In vivid examples of the association of Asian Americans with disease, authorities in 1900 sealed off the Chinatowns of both San Francisco and Honolulu after outbreaks of the bubonic plague.
Charles McClain, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law who has written a book on the history of Chinese Americans’ efforts against discrimination, said medical professionals at the time concluded that Asians were more susceptible to the plague.
“It was a very crowded area,” he said of San Francisco’s Chinatown. “I don’t think morbidity was any worse there than it was any other part of the city. But there was this sort of stereotype that played a large role in forming opinion.”
San Francisco was eventually forced to end its mandatory quarantine of Chinatown after a court agreed that authorities needed to prove that Chinese Americans were more likely to get infected.
While no US officials are suggesting that Chinese Americans are spreading the coronavirus, Asian Americans have repeatedly borne the brunt of wider international tensions.
Most notoriously, the United States detained 120,000 Japanese Americans in camps during World War II as it questioned their loyalty.
Wu said that Asian Americans still struggle in not being identified as foreigners.
“You can be an assimilated, English-speaking Christian who has never been to China and has high sanitary standards. People still somehow associate you with dirtiness and disease.”