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Before the 'Chinese Virus': A Brief History of White People Blaming America's Problems on Everyone Else

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Donald Trump is a white supremacist.

Donald Trump is a racist.

While those two previous sentences might seem redundant, they mean two different things. Racists ascribe (consciously or unconsciously) characteristics and attributes to certain races, while white supremacists perpetuate and maintain the superiority of the white race. Even though white supremacists often use racism as a tool and racists sometimes use white supremacy as an excuse, white supremacy doesn’t require a belief and racism doesn’t necessarily require intent.

For instance, Republican policies perpetuate the superiority of whiteness. They lock immigrant children in cages to preserve a white country. They disregard education inequality to protect their advantage of opportunity. They condone wage inequality so they won’t have to compete economically. Their entire purpose is to maintain the melanin-impaired population’s 400-year streak at American society’s pole position by sustaining oppression and obscuring any path toward equality.

That’s white supremacy.

To gain support for those legislative and executive decisions, Trump and his fellow Republicans perpetuate the notion that non-white immigrants (especially the ones from “shithole countries”) are evil gangbangers coming to take all the jobs. They push the idea that black people are lazy, violent criminals who don’t value education and hard work. They incite fears of Muslim terrorists, Hispanic rapists and big, black wife-stealing penises.


That’s racism.

However, when racism and white supremacy combine, they become a powerfully toxic potion that destroys every non-white thing in its path. One of the most recent illustrations of this deadly combination is Trump and GOP officials’ insistence on referring to coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus” or—even worse—the “Kung-Flu,” potentially stirring up hate and violence against Chinese Americans.

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Beth Skwarecki over at our sister site Lifehacker wrote a perfect explanation on why naming a disease after a place is not only stupid, but it often interferes with battling the disease, adding:

Focusing on who is carrying a disease will never be as effective as focusing on how to properly contain it. The virus doesn’t care where you came from. Anyone can contract it.

For all of these reasons, the World Health Organization issued guidelines a few years ago about naming diseases in a way that describes them accurately, without stigmatizing people or places or inciting unnecessary fear. Diseases are now supposed to be named after their symptoms, characteristics, and the cause of the disease if known. COVID-19, short for “coronavirus disease discovered in 2019,” is an appropriate name.

Still, the right wing zealots claim that the racist slur isn’t racist. Kellyanne Conway insists she can’t be prejudiced against Chinese people because she’s married to a man whose mother is from a country that is kinda close to China. Sen. Jon Cornyn (R-Texas) maintains “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”

As hate crimes against Asians continue to rise, Sen. Marsha Blackburn used the term on Facebook (To be fair, she does have a valid excuse—she’s from Tennessee). But it was the president of the United States who exacerbated the issue by telling the White House press corps that the racist slur was the official position of the United States.


A Washington Post photographer’s closeup of Trump’s prepared remarks revealed that Trump had scratched out the word “Corona” and replaced it with the word “Chinese” written in presidential Sharpie.


Goddamn, that man is evil.

He is a rancid, spiteful turd of a human being basking in the pain he inflicts. People are publicly telling him that he is committing an act of hate and his response is indifference. But his intentionally antagonistic use of the racial slur is just a transparent, white supremacist attempt to deflect from his own incompetence. It is his only tool.


Yes, white supremacy and racism are two different things.

Donald Trump is a perfect example of both.

On February 3, 1870, the United States ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which proclaiming that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the legislation resulted in more than 700,000 black newly registered voters, slightly outnumbering the number of white voters in the South.


For the first time in decades, white Democrats—the original recipe racists—were a minority in the South. With no support from the federal government, no free labor and no infrastructure, Southern whites were impoverished and politically powerless. So the Confederate leaders and whites took a novel approach.

They blamed black people.

Then, they started a war.

While many historians describe Reconstruction as a period of “racial unrest” marked by lynchings and “race riots,” it was undoubtedly a war. The network of terror cells that sprang up during Reconstruction went by many names, including the White League, the White Knights, the Knights of the White Camellia and—the most famous of all—the “Circle of Brothers” known as the Ku Klux Klan. The loose confederation of historically white fraternities all had one common goal:


Killing as many black people as possible.

Ku Klux Klan members in North Carolina assassinated a state senator, murdered a black town commissioner and lynched so many black voters in 1870 that Gov. William Woods Holden declared an insurrection, suspended habeas corpus (the right against unlawful detention) and imposed martial law. But none of the more than 100 terror leaders arrested in the “Kirk-Holden War” were ever charged with a crime. On October 25, 1870 in Eutaw, Ala., white radicals opened fire on thousands of black citizens at a political rally. In Laurens, S.C., “ten or twelve persons” were slaughtered the day after the 1870 state elections. A congressional committee investigating Klan violence heard accounts of whites and black ballot-casters being “waited upon” after voting.


I don’t know about you, but being “waited upon” sounds scary AF.

In 1871, the Klan slaughtered 30 people in Meridian, Miss. No one knows how many people were murdered by a white militia mob on Easter Sunday, 1873 in Colfax, La., but a military report lists 81 black men; another 15 to 20 bodies were fished out of the Red River and another 18 were secretly buried. In August 1874, the White League killed at least a dozen freedmen in Coushatta, La. in the Coushatta Massacre.


Somehow, white people’s Civil War ass-whipping became black people’s fault.

At the same time, because of a poor economy and over-speculation (and that whole race war thing), railroad companies cut wages for white railroad construction workers. Instead of adjusting to the economic downturn, whites in Midwestern and Western states blamed low-wage Chinese immigrants who were hired by greedy (or savvy) railroad executives. The panic of 1873 and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 fueled more anti-Chinese resentment.


Stoked by fears that their Chinese counterparts were taking jobs, whites lynched 17 Chinese-American employees in California in 1871. In Wyoming in 1885, white gold prospectors killed 28 Chinese miners and set 79 of the miners’ homes on fire. Wyoming newspapers endorsed the acts of the whites, explaining that the Chinese were destroying their beloved country. In 1886, the white citizens of Seattle literally forced every Chinese worker to leave town. The next year, in Oregon, 34 more workers were hanged at what would become Chinese Massacre cove. Even the government joined in. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first law that prevented an entire ethnic group from entering the United States, lasting until 1943.

The post-World War I recession fueled the same kind of white supremacist violence. Angry whites blamed job-thieving “uppity” black World War I veterans for the economic downturn, sparking thousands of lynchings and 25 anti-black riots in the Red Summer” of 1919. The resulting ethnonationalism gave rise to the Immigration Act of 1924, barring Italians, Jews, Asians and Poles from entering the country. When the white working-class became nervous about the pre-Great Depression economy and started marching through the streets with banners proclaiming a now-recycled phrase, the Klan reemerged as the preeminent anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant pro-American organization, as evident in a 1921 Congressional hearing:

[The Klan] stands for America firstfirst in thought, first in affections, and first in the galaxy of nations.


Sound familiar?

Of course, everyone knows that in the 1940s, Americans with Japanese heritage were imprisoned in concentration camps run by the U.S. military after Japanese pilots bombed Pearl Harbor. But San Francisco’s 1900 bubonic plague (pdf) scare is rarely mentioned, when officials eventually decided to quarantine the city’s Chinatown section after seriously considering burning the entire part of the city to the ground. In the 1910s, NYC health officials blamed Italians for importing polio, leading to anti-Italian violence. And, for some reason, Denver pinned the entire 1918 influenza outbreak that we call the “Spanish flu” on Germans and Eastern Europeans!


Yet here we are again.

A virus cannot be Chinese.

Even if it originated in China, Chinese people did not invent it nor did the government inject it into citizens. Americans brought it to America. It is no more Chinese than Mad Cow Disease is British or the smallpox, malaria and flu epidemic that decimated indigenous populations across the Americas is European. But when the idea of American exceptionalism combines with white privilege, it results in an explosion of “not my fault.”


The rules of racism mandate that whiteness is infallible. Conversely, every failure must be someone else’s doing. Blaming a virus on a specific nationality or ethnicity has consequences that last longer than the outbreak they induce. Yet, even if their clearly audible dog whistles lead to violence, hate and unimaginable injustice, Trump and his co-racist comrades will still point their fingers at everyone else for politicizing the tragic hate crimes sparked by their own despicable rhetoric.

That’s right. If you dare ask why they assigned a fucking race to a submicroscopic organism, they’ll swear they had the “racist bone” removed from their body. Then, they’ll ask why you’re making everything about race. They’ll contend that you’re the real racist. Or a reverse racist. Or a race-baiter.


See how it works?

But they know that there is only one communicable disease that has a race attached to it:

White supremacy.