President Trump and Old Glory

White House

Over a week ago, the first of 22 cargo planes laden with medical supplies from China landed in New York. Nevertheless, Chinese workers continue to be derided by our President. Prior to that, a photographer captured an image of President Trump’s notes during a coronavirus taskforce press briefing; the word “Corona” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese” in ‘coronavirus’.

Trump’s latest attempt at scapegoating through racist rhetoric is not only shameful, but dangerous as well. The deep reservoir of bigotry and xenophobia in our country that Trump has been deliberately stoking since the launch of his presidential campaign has spilled over. Again.

Racism is especially dangerous coming from the commander in chief in this time of life-and-death crisis, anxiety, and confusion. We have seen what his presidency has meant to white supremacists emboldened by his rhetoric in the past. The events of Charlottesville represent a stark example.

The history of anti-Chinese racism in the US goes back to the late 19th century when it was used to formulate anti-Chinese immigration policies, policies which continue, and which Trump has again exacerbated and extended from an anti-Latin-American and anti-Muslim to an anti-Chinese xenophobia.

It also reinforces anti-black racism, systemic in the U.S. and seen again in the neglect of the largely black and brown frontline and essential workers most at risk in the epidemic.

In the “Lockdown State” when policing of public health measures may be done in discriminatory ways, anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism is almost sure to infect some police and local government practice, as well as inciting random racist attacks by civilians. As reported by the New York Times, Asian people throughout the nation have been facing acts of discrimination causing real worry in their communities for their personal safety and the safety of their children.

To make sure that this period of physical distancing becomes an opportunity for social solidarity, teachers and other unionists should speak out against anti-Asian racism with their students and co-workers. Online courses, where appropriate, should devote time to it, with a “visiting” teacher, for example, whose perspective makes the problem real to students.  Union newspapers can run articles.

In fact, all Americans need to stand up and denounce the President’s use of “Chinese virus.” We can’t say “This is just Trump being Trump” and stay silent in a moment when there is a real threat that mass racism could lead to even more deaths.  

Unions have a unique opportunity here to push back against bigotry. Together, we need to condemn this jingoistic anti-Chinese racism coming from the highest elected offices. It divides workers inside the U.S. and around the globe in a moment when we need solidarity among all workers both here and abroad. Jingoistic xenophobia does nothing but disrupt communities and sow fear and distrust.  As Fred Hampton said, “We fight racism with solidarity.” The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis affecting all workers of different races and nationalities, so our solidarity must become global.

When we expect an economic crisis in which workers’ contracts and other gains may be unraveled, a united front of unionized workers is paramount. It directly counteracts the divisive racism which has historically been a great danger to working class movements and a trap many employers would love us to fall into.

Unions can make anti-racism a conscious part of our strategy in the coming economic crisis. Our union, PSC/CUNY, AFT Local 2334, has set up an International Committee to fulfil our duty of international solidarity across borders, especially with workers in the Global South. The Committee held a forum last Spring against U.S. sanctions, which are today causing excess deaths from COVID-19 in places like Venezuela and Iran. The forum led to a book now in progress, including a critique of sanctions as killers in the epidemic. We can plan an online teach-in on anti-Asian racism including Asian and Asian-American speakers from our network.

University faculty and staff have a special responsibility to speak out against racist lies propagated by the government. Our union, the Professional Staff Congress represents some 30,000 faculty and instructional workers at the City University of New York. Our members know the dangers of racist rhetoric from personal and professional experience.

Unions like the PSC are committed to standing up for all workers regardless of race, creed or gender. Together, we must speak out for solidarity with our many Chinese, Chinese-American, Asian and Asian-American fellow-students and fellow-workers.

Manny Ness and Tony O’Brien are members of the PSC/CUNY International Committee