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There’s a long, global history to today’s anti-Asian bias and violence

‘Foreigners’ have been blamed for disease all the way back to the bubonic plague — and probably beyond

On the day that a gunman murdered eight people in Atlanta, six of them Asian and Asian American women, the organization Stop AAPI Hate released a report showing that since the coronavirus pandemic began, anti-Asian violence had increased in the United States. That has spiked alongside increased racist rhetoric and incidents of anti-Asian racism.

That builds on a long history in which people of Asian descent have been scapegoated and blamed for disease outbreaks. In a recent article, two of us, Turkmen and Dionne, examined pandemic-related discrimination in global and historical perspective. We found that in a context of racial inequality, pandemics further marginalize oppressed groups.

How we did our research

“Othering” during pandemics is neither new nor unique to the United States. As social scientists define it, othering happens when one group of people — usually a majority group — treats a marginalized group as if something were wrong with them, pointing to perceived “flaws” in the out-group’s appearance, practice or norms. By extension, we consider “pandemic othering” to be such marginalization during a pandemic.

To study pandemic othering and blame, we reviewed survey data and media accounts from the ongoing coronavirus crisis. More specifically, we reviewed reporting in such major international media outlets as the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN and BBC News between Jan. 1 and July 31, 2020. We also examined media accounts and published research articles and books covering earlier pandemics of smallpox, the bubonic plague, influenza, HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola. Here’s what we learned.

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Othering and blame for the pandemic has targeted marginalized groups and not just in the United States

After the coronavirus spread from Wuhan, China, to the rest of the world, Chinese people and others of Asian descent were targeted and blamed for the pandemic. Anti-Asian hate crimes surged — in the United States and globally.

The Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate report documented 3,795 hate incidents between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021. These incidents ranged from verbal and online harassment to physical assaults. For instance, one person reported that when shopping at a New York grocery store, a man screamed, using obscenities, that they were “a disgusting … animal” and told them to “go back home” and “get out of the … country.”

According to analysis by social scientists Jennifer Lee and Karthick Ramakrishnan using data from a survey conducted by AAPI Data and SurveyMonkey in March 2021, more than 2 million Asian American adults in the country have endured hate crimes or hate incidents since the pandemic began.

Analysts and lawmakers have linked this spike in hate incidents to political leaders’ rhetoric. Then-president Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and associated slurs; several other politicians, media figures and his supporters have followed suit.

That has happened not just in the United States, but also globally, our news media coverage review found. News outlets and scholars have documented anti-Asian discrimination in Australia, Canada and Italy, among other countries. In February 2020, for example, a Singaporean exchange student in the United Kingdom was badly beaten, with assailants accusing him of bringing covid-19 into the country.

Anti-Asian bias isn’t just an American problem

But we found other marginalized groups also have been attacked and blamed for the pandemic, even when Asian identity isn’t the source of marginalization. For example, in India, the Hindu nationalist government accused an Islamic seminary of spreading the coronavirus by holding a gathering — and anti-Muslim disinformation and violence in India has persisted. In Guangzhou, China, after news media reported that five Nigerians tested positive for the virus, other Africans were kicked out of their housing and forced into quarantine and testing. In Tunisia, refugees and migrants reported being treated as carriers and facing more xenophobic discrimination in accessing health care.

In pandemics, people often target minorities with othering, blame and scapegoating

During and after the 2003 SARS epidemic, which first emerged in China, many people avoided Chinatowns in New York and Toronto, imagining them as sites of contagion and risk. That’s just one example of some people associating Chinese communities with disease and stigmatizing and discriminating against Chinese and Chinese-descended people.

Likewise, during the 2013-to-2016 Ebola epidemic centered in West Africa, Republican politicians and anchors of conservative media shows in the United States politicized the crisis, falsely associating Ebola with migrant children entering the country through its southern border with Mexico. African immigrants and their children suffered discrimination in New York state, New Jersey and especially in Texas after a Liberian national visiting the Dallas-Fort Worth area tested positive for Ebola in 2014.

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Going further back in history, we found that during smallpox outbreaks in the late 19th century, Americans and Canadians discriminated against and assaulted Chinese immigrants. In the 1870s, San Franciscans accused Chinese immigrants of spreading smallpox and labeled Chinatown “a laboratory of infection.” In 1892, a mob rioted in Calgary’s Chinese district after an outbreak of smallpox was linked to a Chinese laundry.

Current anti-Asian violence in the United States spotlights the need for intersectional analysis

Looking back, we can see our earlier research neglected to take an explicitly intersectional approach — by which we mean an approach that recognizes how several forms of disadvantage can compound in ways that create obstacles not understood by thinking about racism, sexism, capitalism and other such systems in isolation from one another.

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Among the 3,795 hate incidents documented by Stop AAPI Hate, women reported 2.3 times as many hate incidents as men. That could be because women were more likely to report, or it could reveal that being female and Asian multiplies someone’s vulnerability. That would be consistent with work by scholars documenting harmful media and societal stereotypes of Asian women as passive or submissive.

These compounded stereotypes became painfully visible in the Atlanta rampage. The broader trend of anti-Asian violence in the United States and around the world illustrates that scholars need to examine pandemic othering using an intersectional framework. Our research suggests a need to take that analysis beyond the United States and beyond the contemporary pandemic.

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Fulya Felicity Turkmen (@fulyafelicity) is a doctoral student in political science at the University of California at Riverside. Her research examines international migration, citizenship, ethics of immigration and forced migration.

Sarah Hayes (@sarahvhayes) is a graduate student in political science at the University of California at Riverside and an APSA diversity fellow. Her research examines electoral pressure and legislative responsiveness to the coronavirus pandemic.