First he called Mexicans ‘criminals,’ then he called COVID-19 the ‘Chinese virus’

President Donald Trump delivers his third State of the Union to the nation the night before the U.S. Senate is set to vote in his impeachment trial. Photo by Drew Angerer | Getty Images

First Donald Trump called Mexicans criminals and rapists, and we spoke out.

Then he banned the Muslims, and we spoke out.

Then he called neo-Nazis fine people, and we spoke out.

Then he called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”

In a Twitter post this week, Jeff Yang described his first “breathing while Asian” moment.

“Went out for groceries and an older, masked white woman passing by the line shouted ‘F— YOU!’ at me for no apparent reason. As I stared at her, she pulled off her mask, couged directly at me, turned on her heel and walked off.”

In San Francisco, Yuanyuan Zhu, a Chinese immigrant, was spit on by a man as she walked to her gym. Zhu, 26, “hurried the rest of the way to the gym,” according to the New York Times. “She found a corner where no one could see her, and she cried quietly.”

At a middle school in Los Angeles, an Asian American teen was punched repeatedly in the head by a fellow student who during the attack screamed, “Go back to China!”

Verbal and physical attacks of Asian Americans have become more common across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s repeated insistence on calling it the “Chinese virus.” Asked by a reporter why he kept using the term during recent White House press briefings, even though most Asian Americans think it’s racist to do so, Trump said flatly, “It’s not racist at all. It comes from China.”

In Phoenix, Vicente Reid, president and CEO of the Asian Chamber of Commerce, has a better explanation: It’s all about Trump’s egotistical, political strategy and his effort to distract from his bungled response to the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

“He’s failed the American people,” said Reid, “and he wants someone to blame. Instead of being a leader, Trump chose to downplay the danger of the virus.”

In fact, Trump told supporters at a Feb. 28 campaign rally that news of the virus’ spread was a Democratic “hoax” designed to hurt his re-election campaign.

But The Washington Post reports that Trump was briefed by U.S. intelligence agencies sometime in January about the looming potential of a global pandemic. Instead of organizing a concerted government response, the president publicly “played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen…”

Reid said the president’s “Chinese virus” comments fuel the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype that Asians, Latinos, African Americans and other people of color can never be fully American.

Several members of his organizatino have reported having to deal with bigoted comments and incidents since COVID-19 began to spread. Even before the shutdown of schools and business in the state, Reid said members of the chamber reported up to a 40% drop in business. Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” only makes things worse.

“The reality, unfortunately, is there’s a lot of racist people who, no matter what our ethnicity or nationality, they assume we’re all Chinese,” said Reid, who is of Filipino and Anglo origin.  

Responding to the increase in racist attacks, a coalition of civil rights groups has created a website to gather reports of “bias crimes” against Asian Americans tied to the pandemic.

Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, told the AFP news service the site received 36 submissions in its first 24 hours.

“I definitely think it will get worse, partly because of the president’s relentless effort for weaponizing hate against communities,” Kulkarni said.

Racism and hate crimes aimed at Asian Americans are nothing new. The Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s banned Chinese immigration to the U.S. and inspired later restrictions against other Asian populations, Middle Easterners and Mexicans. During World War II, Arizona hosted two of ten prison camps ordered built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to jail thousands of Japanese Americans accused, without evidence, of disloyalty to the United States. Mexico and Canada did the same.

Trump’s serial attacks against foreigners, immigrants and people of color since taking office make me think of the 1940s poem by the Pastor Martin Niemoller about “the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy,”  including Niemoller, during the Nazis’ rise to power.

Niemoller wrote, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—” His poem goes on to describe how the Nazis then came for the trade unionists and Jews, and ends with this: “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Niemoller’s poem reminds us that unopposed, racist authoritarianism, like the words that perpetuate it, can only lead to more racist authoritarianism – or worse.