After days and days of referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese flu,” President Trump’s statement Monday about how Asian-Americans aren’t to blame for it was too little and too late.
It’s too little because he didn’t acknowledge, let alone apologize, for calling COVID-19 the “Chinese flu.”
And it’s too late because he’d already sounded a dog whistle for harassment of and violence against Asian-Americans.
The defenders of this racist and xenophobic term have dismissed critics as liberal snowflakes and insisted that it is a race-neutral description of where the virus was first found, or that the name refers to the Chinese government rather than the Chinese people. But it plainly associates a global pandemic with a race of people. That’s why a White House official referred to it as the “Kung Flu” to CBS reporter Weijia Jiang.
Using those names doesn’t better educate the public about the dangers of the virus. It doesn’t help produce more masks or ventilators. It does nothing to stop the spread of the virus. And it surely won’t make anyone sick with the virus get better.
Maybe they say it because it makes them feel better.
Some people always feel better when they have someone to blame, not just an “invisible enemy” as ephemeral as a virus. After all, you can’t chase a virus down the street the way you can chase an elderly Chinese woman, spraying her with hand sanitizer while telling her to “sanitize your ass!” ” You can’t punch a virus in the face the way you can punch a female Korean student while yelling at her “Where is your coronavirus mask you Asian bitch?”—and “You’ve got coronavirus, you Asian (slur)!” You can’t pull your car up at Whole Foods and yell at a virus “You should be quarantined!” which is what a man did to actor Tzi Ma (“Mulan”) before driving away. And it’s surely not as satisfying to yell “Fuck China” at a virus, tell a passing bus driver to “run them all down” and then spit on the virus the way Yuanyuan Zhu was yelled at and spat on by a man in San Francisco.
These incidents and more of hateful—often criminal—behavior is a form of “othering,” defined as “viewing or treating (a person or group of people) as intrinsically different and alien to oneself.” And the othering of Asians enjoys a long, dark history in American and Western culture. The concept of “Yellow Peril”—hordes of Asians invading the West—surfaced in the 19th century and continued into the 20th century with film characters like Fu Manchu and Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless. Yellow Peril fears were codified into laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act and actualized in violence like the 1871 lynching of 18 Chinese men in Los Angeles.
Othering often involves beliefs about how people from the non-majority culture have different hygiene and diets. This fear of Asians being “dirty” may account for why Asian restaurants and Chinatowns bore the brunt of early drop-offs in business even before social distancing and restaurant closings became the norm. As a kid growing up in Westchester County, I heard Chinese restaurants referred to as the “Ch**k place” while comedians as famous as Jay Leno make jokes about Asians eating cats and dogs.
A last, deadly consequence of “othering” COVID-19 into the “Chinese flu” is that it takes the focus off of how Trump and his administration of enablers are bungling the response to the global pandemic. First, even before the pandemic began they dismantled Obama-era apparatus for handling epidemics. Next, they wasted precious weeks by allowing Trump to call the pandemic a hoax. Even now, as the administration frantically plays catch-up, their daily briefings often substitute self-congratulations and flattery of the president for actual leadership and facts. Left uncorrected, these mistakes will cost countless American lives.
So, the next time you hear someone say “Chinese flu” ask them if that makes them feel better about the financial devastation and deaths caused by the coronavirus. If they think about your question, then their answer might surprise themselves.
Shan Wu is a child of Chinese immigrants. A CNN legal analyst, he is a former top aide to Attorney General Janet Reno and federal prosecutor.