Julie Rhoten, executive director at Stanford Settlement Neighborhood Center, talks to seniors Monday, March 9, 2020, about how to stay well during the coronavirus outbreak.
Anti-Chinese racism has a long and tragic history in California. Unfortunately, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield seemed to awaken the ghost of California’s anti-Asian prejudice this week by going out of his way to inject racist overtones into the already tense situation around the coronavirus.
In a viral tweet that made international headlines, McCarthy referred to the COVID-19 virus as the “Chinese coronavirus.” Other Republicans, along with Fox News, made similar shifts in their depiction of the virus, going out of their way to characterize the virus distinctly as Chinese. The framing may reflect a desire to use the coronavirus as an excuse to justify President Donald Trump’s ongoing crackdown on immigrants from certain countries.
Not surprisingly, the language shift sparked outrage.
“I’m embarrassed to be his colleague,” tweeted Rep. Grace Meng, D-NY, a congresswoman of Chinese descent, in response to McCarthy. “I’m so disgusted. We await his apology to the nation, the Chinese-American and #AAPI (Asian and Pacific Islander) community and to his own constituents.”
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“One reason @POTUS & his enablers failed to contain COVID2019 is due to the myopic focus on China,” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance. “The virus was also carried into the U.S. from other countries & U.S. travelers. Calling it Chinese coronavirus is scientifically wrong & as stupid as calling it the Italian coronavirus.”
Facing heated criticism, McCarthy issued a statement saying some media outlets had previously used similar terms, said Politico’s Carla Marinucci. It’s a flimsy excuse that in no way justifies McCarthy’s decision to double down on the racial framing.
“The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that attaching Chinese to a description of the coronavirus was wrong after both President Trump and the top House Republican were accused for racism for doing it,” according to the Washington Post.
Unfortunately, comments such as McCarthy’s can only help intensify the resurgence of xenophobia against Asians. In the wake of the coronavirus, Chinatowns have become ghost towns and Chinese restaurants – including many in Sacramento – have reported decreased business. That’s because of attitudes like McCarthy’s, which appear to wrongly conflate the virus’ origin in Wuhan, China, with Chinese and Asian people in general.
California is no stranger to anti-Chinese prejudice. Chinese immigrants played big roles in the Gold Rush and in constructing the Transcontinental Railroad. They also endured a major racist backlash. In 1862, the California State Legislature passed a racist law to tax Chinese immigrant laborers. In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, barring Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens.
“Anti-Chinese discrimination was not limited to economic matters; the threat of racial violence was never far from the surface,” wrote historian Ryan Reft. “In the gold fields, white miners frequently targeted their Chinese counterparts to run them off successful claims. Anti-Chinese violence visited California cities, too, most notably in 1871, when 500 Angelenos ransacked their city’s Chinatown, murdering at least 19 Chinese residents.”
Racist laws against the Chinese stayed on the books for decades. In 2009, the California State Legislature issued a formal apology for its anti-Chinese racism. McCarthy, whose career started here in the State Capitol, is surely aware of California’s shameful legacy of anti-Chinese discrimination.
Perhaps McCarthy framed the coronavirus in racial terms by accident. Or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing. Either way, McCarthy should apologize for his offensive tweet and pledge to do better. With President Trump scrambling to fix his administration’s botched response to the coronavirus, he needs serious help from his experienced friends on Capitol Hill. McCarthy should step up and help Trump do better.
As Americans face the new coronavirus, they need serious leadership – not political posturing or viral racist tweets.
Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated to reflect Rep. McCarthy’s response as well as reported comments from the director of the CDC.