The American Historian

Historical Reflections in Our Age of Coronavirus

George J. Sánchez

Like many of you, my semester of teaching was interrupted by the coronavirus epidemic when my university was put under quarantine, and I was asked to switch my teaching to an online format in March. I was luckier than most in that I was only teaching a senior honors thesis class of six students, every one of whom I had known for some time. Still, that transition to Zoom classes exposed me directly to the lives of these students, their fears and concerns, as they made their way back to their home lives away from campus. 

My students, two African Americans and four Latinas who all came from working class backgrounds, have an even sharpened experience with what students are experiencing all across the country. Many students, now forced to live at home, have no separate office space for college work, are forced to take on additional childcare and teaching duties for younger siblings, and many have to contribute to family incomes that have plummeted because of parental layoffs under quarantine. Students are struggling to complete research projects when confined at home and are facing both financial despair and concern for what lay ahead in their futures, especially as they near graduation.

This time of COVID-19 has made stunningly clear the inequalities of twenty-first century society in the United States, including in higher education, that no amount of celebratory and virtual ceremonies of congratulation can erase. For those steeped in historical knowledge, it has also revealed deep-seated antagonisms against racialized subjects and immigrants that have remained central parts of American tradition, especially in times of crisis. Rather than a nation coming together, I have witnessed a country struggling with its very worst episodes of hatred and blame towards those perceived as different in a renewed era of white supremacy.

A sharp surge in physical and verbal attacks against Asian Americans has been documented since March. The organization Stop AAPI Hate has tallied these incidents of harassment across 46 states, which range from individuals being verbally blamed for bringing the coronavirus to the United States, children being pushed and spat upon, and Asian restaurants being vandalized with hate rhetoric. The president only stoked xenophobia by using a racist name for the virus and associating it with Asian Americans by criticizing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for promoting businesses in San Francisco’s Chinatown and conflating these neighborhoods with the country of China.

This racial rhetoric is part of a longstanding American tradition of treating Asian Americans as “forever foreigners,” suggesting that Asians who live in the United States can never be fully American, even after generations of being in this country. In the 1870s and 1880s, anti-Chinese sentiment led directly to the first immigration laws in the U.S., the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which explicitly barred Chinese laborers from entering the country because of widespread xenophobia and concerns about workplace competition. In the 1940s, Japanese American citizens were sent to detention camps solely based on their ethnicity, another striking example of the idea that Asian Americans were not really like “us.” Longstanding prejudices have been once again brought to the forefront by our current pandemic.

Nowhere has felt the impact of coronavirus more than the Navajo Nation, where almost everyone on the reservation has been touched by death and disease. With scant internet access, sparsely populated remote lands, and a dearth of health facilities, the Navajo Nation was particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. But the extreme poverty, lack of federal support, and more than one-third of residents not having access to running water, has created conditions of virus spread per capita that have surpassed New York and New Jersey. Native Americans now make up one-third of the cases in New Mexico but only 9 percent of the state’s population, and 21 percent of the deaths in Arizona, but only 4 percent of that state’s population.

In South Dakota, when the Cheyenne River Sioux and the Oglala Lakota Sioux set up roadblocks on their reservations in April to try to protect their vulnerable populations and modest medical facilities from the threat of the virus, Governor Kristi Noem took the two Native American tribes to court. Noem refused to issue strict stay-at-home orders in South Dakota, while both tribes did, along with curfews for their own communities. Because the reservations aren’t equipped to deal with a coronavirus outbreak, with only an eight-bed facility and no intensive care unit, the Sioux nations tried to restrict travel to essential services only. Both tribes pointed to the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties, and a 1990 Appeals Court ruling, that “held that the State of South Dakota has no jurisdiction over the highways running through Indian lands in the state without tribal consent.”

Of course, other policies targeting people of color have continued or been increased during this period. The current administration has used the focus on the coronavirus to aggressively accelerate the deportations of the most vulnerable migrant children in its care to countries where they have been raped, beaten, or had a parent killed, usually to Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador. Nearly 1,600 children who are in the custody of the U.S. government have been deported during the global pandemic, including almost all unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. This has largely been done violating U.S. law intended to protect migrant children from trafficking, and without giving them access to lawyers or relatives in the U.S. This continuation of policies of family separation has been done on the basis that these migrant children pose a public health risk to the United States. But it is the U.S. that leads the world in COVID deaths.

Other vulnerable populations like the incarcerated, whom are susceptible to deadly conditions regularly, are especially exposed now. After all, in jails and prisons, social distancing is impossible; basic supplies, like soap and hand sanitizer are lacking; and medical neglect is the norm, always. Most recent data says that close to 30,000 people in prison have tested positive for COVID. Yet, like in the past, it is those of us who are simply inconvenienced that appropriate the language of “being imprisoned” in our homes, or being “liberated” from confinement. Much like the way in which “free labor” in the 1850s used the language of slavery to discuss their social condition and the fear they had of losing liberties. The racialized conditions of others become easy fodder for comparison.

Moreover, data also indicates that African Americans, Latinos, and other minority populations are disproportionately affected by the virus, accounting for a higher share of confirmed cases and deaths across the nation. Existing health disparities in these populations, including heart disease and diabetes—not separate from systematic racism—are only exacerbated by the coronavirus, one reason for high rates of sickness and death. But other factors, such as living in areas with greater pollution, less access to adequate health care, and being overrepresented in occupations that are essential, from farm work, meatpacking, health care, and delivery services, also play an important role. And it is women of color who make up the majority of essential workers, though “essential” is hollow, as so many perform work that is underpaid, undervalued, and work which leaves them unprotected (from both infection and exploitation).

As states reopen, encouraged daily by the president, black Americans are particularly vulnerable. On the frontlines in multiple ways, not only do majority black counties make up more than half of COVID cases in the U.S. and 60% of deaths, but African Americans are disproportionately essential workers. Though, as Denita Jones, a Dallas-area call center worker, told reporters, “We’re not essential, we’re expendable.” In California, Latinos make up 53 percent of the COVID-19 positive cases, but only 40 percent of the population. According to recent polls, Latinos are nearly three times more likely than whites to be concerned that their jobs place them in too close proximity to others for safety. But calls to reopen rarely take into account the risk to these essential workers; they focus instead on business owners and anxious consumers.

My students in history, ethnic studies, and the broader humanities are keenly aware of these disparities, reflected not just in their projects on sexual violence among indigenous farmworkers, incarcerated women and undocumented queer Latina social circles, but in their lives. They epitomize the populations in the United States that are colonially underserved, but historically resilient. Each of them completed their senior honors thesis this spring in incredible fashion, able to return to their research and writing even while battling the new conditions of their education and the expansion of the struggles of their families and communities. Their accomplishments made me proud to be their professor and their mentor. And it gave me hope for the future of American history as this new generation emerges to fill the ranks of scholars for the twenty-first century.


George J. Sánchez is Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity, and History at the University of Southern California, and Director of the USC Center for Diversity and Democracy.  He is the author of Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, and editor of Beyond Alliances: The Jewish Role in Reshaping the Racial Landscape of Southern California, Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina, and Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Cultures. His current book project is titled Laboratory of Democracy: Race, Immigration and Community in Boyle Heights, California.