There is nothing like a global pandemic to unleash the forces of racism in society. In the United States, with a virulently racist administration already in power before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we might not even notice the offensive rhetoric and policy emanating from President Donald Trump, given how much he has normalized xenophobia. But it bears identifying, for if ever there was a need for solidarity among Americans, it is now.
For a while, Trump seemed unsure of what to do as news of the virus became more serious. He was deeply worried about the economic impact of the virus on his reelection bid. He then found his footing—on the racist ground where he is most comfortable—now routinely calling the novel coronavirus strain “the Chinese virus.” In one of his many online rants, he cast himself like the leader of a cult might do, as the savior of those Americans deeply impacted by the virus, saying, “For the people that are now out of work because of the important and necessary containment policies, for instance, the shutting down of hotels, bars and restaurants, money will soon be coming to you.” He then implied that China was to blame, saying, “The onslaught of the Chinese Virus [sic] is not your fault!”
When confronted by reporters at a White House press briefing, Trump dug his heels in, saying that, “China was putting out information which was false that our military gave this to them,” and therefore, “rather than having an argument I said I have to call it where it came from. So I think it’s a very accurate term.” He repeated this claim on Wednesday when a reporter confronted him asking, “why do you keep using this [term], a lot of people say it’s racist.” Trump responded saying, “It’s not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China. It comes from China.” The video clip of his words is worth watching just to see how he enunciates the word “China” repeatedly, as though it were a dirty word.
Trump is implying that he’s simply engaging in a tit-for-tat exercise (hardly an appropriate approach for a head-of-state) because a Chinese media outlet apparently claimed the U.S. military had created the virus as a biochemical weapon. But Trump failed to mention that right-wing sources in the U.S. were also promoting similarly conspiratorial claims of Chinese scientists creating the virus in a lab.
It’s no coincidence that Trump’s racist language around the coronavirus pandemic is being echoed in his favorite media outlet, Fox News. Tucker Carlson has ranted and raved in his insistence that the virus ought to be labeled as originating from China. Carlson has implied that there has been some sort of malicious intent toward Americans in particular, saying, “our country’’ greatest rival is denying reality about a plague they unleashed on the world and is then openly threatening to kill American citizens in our country.”
The xenophobic associations from Trump and Fox News are already having a racist impact. CBS News’ White House correspondent Weijia Jiang, a Chinese-born American, said on Twitter, “This morning a White House official referred to #Coronavirus as the ‘Kung-Flu’ to my face. It makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back.” A Chinese American student told the New York Times how deeply it impacted her to hear racist statements made by her fellow students after the coronavirus made the news. She said, “young Asian Americans like me are feeling hate infect every part of our lives.” There have been many documented cases of virus-related racist incidents against Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. and this is only likely to worsen as Trump continues referring to coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.”
There is a clear reason why Trump is invoking racism in the face of an infectious virus that threatens us all: It is so he can deflect the blame for its spread. After months of denying the seriousness of the coronavirus and failing to take quick and early action on ensuring widespread testing, Trump is now claiming, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” What better way to distract Americans from his own failure and dangerous incompetence than to scapegoat a non-white community?
This is a script he has used many times before, most notably in his 2016 campaign. Trump’s speeches repeatedly zeroed in on immigrants as the problem, calling Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals” and exhorting his supporters to elect him so he could save them from the economic ruin they have suffered.
Today the pandemic offers Trump the cover to discriminate against multiple groups. His administration has wasted no time in taking advantage of a global move to shut down borders in order to slow the spread of the virus. This week Trump’s government will cite the coronavirus as the basis for a project he has ardently and repeatedly sought to fulfill: shutting down the U.S. border with Mexico. Currently, there are far more cases of the coronavirus in Canada (470) than there are in Mexico (82) and although there is now a northern border closure, the Trump administration has taken pains to ensure that it is “temporary” and “by mutual consent.” In fact, the U.S. is a greater threat to both its neighbors with cases numbering in the thousands. Although Europe has been hard hit by the virus, Trump did not use racist rhetoric in making his decision for a temporary travel ban to and from Europe. He did not say, “We need to stop Italians and Spaniards from bringing their disease to American shores and threatening our people and our economy.”
Officers with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency—conducting themselves as Trump’s de facto anti-immigrant militia—have continued their operations in spite of the calls for “social distancing,” making a mass arrest of undocumented immigrants in California just one day after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced strict guidelines related to the virus. David Marin, the director of Enforcement and Removal Operations for ICE in Los Angeles told the L.A. Times, “We’re out here trying to protect the public by getting these criminal aliens off the street and out of our communities.” To Marin, the question of what would happen to the families of immigrants he arrested was simply irrelevant, raising the question of who exactly he and other ICE agents are protecting.
We’ve been here many times before. Writing in Quartz, William Thomson explained, “This pattern of conflating race with a specific disease is a constant thread in American history. To name a few, Irish immigrants were associated with cholera epidemics in the 1830s, and some venereal diseases like syphilis were mislabeled as a ‘black disease,’ leading to the horrific and inhumane treatment of African American men during the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.”
What can actually combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus is collaboration, cooperation and solidarity. The virus does not discriminate based on skin color. It has impacted residents of dozens of nations across every continent except Antarctica. Trump clearly wants us to blame anybody but himself for the lightning speed with which the disease is moving through the nation. If we are to survive this nightmare, our best hope is to trust one another, working to end the spread of both the deadly virus and the racist rhetoric.
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…