When Our U.S. History of Racism and Xenophobia Repeats Itself

Grand Princess cruise ship in the San Francisco Bay (Photo Credit: Daniel Lee)

Yesterday, a Grand Princess cruise ship with 21 cases of confirmed coronavirus docked at the Port of Oakland to begin the process of disembarking passengers, quarantine, and/or treatment of over 3,000 passengers and crew members. The port was chosen due to a number of factors — including relative ease of “sealing off the location, securely transporting passengers, and ensuring public safety.”

These factors are what also contributed to the selection of the Angel Island as an Immigration Station from 1910 to 1940. The act of quarantining persons who may pose public health threats is a necessary practice. What are unhelpful and unhealthy, however, are the increasing levels of racism and xenophobia towards Chinese and other Asians that have accompanied the spread of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, this is not dissimilar to how Asians and other immigrants have previously been branded as dirty, disease-bearers. For example, in a letter dated September 20, 1911, written by Doctor M.W. Glover who oversaw the U.S. Public Health Service at Angel Island to the Commissioner of Immigration, Dr. Glover noted that “We have always on hand a large number of Orientals whose filthy habits render it difficult enough to preserve sanitary cleanliness among them, and who are the subject to many diseases spread by rats (fleas) and flies. No amount of care or cleanliness on the station will remove these dangers to health while flies and rats are bred in large numbers immediately beyond our borders.”

U.S. Immigration Station and U.S. Public Health Service Hospital at Angel Island circa 1910 (Photo Credit: National Archive)

We’ve also seen this type of “othering” and castigation related to public health crises in recent history. For example, remember how we treated Haitians during the early days of the HIV epidemic, Asians during the 2002–2004 SARS and 2009 swine flu outbreaks, and West Africans during the Ebola crisis? Currently, there are increasing number of stories documenting current-day racists remarks and xenophobic attacks on Chinese and other Asians due to coronavirus such as the following: “Irate Subway Passenger Sprays Asian Man With Air Freshener Over Coronavirus Concerns”, “What’s spreading faster than coronavirus in the US? Racist assaults and ignorant attacks against Asians”, and “When Xenophobia Spreads Like a Virus”.

How do we explain why Italian restaurants in the U.S. don’t seem to be experiencing declines in customers in the same way that Chinese restaurants and stores are experiencing — even though the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Italy have increased exponentially and the entire country is now on lockdown? (Note that I’m not suggesting we stop patronizing Italian or Chinese restaurants.) And why is that when Asian communities are impacted, some people see us simply as numbers to be contained and communities to be avoided instead of holding the empathy and compassion that anyone would want for themselves, their family members, and their friends?

While researchers and scientists are racing to understand more about COVID-19 and to develop a viable vaccine, there are definite steps that we can take to protect our public health and our common humanity. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Stay home when sick. And treat Asians, immigrants, and anyone who is infected or impacted by COVID-19 with the respect and kindness that you would want for yourself.

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