White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Monday defended President Donald Trump's use of the term "Kung Flu" in referring to COVID-19 at a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
McEnany said Trump's rhetoric Saturday was an indictment of China rather than Asian Americans. Experts, however, said that besides being offensive to both groups, the excuse doesn't hold up because Asians and Asian Americans are often viewed as a monolith because of implicit bias, the history of the racial group in the U.S. and the current political climate.
Asian American advocacy groups responded to Trump's use of the racist phrase, which he used after joking that the coronavirus "has more names than any disease in history."
"I can name 'kung flu,'" Trump told the crowd. "I can name 19 different versions of names."
CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang, who said the term was previously used against her by an unnamed White House official, brought up the language at McEnany's news briefing Monday.
Jiang had asked about the language's impact on Asian Americans who are worried that the rhetoric could exacerbate hate attacks that have targeted the community since the pandemic started. McEnany claimed that Trump encouraged Americans to "totally protect our Asian community" before defending his use of the racist phrase.
"It's not a discussion about Asian Americans, who the president values and prizes as citizens of this great country," McEnany said. "It is an indictment of China for letting the virus get here."
But Andy Kang, executive director of the civil rights nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, told NBC News that given the political and racial environment of the U.S., Trump's words could have harmful consequences.
"We're currently in the middle of a global pandemic that has caused a tremendous amount of suffering, both in economic terms and, more importantly, lives lost. On top of that, it's a presidential election year," he said. "With such an emotionally charged political atmosphere, it's irresponsible and reckless for our political leaders and candidates for our nation's highest office to engage in rhetoric that incites xenophobic scapegoating and violence."
Kang said the history of Asian Americans in the U.S. is dotted with evidence showing that such rhetoric has laid the groundwork for violence and shameful policies.
More than three decades ago, Vincent Chin, who was Chinese American, was fatally beat in Detroit by two white autoworkers, who mistook him for a Japanese man and blamed him for the loss of jobs in the U.S. during the Japanese auto boom of the 1980s. Chin died just days before what was supposed to have been his wedding date.
And in recent years, several Chinese American scholars and academics, including professor Xiaoxing Xi and scientist Sherry Chen, have been wrongfully accused of espionage by the U.S. government. Both were the subjects of alarming accusations before their cases were abruptly dropped. Moreover, an NPR report revealed that the FBI has visited at least 10 universities since 2018 to urge them to develop protocols for monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions.
Public health authorities, including the World Health Organization, have warned that using terms that tie certain groups or industries to diseases are inaccurate and could be incendiary. In 2015, the WHO revised its naming guidelines to avoid stigmatizing communities or industries.
But Russell Jeung, chair and professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, said we need not look to history to find evidence of such misdirected anger. The online hate crime reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate said it had received 1,843 incident reports from March 19 to May 13. In more than a quarter of incidents, perpetrators invoked the words "China" or "Chinese" in their acts of discrimination. In 17.5 percent of cases, the assailants parroted the term "Chinese virus," the group said. Jeung, who was involved in analyzing the cases, said half of the incidents of racist abuse were directed at people who weren't even ethnically Chinese.
Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak
Research shows that Trump's harmful rhetoric toward other groups has led to negative consequences. A study published in February showed that his inflammatory remarks toward the Latinx community had led to what researchers dubbed the "emboldening effect" — people are more likely to express their prejudices and to act on them after hearing his remarks. While statements condemning such rhetoric didn't completely negate the emboldening effect, they did soften it, according to the research.
McEnany not only claimed that Trump's remark was an indictment of China, but she also shifted blame to media outlets, including CNN and The Washington Post, that she said had used language identifying the illness by origin or location, like "China virus," in January. That was before the Asian American Journalists Association released guidelines in February to urge news outlets to use more responsible reporting practices.
Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, the group behind the reporting tool, said the rhetoric is an example of the president's pinning blame elsewhere, rather than taking responsibility for his handling of the virus.
The New York Times reported in April that Trump had gotten warnings from advisers, experts and intelligence agencies as early as January calling for aggressive action to deal with the virus. However, Trump continued to downplay the virus, and in February he had accused Democrats of "politicizing" it. It wasn't until March that he took actions like recommending shutting down certain cities.
"This is a danger not only for Asian Americans, but all Americans," Kulkarni said.