‘For immigration historians and other scholars,” a CNN article begins, “the way US President Donald Trump is describing the coronavirus pandemic has a familiar ring.” And the frequency with which “historians and other scholars” draw tortured analogues between this administration and various historical horrors means that regular people are also all too “familiar” with the bell sounding in the minds of our vaunted historians and scholars.
Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” has drawn the ire of many in the media who feel he is stoking anti-Asian sentiment among the public. Hence an entire genre of think-pieces making some version of the case that “hate” is spreading faster than the virus has cropped up in the wake of the viral outbreak. Those pieces tend to begin with a cryptic reference to increases in hate crimes against Asian Americans, a claim that makes a certain intuitive sense, even in the absence of robust statistical evidence. People are on edge because of the pandemic, and many feel anxious about the economy and the well-being of themselves and their families. Perhaps some “marginal” individuals, who are already disposed to such behavior, will feel emboldened upon hearing the president associate the virus with its country of origin.
To the extent that this has occurred in reality, it is, of course, a lamentable development. In all of the pieces I read, however, authors do not accurately show their work to demonstrate the “increase” in violence against Asian Americans. They rely on the same handful of anecdotes — four or five incidents over the past two months that, while abhorrent and unacceptable, represent a vanishingly small number in a country of 327 million people. It’s almost certainly the case, of course, that some number of anti-Asian attacks have gone unreported — that’s the nature of these events, and it’s bound to be true that some victims have not disclosed incidents of violence — but we have no idea how large or small that number is. In the absence of such evidence, however, many in the media continue to run with the narrative that Americans are indiscriminately assaulting their Asian-American neighbors, which would continue unabated if not for the enlightened intervention of advocates in the media. The press corps betrays their rather low opinion of Americans when they presume that assaulting strangers in a fevered racial hysteria is just the sort of thing the American people do.
With the dearth of hard statistical evidence on “hate crimes” against Asians since the advent of the coronavirus, these pieces tend, within paragraphs, to devolve into the collected wishcasting of “experts” who assert, as a matter of their “expertise,” that a rise in anti-Asian violence is soon forthcoming, even if it is not yet here.
John Yang of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice group told NBC News, “The use of this term [Chinese virus] by [Trump] and others even in the last couple of weeks have [sic] led to a noticeable incline in hate incidents that we are seeing. I do think that there is a correlation.” The Washington Post solicited the opinion of a lecturer in Asian-American and Asian diaspora studies at UC Berkley, who claimed that Trump’s decision to reference the geographic origin of the coronavirus is “racist and it creates xenophobia” and begets a “very dangerous situation” for Asian Americans. Some unforeseen acts of bigotry will presumably ensue from the creation of that “dangerous situation.”
We face an actual pandemic, of course, one that actually arose from China and that has actually killed thousands of people around the world. Even so, media outlets use precious bandwidth to speculate about incidents that have not yet occurred, but that they presume will occur in the future, because of the vague wishcasting of self-appointed experts on the relative depravity of the American public.
Cecilia Vega of ABC News used the second question at a White House press conference to ask the president of the United States — amid a pandemic shutting down major cities, killing thousands globally, and grinding the economy to a halt — why he insisted on calling a virus that emanated from China the “Chinese virus.”
“There are reports of dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese Americans in this country,” Vega pleaded. “Your own aide, Secretary Azar, says he does not use this term. He says that ethnicity does not cause the virus. Why do you keep using this? A lot of people say it’s racist.”
(“A lot of people say it’s racist” can reliably be read as “Cecilia Vega thinks it’s racist.”)
Trump reminded Vega that the disease originated in China and that the Chinese are currently waging a massive disinformation campaign to blame the virus on the United States. The fact that Vega asked this question, and the endless hand-wringing in the media about real and hypothetical instances of “xenophobia,” put the warped priorities of many in the media on full display.
The Chinese government — a body singularly adept in the creation and dissemination of propaganda — knows that racial hang-ups in the United States are ripe for exploitation. The Chinese propaganda outlet Xinhua Network has tweeted out the sort of anti-racist bromide you might expect to hear Don Lemon bark at a hapless Trump surrogate: “Racism is not the right tool to cover your own incompetence.” A few Orwell novels should suffice to resolve the apparent irony of a Chinese government that lectures Americans about bigotry all while placing Muslims in internment camps. That’s not much of a mystery, as these things go. More concerning, perhaps: Why do the Communist Chinese sound so much like the American news media?