Amid the coronavirus wreckage, there seems to be a bright spot. The pushback against referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” indicates a welcome new sensitivity for the racial discrimination directed at Chinese-Americans.
Or does it?
Ever since people began referring to “the China virus”—or to be precise, ever since the White House press corps realized it was Donald Trump’s preferred term—the American people have been given repeated warnings that this is not only insensitive but dangerous. The subheadline of a recent New York Times story captures the tone: “As bigots blame them for the coronavirus and President Trump labels it the ‘Chinese virus,’ many Chinese-Americans say they are terrified of what could come next.”
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has also chimed in with a statement warning public officials against normalizing “xenophobic animosity toward Asian Americans” by using “the China virus.” The Council of Chief Diversity Officers at the University of California instructs the university community not to use terms like “Chinese virus” because they “cast either intentional or unintentional projections of hatred toward Asian communities.” Beijing complains that Mr. Trump’s use of such terms contributes to the “stigmatization of China.”
It’s hard not to notice the chasm between this new hypersensitivity and the indifference toward another, very real discrimination affecting this same community. That is the racial discrimination keeping Chinese-Americans out of America’s most elite educational institutions. Some of the same people who fret so loudly about how we refer to Covid-19 are utterly indifferent to this other racial discrimination affecting Chinese-Americans.
Start with the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio. After Mr. Trump tweeted out a reference to “the China virus” earlier this month, Mr. de Blasio clapped back. Asian-Americans, the mayor thundered, “don’t need you fueling more bigotry.”
If someone fuels bigotry by calling a virus a name accurately derived from its geographic origins, what about a mayor who works overtime to reduce the number of Asian-Americans in his city’s most competitive public high schools, not because they haven’t earned their entry but because they aren’t the right race.
Ditto for Harvard. Remember, the chief argument against “the China virus” is that using it stigmatizes both China and people of Chinese descent. But what about the stigmas that come from the subjective “personal ratings” Harvard applies in its admissions process? The Justice Department says these ratings produce “consistently poorer scores for Asian-Americans,” a racial penalty that brings down an Asian-American applicant’s overall score.
According to Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing Harvard over its use of race in admissions, Asian-Americans as a whole score higher “on many objective measures than any other racial/ethnic group including test scores, academic achievement, and extracurricular activities.” But if we are to believe Harvard, Asian-Americans are less likable, less kind and less courageous than those of other races. If that’s not stigmatization, what is?
Or take the World Health Organization, which prides itself on objectivity and professionalism. In 2015, WHO updated its best practices for naming new infectious diseases. The aim is to prevent a name from “stigmatizing” any particular community or country, and thus avoid negative implications for everything from trade and tourism to violence.
Yet WHO refers to the West Bank and Gaza as “Occupied Palestinian territory.” Anyone ever ask the Israelis if they feel stigmatized or endangered when the world’s premier health authority lends its imprimatur to such a politicized name?
In an attempt to restore some perspective, two members of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow, issued a tart dissent from the majority’s claim that people who say “the China virus” are encouraging “xenophobic animosity.” Ms. Heriot and Mr. Kirsanow turn the tables on their fellow commissioners, pointing out that when authoritative organizations such as the commission indulge in “promiscuous” use of words such as “racist, xenophobic, and hateful,” it can also have ugly effects. All too often it means promoting the false notion that America is a steaming cauldron of hate just waiting to boil over.
Certainly Chinese-Americans (and others of Asian descent mistaken for them) are now enduring disgusting attacks and slurs from those unfairly blaming them for Covid-19. Much of this is crude name calling, such as the 13-year-old Connecticut girl taunted as “corona” by her classmates. Other acts by those blaming Chinese people for coronavirus are downright criminal, from the stabbing of an Asian-American father and son at a Texas Sam’s Club to an assault on a New York man, who was kicked, spat on and told to go back to China.
As the Commission on Civil Rights rightly says, “xenophobia wears many faces.” And in a nation of 330 million, America has its share of goons.
What’s Harvard’s excuse?
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