When former president Donald Trump began a year ago to attach the spread of the coronavirus to Asians and Asian Americans by using the term “the Chinese virus,” he was hardly being original or clever. And neither is Robert Aaron Long, the accused killer of eight people in or near Asian American-owned businesses in the Atlanta area last week, who has now mounted a “sex addiction” defense to deny any racial animus.
The thread that connects Trump’s racist phrase to the savage massacre at businesses that Long targeted is one that winds through a long, bloody history of dehumanizing Asian Americans.
“The Chinese virus” is an update of a very old trope, and a long-offensive one. Look at the reaction when the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed on the coronavirus and China last February with the phrase “the sick man of Asia” in the title, causing an international incident. That idea has even made its appearance in popular culture — for example, in the 1972 Bruce Lee movie “Fist of Fury,” Lee’s protagonist avenges his teacher’s murder and a nation’s pride in part by tearing up a brush painting of those words.
The trope dates to the 1700s, when Chinese doctors made detailed epidemiological drawings of smallpox victims. Years later, these images began to circulate in French popular culture devoid of context, and they were received — absurdly — as proof of the superiority of European medicine and the racist notion that the Chinese, as a race, were dirty, sickly carriers of deadly diseases. Never mind that at that same moment, Europeans bearing smallpox and measles were causing the decimation of native populations across the Americas and the Pacific.
In the 19th century, European nations, desperate to exploit the riches of Asia, forced open Japan and China. They began a trade of opium for silk, tea and silver, and when China attempted to end it by making the narcotic illegal, foreign powers began two successive Opium Wars. China’s loss of both those wars opened it further to European and American business interests — which revived the notion of Chinese as weak and afflicted.
War set migration in motion, and stereotypes of impurity and contamination followed the migrants to America, where they were forced into racially segregated settlements that sometimes grew into Chinatowns, Japantowns and Filipino Towns. As the number of migrants grew, the backlash did as well.
The impetus was often economic, but it was driven by a sense of racial entitlement. Whites claimed that Chinese were getting the best veins in the coal mines, staking the best gold panning spots, tilling fertile land that was meant for them. At rallies, demonstrators denounced “the Chinese plague,” conflating disease with displacement. Years of brutality ensued. In 1886 alone, mobs burned down at least a dozen Chinatowns in California to the ground.
Among the battery of laws passed to restrict Asian Americans’ civil rights, including access to education, cultural practices and business activities, were laws meant to enforce White male purity. California passed an anti-miscegenation law banning marriage between Whites and a “negro, mulatto, or Mongolian.” Such laws culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first time any U.S. federal law sought to exclude an ethnic group.
The most direct predecessor of the Exclusion Act was the 1875 Page Act. It had been written narrowly to ban sex workers from “China, Japan or any Oriental country.” Still, President Ulysses S. Grant made clear how he and many others saw Asian women: “But few of whom,” he said, “are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations.”
As states moved in the late 1800s to protect the entitlements of White men and Grant demonized the actual bodies of Asian women, mob attacks on Asian Americans increased. Jean Pfaelzer’s book “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans” documents hundreds of forgotten riots, purges and lynchings in the 1880s that left thousands dead, wounded or displaced.
If they weren’t being driven out, they were being quarantined. On March 6, 1900, a report of a possible bubonic plague-caused death of a Chinese American surfaced in San Francisco. The next day, city officials shut down Chinatown. Police roped off the neighborhood and escorted out all the remaining Whites. Health officials voted to encircle the area with barbed wire. At one point, leaders seriously discussed burning down these same 16 square blocks to which they had long confined the Chinese. Neither came to pass, but authorities did build a high wall around Chinatown’s radius.
As successive waves of Asian immigrants and refugees arrived, often fleeing American wars, they too faced violence. In 1930, Whites rioted against Filipino American bachelors who frequented taxi-dance halls to dance with White women in Watsonville, Calif. In 1941, with war again as the backdrop, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rounded Japanese Americans up into concentration camps.
In 1982 in Detroit, a young Chinese American draftsman named Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two White autoworkers outside of a strip club where he had gone to celebrate his bachelor party. Before they set upon him with a baseball bat, they had baited him by calling him ethnic slurs for both Japanese and Chinese — demonstrating the same confusion of pandemic-era attackers who have lashed out at Asian Americans of all ethnicities while thinking them Chinese — and told him he was the reason they were out of work. A judge sentenced them to probation, saying, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”
The massacres have never ended. In 1989, a gunman opened fire on a Stockton, Calif., elementary schoolyard full of Cambodian and Vietnamese American children. He killed five and wounded 32 more. In 2012, another gunman murdered six Sikh Americans at a temple in Oak Creek, Wis.
So when Asian Americans objected to Trump and others’ use of “the Chinese virus,” it was because many of us feared these words would yield a body count. We were told that we were overreacting. But now a year of anti-Asian rage has come to this: children slashed in department stores, elderly set on fire or pushed to their deaths, and women, attacked at twice the rate of men, chased, beaten, spit upon, as if we are not people, but pollutants — infections, contagions, stains on whiteness.
The same twisted view of Asian Americans that Grant had echoes in Cherokee County, Ga., Sheriff Jay Baker’s stunningly sympathetic read of Long’s defense that he was trying to “eliminate” a “temptation.” What stands out in Baker’s news conference is who his sympathies went to — not the then-unnamed victims, most of whom were working-class Asian American women, but to Long, who had had “a bad day.” These Asian women weren’t people with lives and loved ones; they were symptoms of Long’s sickness.
Long’s defense — that he is not the perpetrator of a hate crime, but simply a sex addict in relapse — reduces the Asian American women authorities say he killed to the embodiments of his sins, there to service his filthy desires and remove him from God’s grace. But to believe his lie is to deny a 300-year thread that has unspooled in commonly circulated texts and images, in wars and in bloodshed.
What Trump, Long and their defenders share is the twisted logic that connects two opposed, infernal ideas: that Asians and Asian Americans are impure and inferior — and if not stopped, they will conquer our world. This logic explains why the absurd, debunked idea — seemingly ripped straight out of a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel from the 1910s — that covid-19 was developed as a bioweapon in a Chinese government lab has inexplicable persistence. It is congruent with the zero-sum Great Replacement idea that has moved from the fringes of white nationalism to the mainstream: that Whites face nothing short of demographic annihilation from the lesser races and that a total war must be waged to stop it.
That’s how one might come to see a God-fearing Christian who has had a bad day as the fallen hero of this story, and in doing so, continue to dehumanize the most vulnerable Asian Americans.
This article originally misstated the date of the Oak Creek, Wis., shooting at a Sikh temple. The shooting happened in 2012, not 2016.