CBS White House correspondent Weijia Jiang tweeted Tuesday that "this morning a White House official referred to the #Coronavirus as the 'Kung-Flu' to my face. Makes me wonder what they're calling it behind my back."
For members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, this type of ignorance and racism is hardly new. It never ceases to amaze me how comfortable people feel espousing racially charged tropes about Asian Americans. It's the kind of brazenness that stems from labeling us the "model minority."
But while those encounters are at best annoying, right now we're confronting a different kind of reality. People who look like me have undoubtedly experienced the suspicious looks in recent daysat grocery stores or on the train. It never occurred to me that amid a global pandemic, I'd also have to be mindful of my own safety. And I'm even more surprised that I'd have to worry about how my own president was adding to that racism.
In his efforts to kill one virus, President Donald J. Trump is helping spread another, in the process jeopardizing the health and welfare of the entire country. Case in point: On Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter to sound off about COVID-19. But rather than refer to it by its scientific name, he instead insisted on labeling it the "Chinese Virus."
There is no way Trump is confused — there is no word in the world more recognizable right now than "coronavirus." From his infamous "both sides" remarks about a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to his labeling of Haiti and African nations as "shithole countries" to referring to Mexicans as "rapists" and "drug dealers," Trump's frequent displays of racism are deliberate.
His arrogant belief in American exceptionalism has often resulted in the scapegoating of other nations— Mexico, for example. And those nations tend, generally, not to like it. Here, he's antagonizing China at the absolute worst time. We need to be learning from Chinese doctors and officials, not causing an international incident.
Justifying his use of the term Tuesday, Trump said he was pushing back on a conspiracy theory — that did, in fact, start in China — blaming the U.S. military for spreading the disease. "China was putting out information, which was false, that our military gave this to them. That was false. And rather than having an argument, I said I had to call it where it came from. It did come from China. So I think it's a very accurate term," Trump said.
This is, at best, an incredibly tone-deaf defense. There is a good chance, however, that Trump is digging in because he is being influenced by the racist ignorance we're seeing from other conservatives, including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy. To be clear, plenty of others made the same mistake when the virus was first becoming news. But they've stopped, because they realize the harm it could potentially cause.
Trump hasn't stopped.
At a time when the president of the United States should be acting as a unifying figure, he is instead sowing the destructive seeds of xenophobia that have become hallmarks of his presidency. And just as we saw following his rhetoric against Latinos, the violent trickle-down effect is clear. There have been numerous examples of Asian Americans' being targeted in the past few weeks.
A Chinese American high school student in South Florida documented what teenagers like her were experiencing in a powerful New York Times video. "Asian Americans like me are feeling hate infect every part of our lives," Katherine Oung said. "Not only do we have to be afraid for our health, we have to be afraid about being ourselves." In New York City, a 23-year-old woman and a 59-year-old man were the possible victims of hate crimes just last week, with one of the attackers reportedly saying, "Where's your corona mask — you Asian?" Video of an altercation on a subway in Brooklyn showed a man yelling at an Asian passenger and spraying him with air freshener.
These outward manifestations of racism against the AAPI community require calm and steady rebukes from our leaders. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., appealed to the president on Twitter to set this example, pointing out that "Asian Americans will likely encounter more discrimination because of your tweet…please stop your unnecessary rhetoric."
Using the label "Chinese Virus" will further inflame racial tensions in America. And it has nothing to do with public health, as experts have warned that relegating the disease to a geographic identity will actually hinder our efforts to contain it.
This disease we are fighting on a global scale may have started in China, but just like so many other epidemics, it is blind to the social divisions being sown by the ignorant. The coronavirus doesn't discriminate by race or political party. It doesn't care whether you're rich or poor or even Tom Hanks.
Somewhere right now, a team of extraordinary people is working on a vaccine. It's likely this team is made up of men and women from diverse backgrounds — including Asian Americans. And when this team has that breakthrough, the people using it won't care if it came from a person of color or an immigrant. They won't care if it came from a member of the AAPI community. All they'll care about is that it worked for everybody.
- Kurt Bardella is a "Morning Joe" and NBC News THINK contributor. He served as the spokesperson and senior adviser for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009 to 2013.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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