When xenophobia spreads like a virus

Ericka Lee

From a planned bombing of a hospital with COVID-19 patients inside, to targeted physical and psychological violence against Asian Americans and other ethnic groups, hate crimes are on the rise across the United States. Thousands of these kinds of acts have been reported across the nation. A March FBI assessment warned as much, and Minnesota has not been immune to instances of xenophobia, both rural and urban.

Professor Erika Lee, an award-winning American historian and director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, says the rise of racism and xenophobia that we're seeing during the COVID-19 public health crisis is both old and new.

“Across the centuries Americans have labeled immigrants a threat because they were poor, because they practiced a different faith, or because they were non-white,” says Lee.

In particular, says Lee, immigrants have often shouldered the blame during public health crises.

“Public health crises feed on xenophobia and racism. [Immigrants] have been likened to parasites or an invasive population, a plague, and ‘an invisible threat,’” she says.

In the 1790s, for example, when yellow fever was spreading to the United States, Americans blamed Germans and called it the “German flu,” she says.

In the 1830s and 1840s, Irish immigrants were blamed for bringing and spreading cholera. In the 1890s, Jews were blamed for a typhoid epidemic. By 1916 it was Italians who were blamed for the spread of polio.

The list goes on and on, and politicians used the message that immigrants were public health risks to pass discriminatory immigration laws.

These are laws like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law to single out an entire group for immigration exclusion based on race and class. That was followed by the 1921 and 1924 immigration acts, which continued to allow in immigrants from Northern and Western Europe who were largely considered the “best immigrants,” says Lee, but which closed America’s gates to many immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, as well as from Asia.

Still, while the targets of xenophobia may have changed, the arguments against immigrants have largely remained the same, says Lee.

“They've argued that there are too many immigrants, that they're not assimilating, that they're taking jobs away from deserving Americans, that they bring crime and disease into the country, or that they have dangerous political ideals,” she says.

Lee, who recently published her fourth book, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States, emphasizes that throughout history Americans have been wary of almost every group of foreigners who have come to the United States, and that we should be prepared for the inevitable fallout.

“This really is a part of a larger anti-immigrant narrative at work in the U.S. today. While COVID-19 hate crimes might be directed toward one population, the larger bans on immigration are going to be impacting all immigrant communities.”

Lee says that if there is a silver lining in all that we are facing today, it’s that more and more people are becoming aware of how xenophobia works. And community organizations, advocates, and some local governments are stepping up to track hate crimes.

As to what people can do to stop its spread: “Report it. Stand up and speak out.”

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz recently launched a discrimination helpline to report racist acts and crimes in Minnesota. Many other states have set up hotlines as well.