The Roots of Anti-Asian Racism in the U.S.: The Pandemic and ‘Yellow Peril’

Alexa Alice Joubin
Date of Publication: 
December, 2020
Source Organization: 

COVID-19 has exacerbated anti-Asian racism, the demonization of a group of people based on their perceived social value, in the United States in the cultural and political life. Offering strategies for inclusion during and after the pandemic, this article analyzes the history and language of racism, including the notion of yellow peril. Racialized thinking and racial discourses are institutionalized as power relations, take the form of political marginalization of minority groups, and cause emotional distress and physical harm.

The outbreak of the global pandemic of COVID-19 caused by SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus) in early 2020 has exacerbated anti-Asian racism in the United States that was already brewing in previous years during the Trump administration. Social distancing, a practice to help slow down the spread of the disease, furthered the misunderstanding between dominant and marginalized racial groups. By late April 2020, 54% of the global population (4.2 billion people) were subject to complete or partial lockdowns (WHO, 2020). The stay-at-home orders have accelerated anonymous hate speech online. The lockdown has slowed downtime, slowed down the spread of virus, and turned back the clock on human rights by inadvertently curtailing the rights of minority groups. 

Due to the stay-at-home order, more people found time to tune into social media to connect with like-minded individuals for socialization and venting. By the end of May, 2020, there were more than four hundred COVID-related subreddits on, among them the anti-Asian group /r/China_flu. Anti-Asian sentiments rose with Donald J. Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus.” There are 72,000 active users in this group who, compared to the 542,000 users in the official /r/Coronavirus group, overlap more frequently with extreme communities. These users demonstrated anti-Asian, and more specifically Sinophobic behaviors, on Reddit, Twitter, and 4chan during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic(Zhang, Keegan, Lv, & Tan, 2020). Hate speech on social media fueled violence in real life. In Los Angeles County alone, 245 incidents of hate crime were reported, between March 20-October 28, 2020, to Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, the leading aggregator of COVID-19-related hate incidents against Asian Americans in the U.S. 90% of individuals believed they were discriminated against due to their race, and Chinese-Americans experienced the highest rates of hate (35%). Nationwide, by late April, more than 1,500 incidents of racism (125 of which were physical attacks) were reported to the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (Stop AAPI Hate, 2020). Not surprisingly, 58% of the incidents took place in New York and California, regions with large Asian-American populations (Fang, 2020). The increase in anti-Asian racist incidents is evident when we consider that hate crimes against Asian-Americans actually dropped 30.8% from 2014-2018, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (University of Colorado Denver, 2020).

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Joubin, A. (2020, December). The Roots of Anti-Asian Racism in the U.S.: The Pandemic and ‘Yellow Peril’. Global Social Security Review 2020 Winter Issue Vol. 15.