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Open Access Publications from the University of California

COVID-19 is a “Yellow Peril” Redux: Immigration and Health Policy and the Construction of the Chinese as Disease


During the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have endured a stark rise in discrimination, harassment, and violence. Public discourse regarding COVID-19 has also been filled with anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric, including former President Donald Trump’s usage of racially charged epithets like “China Virus” and “Kung Flu.” However, this is not the first time that Asian Americans, and specifically Chinese Americans, have been condemned as a public health threat. In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants were stereotyped as the “Yellow Peril” and dirty disease carriers amidst growing anti-Chinese sentiment, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Additionally, San Francisco Chinatown was intentionally and unfairly targeted by public health officials in attempts to purge the bubonic plague at the turn of the century. While court cases like Wong Wai v. Williamson (1900) and Jew Ho v. Williamson (1900) determined that such public health campaigns violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by singling out Chinese individuals, their legal outcomes do not represent the overall social consensus, both historically and today. Thus, our current moment of surging anti-Asian rhetoric and racism must be contextualized within America’s long history of branding Asian and Chinese people as unwanted, filthy vectors of contagion to be excluded. This paper argues that the uptick in anti-Asian racial violence during the COVID-19 pandemic is a direct extension of xenophobic scapegoating, racial formation, and sociocultural representation of Chinese immigrants as harbingers of disease that rationalized the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and San Francisco’s racist public health measures in 1900. Ultimately, I argue that America's historical intersection of exclusionary immigration law and discriminatory health policy set the stage for COVID-19 to play out as a “Yellow Peril” redux.

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