Newlin: Racialized rhetoric in legislature hearkens back to “Yellow Peril,” implicitly fuels anti-Asian violence

March 17, 2021


Sword-shaped lettering slashes across a dragon with wild, bulging eyes. A dark-skinned man scowls under his pointed mustache and turban. “See ‘The Yellow Menace’ in pictures beginning tomorrow!” reads a 1916 film poster. Viewers are assured that the lead – a “sinister demon of Mongolian birth, fired with hatred for the white races on whom he wreaks his poisonous venom” – will make them “feel the real danger that threatens America.”

1916 represented neither the beginning nor the end of anti-Asian hostility in the U.S. The nation expressed shock at the 1885 Rock Springs, Wyoming massacre when 28 Chinese miners were killed in a “murderous onslaught” and the 500 remaining “Chinamen” were “driven out of town.” But the enthusiastic passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act just three years prior should have made such violence predictable. “Arm against Yellow Peril!” screams a 1905 San Francisco headline. “Yellow Peril Enters Chicago School Rooms!” cries another headline from 1910. Later, from 1942-1945, my relatives and 125,000 other “persons of Japanese Ancestry” were forced into prison camps because of their “undiluted racial strains.” Their incarceration was acceptable to an American public exposed to nearly a century of anti-Asian propaganda.

My great grandparents and six of their children were uprooted from California and imprisoned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Simultaneously, my American-born grandfather was fired from the Union Pacific in Green River, Wyoming (“Jap nationals employed on the railroad dismissed!” reports the Rock Springs Rocket), and his cameras and hunting rifles were seized. Growing up after the War, my mother would get “the up-and-down look” from shop owners and restaurant-goers who continued to eye her and her family with suspicion.

Fast-forwarding to 2016, angry men screamed at my brother to “Go back to Mexico!” and in 2019, I myself was addressed as “you people” by a white official incensed by my refusal to vacate a space outside the entrance of a military base. “What don’t you understand?” he barked at our peaceful gathering of Japanese Americans objecting to migrant children being imprisoned at this site where Japanese immigrants were wrongfully incarcerated during WWII. “It’s English! Get out!”

In the past year, violence against Asian Americans has surged nationwide with more than 3000 firsthand reports. This tsunami of anti-Asian hate is demonstrably linked to political rhetoric that fixates on the birthplace of the pandemic, normalizes racial slurs like “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu,” and fuels conspiracy theories about China’s nefarious intent. To my dismay, such rhetoric is being officially propagated here in the Equality State, where we pride ourselves on being decent and neighborly.

For example, two bills proposed in the Wyoming legislature – HJR2 and SF94 – go out of their way to note that COVID-19 was “first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, People’s Republic of China.” More overtly, state Senator Jim Anderson announced his COVID-19 diagnosis by asserting in a senate meeting: “I am fully engaged in the Chinese communist chemical warfare experiment coming from Wuhan.” Reiterating that COVID-19 represents an “experiment from Wuhan,” he added, “I hope the Chinese are getting what they want out of it.”

Yes, this novel coronavirus emerged in China. But as a medical anthropologist trained in infectious disease, I teach about how diseases arise and proliferate. Key take-aways are that 1) conditions for the emergence of new diseases exist in most every country, and 2) global transportation facilitates spread, regardless of a pathogen’s origin. Once an outbreak becomes a pandemic, a legislature’s responsibility is to protect residents by controlling further spread. Lawmakers’ preoccupation with a “patient zero” who happens to be Chinese is both irrelevant and dangerous.

Words have power. During this surge of anti-Asian violence, it is unconscionable to perpetuate racialized language and incessantly assign ethnic blame for the pandemic. Legislators have a choice: will they learn from past racial scapegoating? Or will their current round of groundless racist tropes secure another shameful chapter in Wyoming and American history?

The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center’s spring exhibit showcases how minority groups have been scapegoated for disease throughout U.S. history. I encourage readers to visit virtually or in person to explore the roots of today’s trends. And I implore legislators to set an example of decency in leadership and patriotism by condemning anti-Asian narratives.

Aura (Sunada-Matsumura) Newlin is a fourth-generation Wyomingite and a fourth-generation Japanese American. She is a faculty member at Northwest College in Powell, WY and serves on the leadership of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Tsuru for Solidarity, and the National Consortium on Racial & Ethnic Fairness in the Courts.

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