The U.S. business community has had plenty of practice pushing back against racism during the Trump administration. The ongoing barrage against minorities and immigrants began during the run up to the 2016 election and continued into 2017, when the president issued his infamous “Muslim ban." There has been no letup since then. In the latest iteration, the president has insisted on calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus”, even as reports of anti-Asian discrimination and physical violence rises.
So far, the U.S. business community has failed to organize against the president’s slurs linked to the coronavirus outbreak. However, if and when they finally decide to step up and push back, they might get help from an unexpected quarter.
Adweek has been taking note of the bottom line impact on businesses seeking to court Asian consumers. In an article earlier this week, reporter Mary Emily O’Hara summed up the bottom line motivation for businesses to act more aggressively on anti-Asian racism.
“Brands are missing out on support from a major global—and notoriously loyal—consumer base,” O’Hara wrote.
One company taking action is the multicultural agency IW Group, which created the #WashTheHate social media campaign.
The campaign combines a key infection-fighting action with public engagement. It asks people to circulate videos of themselves washing their hands and sharing personal stories about their experiences during the coronavirus outbreak.
In recognition of the 20-second recommended washing time for killing the virus, #WashTheHate asks for videos of at least 20 seconds long.
So far, #WashTheHate has recruited substantial participation from individuals and organizations in the Asian community. Other Asian-lead efforts to track coronavirus-triggered hate crimes have also emerged.
However, as of this writing the U.S. business community has been silent.
The silence is particularly deafening from social media CEO’s, considering that their platforms continue to tolerate innumerable references to “Chinese virus” and other slurs.
Social media aside, business leaders may be reluctant to embark on a campaign to lecture the public about racism at a time when anxiety about catching a potentially lethal disease is running high.
However, there is at least one pathway for creating a conversation that could help tamp down the fire.
In 2015 the World Health Organization issued guidelines for naming diseases, to avoid racism and xenophobia.
The WHO guidelines have a social purpose, in that they aim to minimize “offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups,” but they also have a clear bottom line intent.
That’s not all, however. The WHO guidelines also express a clear bottom line benefit for business. Aside from fostering a social good, they are designed to help avoid “unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare.”
With a clear dollars-and-cents motivation at hand, business leaders could insist, loudly and publicly, that the novel coronavirus be called by its proper name.
The likelihood of that happening dimmed significantly last week, when multiple reports surfaced that the President’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, held up a G7 joint statement on COVID-19 over naming the virus.
According to the reports, Pompeo insisted that the statement refer to COVID-19 with another slur referencing China, the “Wuhan virus."
The Trump administration’s insistence on using an anti-Asian slur at the highest level of national policy has made it all the more difficult for CEOs to exercise their voices.
Nevertheless, a solution may be forthcoming from the businessman-in-chief himself, Donald J. Trump.
Earlier this week the Daily Beast reported that Trump, and the State Department, suddenly began softening the anti-Asian message following several flattering conversations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In particular, Daily Beast reporters Asawin Suebsaeng and Erin Banco note that State Department had been routinely referring to COVID-19 in official cables as the “Wuhan virus,” even going so far as to use the anti-Asian slur in official talking points guidance. However, more recently the State Department seems to have dropped that name from official correspondence, in favor of COVID-19.
They cite a senior Trump official who stated that “There’s an understanding that the department —and the administration as a whole—is going to back away from that terminology.”
Others have noted that the president is especially receptive to flattery. Trump himself indicated as recently as this week, when he raised the issue of appreciation.
So, it’s within the realm of possibility that Xi Jinping used the flattery tack to persuade the President to turn the anti-Asian ship around.
If flattery is an effective carrot, there may also be a stick involved.
After all, the network of Trump family businesses has an interest in maintaining friendly ties with China. For example, in 2018 top Trump advisor, daughter and businesswoman Ivanka Trump won a flurry of Chinese trademarks for her eponymous fashion brand through the company Ivanka Trump Marks LLC.
Trademarks granted to the firm reportedly include Ivanka-branded accessories and beauty services, among others.
Either way — carrot or stick — at least someone has the President’s ear on the importance of calling COVID-19 by its name.
Xi Jinping aside, though, the damage has already been done. Undoing it will take more than a phone call, and there is much work to be done if and when U.S. business leaders finally decide to act on anti-Asian racism.
Image credit: Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.