the American people away from American political leaders.

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a prolific thoughtleader on matters of constitutional law and health policy. In addition to Ms. magazine, Dr. Goodwin's commentary can be read in The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Nation, CNN and The L.A. Times, among others. She holds the Linda D. & Timothy J. O'Neill chair in constitutional law and global health policy at Georgetown Law School and serves as the co-faculty director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. She is the executive producer of Ms. Studios.