It should not have taken AAPI rallies, spa shootings in Georgia, and sidewalk beatings of elderly Chinese to draw our attention to new and savage synergies of resentment and violence against Asian Americans. Coactive xenophobic elements were everywhere. For over a year, people of Asian descent and Pacific Islanders endured pandemic scapegoating and slander, suffering nearly 4,000 reported hate crimes nationwide. Most undoubtedly were instigated by Trump calling SARS-CoV-2 “the Chinese virus,” emboldened racists reiterating his “kung flu” slur, and continua of flagrant name calling and condescension online. When asked about motives for the March 16th murders in Atlanta, local sheriffs said less about racial targeting than the shooter’s “bad day.” In February, an 84-year old Thai man was brutally shoved to the ground in Oakland, dying from his injuries. In New York City, a mid-aged woman was kicked repeatedly in the stomach as witnesses stood by. This rise in hostility threatens one of the fastest growing, best educated and highly successful segments of the population. In large measure comprised of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean communities, Asian Americans have reached a stoical breaking point after long chronicles of mistreatment.
Asian hate crimes are part of a U.S. genealogy dating back to the 19th century. In 1871, after influxes of Chinese immigrants to California, an LA mob attacked and murdered 19 Chinatown residents, including a teenage boy. That expression of anti-Asian bigotry culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning further immigration of Chinese laborers into America, despite their pivotal role in building the western transcontinental railroad. Seven years earlier, the Page Exclusion Act expressly prohibited Chinese women from entering the States. Race- and gender-biased, it was America’s first restrictive immigration law and according to historian Courtney Sato, “precursor to dehumanizing tropes” and stereotypes designed to make Asian women objects of sexual fetishism. Thusly, turn-of-the-century literature and Hollywood cinema often typecast Asians as either villains or femme fatales, hiring white actors to portray them. Matinee idols Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa were rare exceptions.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, which remained in effect 6 decades, also prevented Chinese nationals in-residence from becoming U.S. citizens. It wasn’t until 1943 and the Magnuson Act, that a mere 105 Chinese immigrants were allowed each year, despite our alliances with Chiang Kai-shek and China’s resistance efforts during the war. In fact, immigration law continued to discriminate against Asians until 1965 when national-origins quota systems were finally abolished. During the interim, FDR would sign Executive Order 9066, forcing 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent (80,000 U. S. citizens) into detention camps. Many lost their properties despite Japanese Americans serving with distinction against the Nazis, thrown into Europe’s most dangerous combat, just as today 31 percent of all nursing deaths from COVID-19 are Filipino. In Texas, post-Vietnam, the Ku Klux Klan even attacked Southeast Asian refugee shrimp boats, and in 1982, blaming the recession on Toyota, Detroit autoworkers beat Chinese-American Vincent Chin to death, thinking he was Japanese.
Hideki Matsuyama winning the Masters and Rams safety Taylor Rapp speaking out against hate crimes won’t rectify this problem alone. But majority rule is always compelled to improve by minority activism. As Americans, we’re connected by creeds such as equal treatment and justice for all. Our duty is to recognize gaps between the idealized and reality…and to close them.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.