Scapegoating During Crisis: How one adjective affected an entire country

On March 14, a 19-year-old entered a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas, and approached an Asian family of four. According to the reports, he took out a knife and stabbed three of the family members, two of which were young children. His reasoning for the attack was that it prevented them from spreading COVID-19. 

Little more than a month after the supermarket attack, on April 19, the Austin Asian Community Health Initiative (AACHI) hosted a panel to discuss increasing anti-Asian racism and violence related to COVID-19. The AACHI convened an insightful lineup of panelists, including: Steve Adler, Austin’s Mayor; Dr. Eric Tang, associate professor at UT Austin in African Diaspora Studies; Ayshea Khan, the Asian American community archivist at the Austin History Center; and other prominent community members. 

“Are you doing alright?” Mayor Adler asked Tang before the meeting began. “I think so,” Tang replied. “It’s weird what you can get used to.” 

Tang, who was the first panelist to lead the discussion, explained that a project called STOP AAPI HATE reported over 1,100 incidents of anti-Asian violence and racism in the first two weeks after its creation on March 19. The reason behind it, he claimed, was obvious: People erroneously wanted to place blame on China for the virus, and the Asian community at large was being discriminated against because of it. 

The source of this scapegoating was no secret. Just a few days before the anti-Asian violence reached its peak, Trump had started consciously calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” On March 19, Jabin Botsford, a photographer from The Washington Post, took a photo of Trump’s speech notes that shows that he intentionally crossed out “Corona” and replaced it with “Chinese.” 

Despite the adjective’s clearly derogatory connotation, Trump defended the innocence of his words. “It’s not racist,” he said. “It comes from China, that’s why.”  

It wasn’t until nearly two weeks after the Midland attack that Trump called for the protection of Asian Americans, saying that “the spreading of the Virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form.” 

In AACHI’s panel discussion, Tang called Trump’s tweets a “racial project” with an intended racial effect. “He’s reinvoking this project, this history, for political ends,” Tang explained. According to him, Trump’s comments fell into a longer history of racial scapegoating and ostracism in the United States—the racial effect Trump called upon was embedded in American culture, including Asian stereotypes and scapegoating experiences all the way back to the Naturalization Law of 1790 and the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882. 

Tang is not the only one to make the connection between Trump’s scapegoating and historical stereotypes. Kim Yi Dionne, who is professor of political science at the University of California-Riverside, wrote about how politicizing viruses can alter public attitudes about immigration. In a recent interview with Time, Dionne explained how decades of stereotypes about Chinese immigrants and disease led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law, which designated between “legal” and “illegal” immigration.

Trump’s designation of the “Chinese virus,” which echoes historic stereotypes, belongs to an even larger conversation about viruses and scapegoating during crises. In 1832, Irish immigrants who were scorned as carriers of cholera, were quarantined, massacred, and buried in a mass grave; in the 1980’s, Haitians were attacked under the false assumption that they were spreading HIV; and from 2009-2010 much of the media coverage about Swine Flu falsely blamed Mexicans, who were already being targeted because of immigration. 

After the 2008 economic crisis, one group of researchers tried to understand scapegoating by examining Ireland in the years following the crisis. “As financial, economic and fiscal crises unfold,” they concluded, “scapegoating becomes a convenient and pervasive process in response to the ills of a polarizing world-system.” With the exception of a few ‘rotten’ bankers, the study claimed, it was the unemployed, public sector workers, and immigrants in Ireland who were the biggest targets of this scapegoating. 

While this research wasn’t focused on a virus, the scholars claimed that “Ireland offers a lens on the pervasive process of scapegoating and its role in the crisis as it affects populations across the world.” By recognizing how scapegoating works in times of crisis, they hoped that debates would eventually move away from “how to politically administer austerity to more substantively rational concerns about the sort of world we wish to share.” In other words, to stop scapegoating society must acknowledge that it exists, understand why it happens, and focus instead on how to create a better world. 

Their suggestion offers one explanation for what we should do to fight racism and scapegoating. But if there are right ways to combat racism, there are wrong ways to fight it, too. On April 1, in response to anti-Asian violence, Andrew Yang wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post. He suggested that Asian Americans “show [their] American-ness in ways we never have before.” For them to do this, he claimed, they need to vote, volunteer, fund aid organizations, wear red white and blue, and more. 

In the panel, Tang called Yang’s solution reprehensible because it ignored the history of African-Americans, whose continuous efforts did little to change the opinions of racists. Rather than becoming better victims, he suggested, we need to actively fight racism and stand up to those who perpetrate it.

Trump’s conscious choice to racialize his speech shows how dangerous words can be when they are used to scapegoat. As he showed, a single adjective can inspire violence and hatred. If we want to stop scapegoating, we need to be careful with the words we use and continue to stand up against those who use them improperly. 

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