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‘We Need Help’: Coronavirus Fuels Racism Against Black Americans in China

African governments have loudly protested abuse of their citizens in China, but the Trump administration’s response to harassment of African-Americans has been muted.

Jeff Remmington and his son in Guangzhou, China.
Jeff Remmington and his son in Guangzhou, China.

Jeff Remmington, an American professional basketball player trying his hand in China, had already been through xenophobic hell: ostracized in Guangzhou, where he was once celebrated for his acrobatic dunks, denied service at a restaurant with his 4-year-old son because of his skin color, quarantined for two weeks, though he showed no signs of coronavirus infection, he said.

But the breaking point came in May when he tried to find a new apartment. He had finally found a landlord who would rent to a “foreigner,” signed a lease, and was preparing to move when neighborhood officials stepped in.

“Good evening, fellow neighbors!” read a message that circulated in a neighborhood WeChat group, according to screenshots reviewed by The New York Times. A real estate agency has “introduced an African family to rent in our neighborhood. Is money more important than lives?” It continued, “African people are a high-risk group, and Guangzhou people are all not renting to them. But in our neighborhood, some people see money and get wide-eyed.”

“I kind of broke down,” said Mr. Remmington, 32, whose trash-talk moniker “the Black Angel of Death” has received new meaning with his experiences. “I was going to be homeless.”

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Text messages between Mr. Remmington and a real estate agent in Guangzhou.
Text messages between Mr. Remmington and a real estate agent in Guangzhou.

When reports of race-based scapegoating first emerged last month in Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub where many Africans live, African ambassadors demanded China’s Foreign Ministry order the immediate “cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans.” Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana summoned Chinese diplomats to protest, and Nigeria organized evacuation flights from Guangzhou.

Mistreatment of black Americans has received a far more muted response. On April 13, the State Department sent Americans an advisory noting that the police had specifically ordered bars and restaurants not to serve people who appear to be of African origin and advising African-Americans to avoid Guangzhou. The U.S. government has not organized flights for Americans to leave China since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak; it instead offers to loan them the money for a commercial flight.

CGTN, a Chinese state-run broadcaster, estimated that of nearly 31,000 foreigners living in Guangzhou, the third-largest population comes from the United States, and that about 15 percent of the total number — 4,553 — come from African nations.

The State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, referring to the People’s Republic of China, said, “The Department of State condemns racism in the strongest possible terms, and has raised the issue directly and at high levels with P.R.C. authorities.” The department declined to say what, if anything, Beijing did in response.

“African-Americans in Guangzhou are collateral damage of a policy implemented to target Africans, in which Chinese don’t check your visa, just the color of your skin,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In a bigger context, the Chinese perceive Africans doing business in China as ripping off the state, not paying taxes and overstaying their visas.”

By waging a sweeping anticoronavirus campaign against dark-skinned people, she said, “they’re trying to get rid of them.”

Gordon Mathews, the chairman of the anthropology department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a co-author of “The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace,” was less forceful.

“There is racism in China,” he said, “but this is more likely to be panic over coronavirus than any long-term policy.”

Guangzhou officials at first denied any discrimination. Then amid an international outcry, they issued rules this month that prohibited unequal treatment. But enforcement is lax, say African-Americans in Guangzhou, and abuses persist.

“Prior to this, I was perfectly fine,” Mr. Remmington said. Now, he added, “as I come into a grocery store, people are literally running outside, fearing for their life.”

Last month, an African-American teacher in Guangzhou, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, was confined for 14 days to a locked hospital isolation room, despite repeatedly testing negative for the virus. After having “a mental breakdown,” she said, she pleaded with the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou to intervene.

“It didn’t feel like they were fighting for us,” the teacher, who is 34, said in an interview. “We saw other countries’ governments talking to China and trying to resolve this, but not ours.”

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A man walking in a Guangzhou neighborhood known as African Village.Credit...Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

About the same time the woman in the hospital was appealing for help, Zoe Spencer, a sociology professor at Virginia State University and a human-rights activist, received a message from a different African-American woman, whom Professor Spencer knew when she was a student at the historically black university in Petersburg, Va.

“Dr. Z, I’m actually in Guangzhou, China, right now and I can’t release this information myself,” the woman, 28, who moved to China last year, said in the message, provided to The Times. “But we need help.”

The woman said she was confined to a government-quarantine hotel. Though she had repeatedly tested negative for the virus, she said, she had gotten sick from eating rotten fruit and was terrified she would be hospitalized against her will.

“We need the world to know what is happening here,” she told Professor Spencer.

Professor Spencer and Jarvis Bailey, a pastor, contacted the office of Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, legislators, the State Department and American employers like the Walt Disney Company, which runs language schools in China, urging them to assist African-Americans in Guangzhou.

“For us to have to move on this level to save African-American people makes me sad,” Professor Spencer said in an interview. “We shouldn’t have to do this. We’re dealing with people’s lives and safety and their health.”

The two women interviewed by The Times work for Disney English in Guangzhou. After one Disney employee tested positive last month for the coronavirus, contact tracing led to the quarantine of 43 employees, including 23 Chinese and 20 foreign employees, a Disney spokeswoman said. Four employees tested positive and were hospitalized. A fifth — the African-American woman who called the consulate from the hospital — said she was told her test was positive, and she was hospitalized for seven days.

After health workers informed her that her test was a false positive, she was moved to an isolation room in the hospital, where she remained for an additional 14 days, she said.

“It was like prison,” she said. “I called the U.S. Consulate. I called the company I work for. I called my U.S. representative too, to see what they can do to get me out. They kept telling me ‘you have to follow Chinese law, there’s nothing that we can do.’”

While she was confined, someone released her personal data and the false information that she had the virus to online WeChat groups in Guangzhou, including one for residents of her apartment building.

“They had my passport number, my full name, my telephone number, my full address, the place where I worked and the address,” the American said. “Literally, someone could have come knock on my door.”

The woman’s teaching assistant was contacted by the parent of a Disney English student who had seen the message, asking whether it was true she had Covid-19. An investigation by the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou suggested a Chinese government employee had released the information, she said. Disney said it began an internal investigation that confirmed the leak did not come from within the company, and advised an employee to report the breach to the consulate. The consulate declined to comment for the record.

The woman said David Roberts, general manager of Disney English in China, stayed in close touch, offering to pay for her flight home once the authorities there released her.

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The U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou.Credit...Reuters

But Disney has no control over Chinese government actions.

After her release on April 28, her apartment building manager warned her to “stay low, because people are scared,” telling her to walk her dog on the roof. She has chosen to remain in China, she said, because her family in Delaware cannot accommodate her quarantine, and she wants to keep her job at Disney.

“Even though there’s a high demand for English teachers here because a lot of them have left the country, other schools aren’t hiring anyone who has brown skin,” she said.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 5, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


Guangzhou authorities issued new anti-discrimination guidelines on May 2, requiring hotels, landlords and taxi drivers to serve people of all nationalities.

The African-American woman who contacted Professor Spencer said in an interview that she was released from the quarantine hotel in late April. When she returned to her apartment, she said, Chinese residents ran away from her.

“As we receive reports of American citizens in centralized quarantine, we contact each of them to ascertain their conditions and offer assistance,” Ms. Ortagus said in a statement. “We have received calls from African-Americans reporting other discriminatory acts. Although we cannot provide information on individual cases, we take these all of these reports very seriously.”

Mr. Remmington has lived in China on and off to play basketball for the last two years. He brought his son for the first time when he returned in January, and he had intended to leave in March. But when the pandemic hit, he found himself trapped.

By April, cases in Guangzhou had ebbed. But news of five infected Nigerians prompted a fresh panic, specifically against black people.

When Mr. Remmington found himself barred from his neighborhood complex, he sneaked back in, but was then barred from leaving, his door taped shut, he said.

He was finally released in late April and began looking for a new apartment. But landlords were unwilling to accept foreigners, he said, even when he showed them the new regulations prohibiting discrimination.

Finally, he found a landlord in Foshan, a city about 15 miles west of Guangzhou. But as he was completing the paperwork this month, officials at the apartment complex intervened, saying that Mr. Remmington would be allowed in only if he agreed to be tested for the coronavirus once a week, Mr. Remmington said. He refused.

The officials called the police, but the officer who arrived said the neighborhood had to allow Mr. Remmington to move in, he said.

Now Mr. Remmington is trying to get himself and his son home to Florida, but flights are expensive and have long travel times.

He has tried to shield his son from the discrimination — not telling him, for example, that the restaurant employee who turned them away in April had cited their skin color. He told his son the restaurant had run out of food.

“I don’t want my son to have this preconceived notion of Chinese people being racist,” Mr. Remmington said. “Could you imagine my son going back to his school and telling his friends that?”

Liu Yi contributed research.

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Summary | 42 Annotations
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organized evacuation flights from
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a manufacturing hub
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Blatant Favoritism’
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In a bigger contex
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t
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ext
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waging a sweeping anticoronavirus campaign
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amid an international outcry,
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people are literally running outside
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for fear of retribution
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on the condition of anonymity
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found himself barred from
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his door taped shut
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shield his son from the discrimination
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