Strengthening immunity against racism through solidarity
Pandemics arise when a virus is capable of spreading disease across a wide geographic area. Like the spread of viruses, racism in the form of verbal and physical attacks can also be virulent, traveling like pathogens through populations.
As fears over the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) have grown, so too have documented incidents of harassment and violence against Asian Americans. While pandemics do not discriminate based on skin color, racism does. This weakens host resistance by taking hold of the mind and body.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, protective face masks — an early symbol of defense against the virus — have also emerged as a touchstone for xenophobia, with news accounts of Asian Americans being verbally and physically assaulted for wearing them.
In China, as in many parts of East Asia, face masks are common attire and often seen as a symbol of collective and personal responsibility to reduce the spread of disease. The duality in meaning of masks as both protection against COVID-19 and efficient vectors of racism is palpable.
Fears of coronavirus have also rekindled the racist trope of Asian Americans as “model minorities,” who face little in the way of racial barriers to upward mobility. Increasingly, however, psychological research has challenged this stereotype, demonstrating that Asian Americans, like other people of color, experience considerable discrimination and unfair treatment and that these experiences can have an adverse effect on both mental and physical health. Our own research indicates that beyond overt forms of racism, subtle forms of everyday bias and discrimination are also important sources of stress for racial minorities in general and for Asian Americans in particular. The findings from this research and related qualitative work are beginning to reveal a richly nuanced picture of Asian Americans’ experiences of racism and discrimination in everyday life. Prominent among these racialized experiences are the pervasive, contrasting beliefs that, on the one hand, Asian Americans have “made it” in society and experience little prejudice and discrimination, and on the other hand, are perpetual foreigners and thus “aliens in their own land.”
While the health effects of COVID-19 are serious, concerns about its social impact are no less urgent. At a recent press briefing, President Trump again referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and again blamed that country for the outbreak, despite calls from the World Health Organization (WHO) to avoid naming infectious diseases based on their place of geographic origin. Perhaps by doggedly using the phrase, journalists will be forced to repeat it, thereby spreading and reproducing the stigmatizing language. In describing the battle against COVID-19, Mr. Trump has invoked war as an analogy, saying “This is a war — a different kind of war than we’ve ever had.” He is, of course, correct. We are living through an unprecedented moment in history. But the current ‘war’ is not between nations, but between humans and the virus.
Racialized pandemics like Ebola, Zika, SARS and COVID-19 know no borders. In 1876 an outbreak of smallpox in San Francisco was blamed on the local Chinatown. It strengthened calls to stop immigration and contributed to the federal government passing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that banned the immigration of Chinese men to the U.S. This act was not fully repealed until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended the longstanding policy of limiting immigration based on national origin.
Just as mitigating the transmission of pathogens requires a robust immune response, halting the spread of bigotry and fear necessitates mounting a vigorous community response. This will require that we collectively, as an informed and enlightened populace, speak out against acts of discrimination and violence. Perhaps then we will be able to build and strengthen our own immunity against racism, through solidarity.
Anthony D. Ong is professor of human development at Cornell and professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. David R. Williams is the Norman professor of public health and African and African American, and chair of the department of social and behavioral sciences studies at Harvard University.