Flyers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport wearing facemasks. Photo by Chad Davis, Flickr CC

During times of crisis, existing prejudices often become heightened. Fears about the current coronavirus, or COVID-19, have revealed rampant racism and xenophobia against Asians. Anti-Asian discrimination ranges from avoiding Chinese businesses to direct bullying and assaults of people perceived to be Asian. This discriminatory behavior is nothing new. The United States has a long history of blaming marginalized groups when it comes to infectious disease, from Irish immigrants blamed for carrying typhus to “promiscuous women” for spreading sexually transmitted infections. 

Historically, the Chinese faced blame time and again. In the 19th century, public health officials depicted Chinese immigrants as “filthy,” carriers of disease. These views influenced Anti-Chinese policies and practices, including humiliating medical examinations at Angel Island — the entry port for many Chinese immigrants coming to America — and the violent quarantine and disinfection of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 20th century when a case of the Bubonic plague was confirmed there. 
An advertisement for "Rough on Rats" rat poison. On the flyer there is an image of a stereotypically drawn "china man" eating a rat.
Late 19th century racist advertisement for rat poison

Discrimination against the Chinese is one example among many. Such discrimination had nothing to do with their actual hygiene and health, and everything to do with their social position relative to other racial groups. It’s easy to look back on the xenophobic U.S. policies and behavior in earlier times. Let’s not fall into the same patterns today.

For more on xenophobia and coronavirus, listen to Erika Lee on a recent episode of NPR’s podcast, Code Switch.