The long Western legacy of violence against Asian Americans

‘History is repeating itself.’

 

Here’s what I remember: My friends and I were standing outside a bar in Seattle after singing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” at a karaoke night. The night air was chill. A group of young white men sauntered by, and one of them suddenly jabbed an elbow into the side of my head, near the temple. I cried out in pain. My partner tried to go after them, but our friends held him back. My assailant ran off.

My friends that night were white. I’m Chinese American — the only Asian in our group; in fact, I was the only Asian I saw that night.

And then I buried the memory. I think my subconscious wanted to shield me from anger that might otherwise eat me alive. That anger has re-emerged as I’ve read about vicious assaults on Asian Americans like Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who died after being brutally shoved to the ground by an assailant in San Francisco in January, and Denny Kim, a Korean American veteran who posted a photo of his bruises and fractured nose after two men assaulted him in Los Angeles.

Sanan Wannachit, Monthanus Ratanapakdee and husband Eric Lawson stand amongst the crowd as Lawson holds a photograph of his late father-in-law Vicha Ratanapakdee while attending the “Love our People: Heal our Communities” rally in condemnation of the recent increase in violence towards the Asian American community around the Bay Area in San Francisco, California, on Feb. 14, 2021.
Stephen Lam/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

And it all came flooding back to me.

Was I a victim of anti-Asian American violence? I don’t know; I’ll never know for sure.

But thousands of Asian Americans are now reporting similar incidents as hate crimes, especially in the Western U.S. According to Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, more than 3,000 verbal and physical assaults have been reported since the organization began tracking incidents in March 2020. Between March and August, 46% of all reports came from California alone.

The elderly are disproportionately represented, as are women, who are more than twice as likely to be targeted than men. Jeung’s own mother, a 94-year-old San Franciscan, told him that due to the attacks, she changed her routine: Instead of taking the bus to Trader Joe’s, she was shopping on Clement Street, the city’s “other” Chinatown.

The recent attacks are just the latest in a long legacy of anti-Asian hate, which has strong roots in the Western U.S. In the 19th century, white colonizers moved Westward, propelled by a vision of manifest destiny and seizing land from the original Native inhabitants. But it was Asian workers who built the infrastructure crucial to the West’s economic growth: railroads, farms, mines, canals. Yet they were always seen as the “other” by white workers.

Historically, anti-Asian sentiments have intensified whenever people are panicked about disease or economic instability. The U.S. is currently experiencing both.

Chinese immigrants have long been scapegoats for disease, considered a people whose “habits and manner of life are of such character as to breed and engender disease whether they reside,” as one San Francisco health inspection officer wrote in 1873. And it wasn’t just San Francisco; public health departments up and down the West Coast accused Asians of bringing everything from leprosy to malaria to the area. In the early 1900s, officials quarantined San Francisco’s Chinatown, convinced that its Asian residents had seeded a bubonic plague outbreak. Jeung, an Asian American history professor at San Francisco State University, foresaw the current wave of racism as soon as he heard about COVID-19. “Whenever an epidemic comes from Asia, Asians are scapegoated and are met with interpersonal violence and racist policies,” he said.

Today, perpetrators of hate crimes are blaming Asians for COVID-19. Some try to weaponize the threat of the disease; Jeung said that the Stop AAPI Hate group received so many reports of people spitting or coughing on Asians that it created a new category, one that currently comprises 7% of the database.

“Whenever an epidemic comes from Asia, Asians are scapegoated and are met with interpersonal violence and racist policies.”

Economic turmoil has historically stoked hate as well. According to a 2019 paper from Jeremy Chan, a lawyer, white workers convinced that Asian workers were stealing their jobs murdered at least 300 Chinese people in the West between 1860 and 1887. And Chinese residents had little recourse; owing to a 1854 California Supreme Court decision, Asians were not allowed to testify in court. “Whites could practice violence on communities of color without consequence,” says Jason Oliver Chang, a historian at the University of Connecticut. “It’s a signal to the larger community about who belongs, and who faces consequences.”

Meanwhile, local governments created ordinances designed to hamstring Asian-owned businesses. Then the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a 10-year ban on Chinese workers immigrating to the U.S. Today, besieged by the coronavirus and the worst recession since World War II, some who fear for their social standing or earning potential have reacted by vandalizing Asian American businesses and harassing Asian Americans. 

Oakland Police Captain Bobby Hookfin exits Chung Chou City while visiting businesses around Chinatown in Oakland, California, in February. Community members are on heightened alert after the recent increase in violent crimes toward the Asian American community throughout the Bay Area. Despite an increased police presence, armed private security and volunteer groups patrolling the area around Oakland Chinatown, many businesses are taking extra precautionary measures such as boarding up storefronts and closing hours earlier.
Stephen Lam/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“Those who are expressing the violence are, in some ways, the people who have been the most vulnerable,” said Simeon Man, a historian at University of California-San Diego. As the conversation turns toward addressing anti-Asian hate, many Asian Americans are forced to grapple with the larger question of race in the U.S., including racism within Asian communities. Last year vividly illuminated racism’s role in police killings and coronavirus inequities. “It’s so important to think about this violence not as perpetrated as lone individuals,” Man said. “It’s not exceptional. It’s a symptom of a violence that is also impacting other racialized people and BIPOC communities.”

But even if history is repeating itself, Jeung said, his studies have taught him a hopeful lesson: “Whenever we’ve experienced violence and discrimination, we’ve always fought back,” he said. After the Chinese Exclusion Act passed, Asian Americans filed thousands of appeals; during World War II, Japanese Americans in internment camps mounted hunger strikes. Now, a new generation is reporting its own experiences — and more Asian Americans, like me, are finally acknowledging the violence and abuse we endured in the past. When I was assaulted outside that club, it never occurred to me to report it, nor did I realize that thousands of others had had, and were still having, similar experiences. But in recent weeks, Asian politicians, celebrities and allies of other races have spoken out and publicly condemned such attacks as serious hate crimes.  

“I see the community really standing up to racism,” said Jeung. 

Jane C. Hu is an independent journalist who writes about science, technology and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle. Email [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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