Director’s Desk: “The Yellow Peril”

by Jacob Bender, Executive Director

In the midst of our current pandemic, today’s New York Times carried a frontpage article about the outbreak in the U.S. of another type of deadly virus, Sinophobia, the irrational fear and hatred of all things Chinese. Anti-Chinese bigotry in the U.S. was common throughout the latter half of the 19th century, as seen in these posters:

Now, more than a century later, in tableaus all too familiar to the Muslim community since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, American Chinese have been spat upon and physically threatened across the country, while their children have been bullied on the school yard. While no fan of President George W. Bush, neither in 2001 nor now, let us give credit where credit is due, for within days after 9/11, Bush went to a mosque in Washington DC to declare that the US was not at war with Islam, and that American Muslims were not responsible for the attacks.

Compare that to the racist utterings of the current occupant of the Oval Office, who, together with his fellow Republicans, continue to use the term “the Chinese virus” when describing the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, this is a president who boasted about physically attacking women, mimicked a physically-challenged journalist on the campaign trail, and threw rolls of paper towels at desperate survivors of a hurricane in Puerto Rico.

Sadly, the president follows in a long line of xenophobes and bigots who have sought to blame others for the rapid spread of disease throughout history:

  • Jews communities throughout Europe were decimated by physical attacks following the Black Death Plagues of 1347-48, which were blamed upon the Jews;
  • As it spread throughout Europe in the 1600s, syphilis was often called “the Neapolitan Disease,” “the French Disease,” “the Polish Disease,” and “the German Disease,” depending on who was doing the scapegoating;
  • American officials burned down Chinatown in Honolulu when the plague struck the Hawaiian Islands in 1899;
  • And in 1980s, AIDs become an excuse for both anti-Haitian racism, and Homophobia.

Here are ways you can respond if you are a witness to a hate-crime against any religious, racial, ethnic, or LGBTQ group:

  • If an attack is underway, immediately call the police;
  • Contact the press to describe the attack;
  • Contact our office so we can keep track of these crimes;
  • Cease using the phrase “the Chinese virus.”

It is important that Muslims, while rightfully angered about the unacceptable and despicable oppression against Uyghur Muslims in China, do not buy into this bigotry.

And finally, in this time of disease and demagoguery, it is important to remember that faith can prove a balm for the afflicted and solace for the persecuted. As is written:

Truly distress has seized me, but You are Most Merciful of those that are merciful.
Quran 21:83–84


“The Commission is deeply concerned by the rise of an anti-Asian framing of this global crisis we find ourselves in. Now is the time for us to work together to solve the critical issues of public health and community safety that are right in front of us, and rhetoric that divides us against our neighbors makes that work harder. We urge everyone to ensure that the information they are putting out and taking in is rooted in science and fact, not misinformation and fear.”

– Mohan Seshadri, Executive Director, Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs