[As I draft this series in late March, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to devastate the United States and the world. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of prior epidemics, leading up to a weekend post that I’ll wait to draft until we know more about where things stand in early May.]
On the long history of associating illness with foreign and immigrant communities.
First things first: by challenging, as I did in my Saturday Evening Post column, our president’s and his supporters’ attempts to brand Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” (a central goal of theirs, at least as of the March moment in which I’m drafting this post); and linking that trend, as I will in this post, to longstanding and discriminatory historical narratives, I don’t mean to minimize the frustrating ways in which the Chinese government seems to have covered up the initial outbreak and spread of the epidemic. While of course our own American government did the same for crucial early months (really all of January and February), that doesn’t at all elide the Chinese government’s responsibility for the world’s early failures to recognize and respond to the virus in ways that might have limited its scope and effects. All of that is part of the story of this pandemic—but none of it has much if anything to do with why so many xenophobic Americans insist on calling the disease the Chinese virus.
How do I know that, you might ask? Because Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans have been linked to illness in xenophobic and bigoted fears and narratives for nearly two centuries now. The 19th and early 20th century “Yellow Peril” narrative featured many distinct types of anti-Chinese sentiments, but these fears of illness (and accompanying images of Chinese immigrants and Chinese American communities as unclean and the like) were consistently central to that narrative. Indeed, some of the most common arguments in favor of our earliest national immigration restrictions (which just happened to be our earliest national immigration laws of any kind), from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Immigration Act of 1917 to the 1920s Quota Acts, were those which accused Chinese immigrants (and gradually those from many other nations as well, but Chinese Americans quite clearly comprised the origin point for the links between these fears and national immigration restrictions) of carrying incurable diseases such as smallpox and the bubonic plague.
That narrative became an enduring basis for broader anti-immigrant sentiments and narratives throughout the 20th century. Take for example Texas Congressman John Box’s 1928 arguments on the floor of the House of Representatives for extending the 1924 Quota Act to cover the Mexican American border; Box argued that “Every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased, and degraded people of Europe or Asia demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border.” Box traffics in some dozen xenophobic stereotypes in that one sentence, but I think it’s no coincidence that at least three of his eight adjectives (“dirty,” “diseased,” and “unclean”) are closely linked to narratives of illness and contagion (while two have to do with literacy/knowledge and two with class/poverty). Quite simply, there’s no way to understand the long history of anti-immigrant sentiments in American society, culture, and laws without a full engagement with the centrality of disease fears and narratives to those perspectives—and thus no way to disentangle our current moment’s fears and xenophobia from all those interconnected histories.
Next epidemic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other thoughts on this epidemic or any prior ones?
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