America’s history shows that ignoring something like anti-Asian hate doesn’t make it go away.
On March 16, an extremist attacked three Asian massage parlors in Atlanta and killed 8 people— six of them Asian women. Far from isolated, this attack is the culmination of increasing anti-Asian hate.
As an Asian American immigrant who has received more than my fair share of death threats for my faith and ethnicity, I know all too well that if we don’t act fast, we risk continued deadly attacks. It’s important to remember that while anti-Asian hate is spiking, it isn’t new. In fact, anti-Asian policy has permeated through centuries of American history.
Almost exactly a year prior to the attack in Atlanta, journalist Weijia Jiang tweeted on March 17, 2020, “This morning a White House official referred to #Coronavirus as the “Kung-Flu” to my face. Makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back.”
Then-senior advisor to the President Kellyanne Conway claimed such hateful rhetoric would never be tolerated in the White House, calling the term “highly offensive.” However, just three months later in June when Trump himself publicly and repeatedly used the term, Conway defended it as somehow no longer racist or offensive. Sadly this approval of anti-Asian bigotry is nothing new.
A History of Anti-Asian Attacks
In the mid-to-late 19th century, California and other state governments began to implement increasing restrictions to Chinese migrants. Increasing anti-Chinese media propaganda helped ignite what is now known as the Chinese Massacre of 1871, where a mob of 500 white Americans killed 18 Chinese residents of Los Angeles. Not one culprit was ultimately convicted.
Finally, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, specifically banning Chinese immigration for a decade—only to renew and broaden it in 1892 and again in 1902. This bigotry expanded in 1908 to include Japanese and Korean immigrants, culminating in the Asiatic Exclusion League.
This League formed specifically to exclude all Asian immigrants, declaring them, “utterly unfit and incapable of discharging the duties of American citizenship.” Anti-Asian bigotry expanded to include Punjabi Sikhs and all South Asians, culminating in the 1917 and 1924 federal Immigration Acts, which effectively banned all Asian immigration. Among America’s darkest hours were the concentration camps Executive Order 9066 established to intern 120,000 Americans of Japanese ethnicity from 1942 to 1946.
It was not until the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, negotiated by Black civil rights leaders, that Asian immigration began to normalize in the United States. But anti-Asian hate was far from over. Rising anti-Asian violence in the 1980s led to a House hearing in 1987 to address and condemn these attacks.
Just as anti-Asian hate throughout American history did not occur in a vacuum, spiking anti-Asian hate crimes today are the result of deliberate dehumanization from powerful politicians and media outlets. Rather than condemn the continued contemporary dehumanization of Asian Americans, the Republican Party has gone on to embrace this and other racist terms.
That includes the conspiracy that the virus was ‘created in a Wuhan lab to destroy America’—a dangerous and false conspiracy theory Trump himself espoused. Unsurprisingly, when Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY6) introduced a resolution condemning anti-Asian hate as it relates to COVID19, 164 Republicans voted to block it—including Virginia’s own Rob Wittman, Ben Cline, and Morgan Griffith. Their cowardice continues to enable the cancer of anti-Asian hate as in 2020, Anti-Asian hate crimes increased 150%.
These hate crimes disproportionately impact Asian women, with studies indicating that of the 3800 reported anti-Asian attacks, up to 68% of victims are Asian women. In fact, after releasing a press release last week repeating anti-Asian slurs, Donald Trump went on Fox News and repeated the “China virus” slur the night of the Atlanta attacks on Asian women.
A Problem of White Supremacy
At the core of this hate is white supremacy. Just as white supremacy has inspired centuries-long anti-Asian immigration policies, it inspires deadly violence today. White supremacy ignited the deadly Charlottesville march in 2017, it ignited the attacks on Jewish synagogues & cemeteries, the arson attack on Black churches, the bomb threat attack on Muslim mosques, the mass shooting attack on Latinos in El Paso, & the insurrection attack on the US Capitol.
And now, white supremacy has ignited this attack on Asian women as a culmination of the massive spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. Again, this is no accident. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism reports that white supremacist propaganda hit record highs in 2020, doubling its high mark of 2019.
A Critical Step Forward
This week the House Judiciary held a hearing on anti-Asian hate crimes—the first such hearing since 1987. This is an important and critical step forward to hear victim statements and for policy makers to understand the breadth of anti-Asian violence. It’s critical we rally behind the organizations on the front lines of combating anti-Asian hatred, like Atlanta based Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a non-profit legal advocacy organization protecting AAPI rights.
And while advocacy is a critical component of reform, comprehensive reform additionally mandates a categorical rejection of anti-Asian rhetoric from those in power, accountability for those who engage in anti-Asian dehumanization, and meaningful representation of Asian Americans in roles of leadership and influence.
Asian Americans have served as a vital pillar of the American experiment for centuries. We cannot on one hand declare “we are a nation of immigrants,” while simultaneously perpetuating ongoing violence against Asian Americans.
Qasim Rashid is a Pakistani-American human rights lawyer and Truman National Security Project Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @QasimRashid.