CIANA Explains: Why the Coronavirus Is Not An Excuse for Racism


The recent outbreak of the coronavirus, originating in Wuhan, China, has caused a lot of fear and anxiety. It has also triggered xenophobia against Chinese immigrants in the United States that mirrors discrimination they have faced since the 1800s. Understanding the ongoing health crisis, and how to properly react to it, both require understanding the history of Chinese immigrants in the U.S., and why racist attitudes against them are not the solution.

A Brief History of Chinese Immigrants in the United States

There is no disputing that Chinese immigration has a long and fraught history in the United States. Dating back to the 19th century, manual laborers from China entered this country and migrated to the West Coast in search of work. These laborers found employment in a number of fields, including agriculture, mining, railroad construction, in addition to other low-skill jobs.

Despite Chinese immigrants’ urge to find work,Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in order to limit and prevent the entry of Chinese migrants into the country. As a result of its passing, Chinese migration decreased significantly. Fortunately, the amendments made to the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 removed restrictions for non-European immigrants.

In addition to allowing more migrants to enter the country, including those from China, these amendments also created employment programs for skilled workers.

The population of Chinese immigrants in the United States has grown tremendously since 1980, according to a report from the Migration Policy Institute. Over the past 40 years, the population has increased nearly seven times in the present day, and reaching a peak of about 2.5 million within the last two years.

This may be due to the United States being the top destination for Chinese immigrants, making up almost 27 percent of the more than 12 million Chinese living outside of their home country, according to a mid-2019 study from the United Nations Population Division.

According to the 2010 Census, the Asian population in this country represents the third largest foreign-born group living in the United States. This is a tremendous change from 1980, where Chinese immigrants were not even in the top ten largest foreign-born groups. With the 2020 Census rapidly approaching, it will likely not come as a surprise to see the number of Chinese immigrants rise dramatically.

Why are these figures important?

Many reactions to the sudden novel coronavirus outbreak, especially those online, have been rooted in fear and racism, both intentional and unintentional. A notable incident came from the University of California at Berkeley’s health center regarding a graphic that was posted on their Instagram account. The account, Be Well Cal, posted an image about “mana