The Long History of Blaming Immigrants in Times of Sickness

Tara Wu in The Smithsonian:

On a chilly morning in February, about a thousand Chinese immigrants, Chinese Americans and others filled the streets of San Francisco’s historic Chinatown. They marched down Grant Avenue led by a bright red banner emblazoned with the words “Fight the Virus, NOT the People,” followed by Chinese text encouraging global collaboration to fight Covid-19 and condemning discrimination. Other signs carried by the crowd read: “Time For Science, Not Rumors” and “Reject Fear and Racism.” They were responding to incidents of bias and reported significant drops in revenue in Chinatown and other local Asian American-owned businesses, even at a time when the city had not yet experienced any Covid-19 cases. The rally banner is soon to join the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History for the story it tells of America’s history of associating its immigrants with disease.

“There have been long-standing messages about disease being particularly something that Chinese immigrants, Chinese spaces incubate, that Chinese people spread, either because of their unsanitary living conditions or especially the weird, exotic food that Asians allegedly eat,” says Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

…On the cover of an 1899 issue of another mainstream magazine, Judge, U.S. President William McKinley is depicted bathing a Filipino native baby in the “waters of civilization.” In the background, two figures dressing themselves in clothes made from the Puerto Rican flag have presumably just been freshly washed with the same “brush of education” that McKinley holds in his hand. Published during the Spanish-American War just after the U.S. colonized the Philippines and Puerto Rico, the illustration vividly visualizes the racist ideas of the period, according to Theodore Gonzalves, a curator at the museum who specializes in Asian American and performing arts history.

More here.