In a recent mass shooting in Atlanta, eight people were killed. Among them were six women of Asian descent, leading many to suspect racism was a factor. The suspect claimed that he was motivated by his sexual addiction and acted to eliminate his temptations. The fact that the suspect did not explicitly claim a racist motivation allows for some to claim that despite the clear targeting of Asians, this was not an act of racism. In terms of the impact of the killings, having epistemic certainty regarding the suspect’s motives is irrelevant: eight people are dead, and the choice of targets provides reasonable evidence that Asians were targeted because they are Asians. But even if it becomes utterly clear that the suspect was not motivated by racism, there is still significant anti-Asian prejudice in the United States.
Racism against Asians is baked into America. One early examples is the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The most famous act of large-scale anti-Asian racism was, of course, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two. When the subject of anti-Asian racism is brought up, a common counter is to use what is known as the “Model Minority Myth.” The gist of the reasoning is that the prosperity of (some) Asian Americans is evidence against claims of white racism. The explanation given for the prosperity is that Asians have exemplified traditional values (hard work, two-parent families, and so on). This is then used as a weapon against claims about racism against blacks: since Asian success “proves” racism is either not a factor or can be overcome with hard work, then the social and economic ills Black Americans face must be their own fault.
As would be expected, although the myth has been refuted countless times, it remains a popular tool on the right. While this oversimplified matters, the key fact that debunks the myth is that it willfully ignores “…the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has played in Asian American success…” Why this is a problem can be shown with an analogy.
Imagine that someone wanted to refute the claim that seniors face serious health challenges. To do this, they do a health survey of participants in the National Senior Games. They find, of course, that the seniors in this group tend to be quite healthy and conclude that seniors do not face any serious health issues. The obvious problem is that this generalization is from a biased sample: seniors who compete in the Senior Games will tend to be healthy and fit; the games will tend to select for health and fitness. Likewise, using Asian immigrants to make a generalization about minorities in America would involve a biased sample because of the impact of selective recruitment. Which itself was a manifestation of racism.
The most recent manifestation in anti-Asian racism has been the increase in hate crimes. In 2020 there was an increase of almost 150% in hate crimes against Asians while hate crimes in general declined. This trend has continued into 2021. The United States has an established history of weaponizing racism in the context of diseases and this racist tactic was embraced in response to COVID. While Trump did not invent the racist’s tactic of accusing “foreigners” of spreading disease for political gain, Trump added fuel to the fire of racism by his insistence on referring to the “Chinese Virus.” This, as one would expect, was followed by an increase in hate crimes against Asians in the United States.
One counter to this claim is to assert that correlation is not causation—that it is mere coincidence that Trump insisted on using “Chinese Virus” and then attacks on Asians increase. While correlation is not causation, this issue has been studied and the evidence is that Trump’s use of the phrase was a causal factor in the increase. One could, of course, embrace philosophical skepticism at this point and argue that one can never know whether something causes something else—but this would need to be a consistently adopted principle and seems a rather desperate move to save Trump.
As another response, Trump was clearly and obviously engaged in intentional racism and xenophobia. He was using the racist tactic of speaking of the foreign disease and the diseased foreigner—one that was most recently used in the racism aimed at the allegedly diseased caravans heading towards the United States from the south. That Trump’s defenders had to engage in relentless and regular efforts to try to explain away his seemingly racist claims tends to undercut their own case—one would need to argue that Trump unintentionally but constantly used stock racist tropes and language. While not logically impossible, it does strain the boundaries of possibility.
One rather clear piece of evidence is that Trump used his infamous sharpie to cross out “Corona” in his speech and replace it with “Chinese”, thus showing that his usage was planned and intended, rather than a slip of some sort. His defenders can engage in various gymnastics to explain this. One strategy is to argue that Trump was using “Chinese virus” like “Spanish flu” has been used. While this approach has some appeal, calling the flu the “Spanish flu” is also now seen as morally wrong. Labeling a disease with a specific country or ethnicity tends to lead to stigma and racism. As such, using the “Spanish Flu” defense is like defending the use of “wetback” by pointing to the use of “wop.”
A second strategy was to argue that Trump was just referring to where it came from and point out that it was originally called the “Wu Han virus.” One can claim that was not racist or xenophobic for Trump to use “Chinese virus” because the Chinese used “Wu Han virus.” The reply is that the use of the term “Wu Han virus” was also seen as wrong—for the same reasons that “Spanish flu” and “Chinese virus” are wrong. Since Trump intentionally decided to refer to it as the “Chinese flu” and there are no good reasons to use that term, the best explanation is the obvious one: Trump was engaged in a xenophobic and racist dog whistle, cashing in on the racist trope of the diseased foreigner and the foreign disease. For those who would expended considerable energy trying to cast his usage in a positive light, one must ask why do so? And why defend him against the umpteenth reasonable charge of racism and xenophobia? If Trump had merely been engaged in neutrally describing the virus, one would be hard pressed to explain why his followers often seemed so pleased with his use of that phrase. Perhaps, one might speculate, they liked that he was upsetting “the libs” by being politically incorrect. But, of course, the use of that phrase is “politically incorrect” because it is racist. As such, one might suspect that such defenders were on board with the racism.
After Trump lost the election and was booted from social media for repeated terms of service violations, his voice largely fell silent. But hate crimes against Asians have still been increasing (though seemingly not as dramatically as when Trump was actively encouraging racism). The explanation for this is easy enough: the racist trope of the foreign disease and diseased foreigner is still in play—Trump’s loss and “exile” only robbed the racists of their loudest dog whistler. There is also the fact that the effect of Trump’s use of the phrase will endure—while his impact is far less, the impact he had still lingers to fuel the fires of racism.
Fortunately, the Biden administration has been a positive change. In addition to not engaging in racism, the administration has condemned the crimes against Asians and is planning to address anti-Asian violence and discrimination. That is, he is not just being “not racist” he is endeavoring to be anti-racist. This is the right thing to do: encouraging racism to divert attention from the cruel and callous handling of the pandemic by the Trump administration and exploiting xenophobia for political gain hurts people and undermines the efforts to combat the pandemic. As such, Trump and his enablers did the wicked thing while Biden is now doing the right thing. These are two more reasons it is morally good that Trump lost the election: while racism and the pandemic remain, at least we now have a president who is addressing them rather then enabling them.