Coughing While Asian

You've probably heard of "driving while black?" These days you've got to watch out if you're caught "coughing while Asian."

Ask any Asian American who has had hay fever in the past few weeks. A few hundred people get sick on the other side of the Pacific, and suddenly everyone who looks Asian is the new Typhoid Mary. Since the first reports of a "killer virus" abroad, an equally infectious SARS-related hysteria began to take hold here. Fox News caught the bug. Conan O'Brien delivered ill-conceived "Asian man" punch lines. Soon, Internet prophets were dishing out fire-and-brimstone e-mails about fatal outbreaks in Chinatowns from Boston to Sacramento -- none of which turned out to be true. Airplane passengers demanded to be moved from seats beside Asian travelers. U.C. Berkeley banned summer-session students from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. After a public outcry, Berkeley retracted the ban, and then quietly arranged for isolation rooms, just in case.

Hundreds of homeland security retailers are tapping into the panic industry. has SARS-proof respirators at $45 a pop. Their model for this product is a young Asian man whose mouth and nose are shielded from view by a sturdy face-mask. SaferAmerica also sells a SARS-repelling, ultra-mini air purifier -- the size of a Bic® lighter-that hangs on a neckstrap. This product -- "ideal for airport travelers!" and modeled by a smiling blonde bombshell -- goes for $145. The not-so-subtle message: Asians should cover their mouths so that white America can breathe free and easy.

It's not the first time Americans have jumped to race-based conclusions about a disease. In the early days of AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control announced that Haitians -- along with gay men, hemophiliacs, and IV-drug users -- were at the highest risk for HIV infection. According to University of Pennsylvania scholar Tonya Nicole Taylor, this was the first time the CDC assigned at-risk status to an entire population based on their nationality, rather than any particular high-risk behaviors. In the eyes of the INS, Haitian refugees were presumed HIV-positive until they could prove otherwise.

Could SARS-phobia prompt similar treatment for Asian immigrants? Ultra-conservative columnist Phyllis Schlafly is telling her readers to contact their representatives about screening foreigners entering the U.S. "to stop the extraordinary rise in cases of ... SARS." Schlafly may attract only a small constituency of supporters, but her appeal is perilous in the bigger scheme of things. It's an anti-immigrant free-for-all nowadays, with foreign student and visitor tracking programs, "special" registration of thousands of visa-holders from 25 designated countries, and other crackdowns on sundry dangerous foreigners.

The coronavirus can't discriminate between a white tourist with a blue passport and an Asian student with a red one. Both are equally susceptible to SARS.

There's still time to get a jump on history and help reframe the public reaction to SARS. There's time to reflect on the fact that more lives will be harmed by frantic finger-pointing than by this disease. There's time to set a new precedent. Stigmatization gets in the way of solving any public health crisis. SARS or no SARS, the contagion we should be combating is race-baiting. When it flares up, all Americans are at risk of infection.

Gabrielle Banks is senior writer for ColorLines.


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