By Michelle Guan
Image retrieved from Time Magazine
Alarmingly, anti-Asian hate crimes have increased by 150% (possibly even more) over the past year. An elderly Thai man in San Francisco was assaulted and died due to his serious injuries. Two Asian women in their late 60s and 70s were attacked on the New York subway. A Filipino man in New York was slashed in the face with a boxcutter. Countless other horrific crimes have occurred as well to the Asian community; these specific attacks have happened in merely the last month.
Anti-Asian Sentiment in History
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Anti-Asian sentiment isn’t anything new since it has been happening for decades. For instance, the concept of yellow peril, the fear that Asians would invade the Western world and disturb their values, such as democracy and technological advancement, began to form in the 19th century. The majority of Americans felt threatened when more Chinese immigrants started coming to America because of xenophobia and labor tensions. They feared that Chinese workers would take over their jobs, so they would have to compete for their jobs. Furthermore, they believed that Chinese immigrants couldn’t truly assimilate into their society because of their different appearances (e.g: robes and the queue), religious practices, and lifestyles. This perpetuated the belief that they were ideologically unfit to participate in American democracy, which created the concept of “undesirable” groups that would affect Americans’ perception of other Asian groups later on as well.
One of the most notorious US policies that encouraged prejudice against Asians was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration for ten years and excluded Chinese immigrants from the process of naturalization. This act was passed because many Americans on the West Coast blamed Chinese labor workers for declining wages and economic failures although the Chinese were .002 percent of the American population. Furthermore, there were concerns about the maintenance of “white purity”, implying that the Chinese were diminishing America’s “sacredness” by simply living in the same nation as other Americans.
Image retrieved from Re-Imagining Migration
The image above is a political cartoon that was used to promote a company’s new washing machine during the Chinese Exclusion Act. It features demeaning stereotypes, such as slanted eyes, clawed hands, yellow skin, dirty clothes, and long, thin hair to depict the typical-looking Chinese man. This is belittling in comparison to Uncle Sam (representing America) who appears heroic by kicking out the “dirty” Chinese men with the magic washer, resulting in a more purified America. Oftentimes, cartoons and images during this time invoked yellow peril imagery by exaggerating Asians’ exotic features, such as their eye shape and skin color, to portray them as undesirable creatures.
Japanese Incarceration Camps (1942-1945)
Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the evacuation of approximately 112,000 Japanese American citizens on the West Coast to “relocation centers”. The government portrayed mass incarceration as necessary for the nation’s security because it believed that anyone of Japanese ancestry might be inspired to sabotage the country. These relocation centers had poor living conditions since multiple families were forced to live in the same barracks and endure substandard education and medical care. John DeWitt, the Commanding General for West Coast Security, argued that "Japanese heritage alone was the basis for imprisonment", implying that first-generation (Issei), second-generation (Nissei), and third-generation (Sansei) Japanese immigrants were dangerous due to their racial connection to Japan, hence why they were all imprisoned. Their loyalty continued to be questioned in the incarceration camps when all camp inmates 17 years and older had to answer a “loyalty oath” questionnaire.
Image retrieved from Foreign Policy
By the end of 1945, World War II had already ended, so all incarceration camps were evacuated. A government review in 1980 didn’t find any evidence that could support the incarceration since there was no proof of espionage or sabotage led by a Japanese American citizen. Furthermore, German and Italian Americans didn’t experience mass incarceration as well even though America was at war with Germany and Italy at the time. From this, the government concluded that the incarceration of Japanese citizens was motivated by racism, war hysteria, and economic self-interest (some agricultural groups profited when they took lands that were farmed by Japanese Americans).
In 1988, Congress passed a public law that acknowledged the injustices of incarceration and gave $20,000 to each survivor of the incarceration camps. However, can $20,000 truly repay the survivors for the psychological burdens that they had carried? Long after the war, they were still affected by unjust imprisonment. Their burdens “reflect four important forms of trauma: individual, race-based, historical, and cultural.” Individual and racial traumas occurred during the incarceration while historical and cultural traumas became more prominent after the incarceration. These forms of trauma were the result of the suspicions of disloyalty from non-Japanese individuals and exclusion of Japanese Americans from American society; after the incarceration, anyone of Japanese ancestry felt conscious about their cultural identity. Furthermore, some individuals even blamed themselves for the incarceration by believing that they could have prevented it if they were “more American”, which conveyed a sense of humiliation and shame.
Supreme Court Cases
In the 1800s and 1900s, some of the Supreme Court’s rulings have shown its negative attitude towards Asians. For instance, in the 1894 case, The People v. Hall, a Chinese man testified against a white man who was convicted of murder, but the justice decided to disregard his testimony solely because he was a non-white individual. His decision was based on the belief that nonwhite people were “naturally” inferior who could never be as intelligent as white people, reflecting the racial prejudice against people of color. Furthermore, it categorized people of color as inferior to white Americans. Numerous cases, such as United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), Ozawa v. United States (1922), and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) all discussed the issue of the eligibility of American citizenship for Asians. The Court’s reluctance to allow Asians to become American citizens demonstrated the lack of legal support for Asians, especially because at the time, Asians and other people of color weren’t allowed to testify against white people in a criminal proceeding.
Murder of Vincent Chin (1982)
Image retrieved from History.com
On the night of June 19, 1982, a Chinese-American man was celebrating his final days as a bachelor with his friends in Detroit. That same night, two white men mistakenly thought that the man, Vincent Chin, was Japanese, so they beat him and left him with serious injuries; he died of his injuries four days later. Those two men were tried the next year, and they both received a $3,000 fine, $780 in court costs, and three years of probation with no prison time. Their sentences made the Asian American community fear for their safety because of the lack of serious punishment; everyone thought that if this tragedy could happen to anyone of Asian descent. The judge that determined the men’s sentences defended his decision by saying that the men were responsible people who didn’t deserve prison time, which excused them from receiving the punishment that they deserved. The murder of Vincent Chin was committed because of anti-Japanese sentiment in the automotive industry, yet it wasn’t addressed properly.
Anti-Asian Sentiment Nowadays
Anti-Asian sentiment still lives on to this day in the bold form of hate crimes, but it also appears in seemingly less significant manners, such as microaggressions. By using anti-Chinese rhetoric, some political officials have "have directly or indirectly encouraged hate crimes, racism, and xenophobia." For instance, in June 2020, the organization called Stop AAPI Hate (Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate) reported that there was an increase in racially motivated incidents after former President Trump repeatedly used the phrases “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” to refer to COVID-19. Although he refrained from using the phrases afterward, he still hadn’t reported any particular government response to protect Asian Americans during his presidency. Although there may be other factors that may have contributed to the spike in incidents, AAPI has concluded that government leaders’ usage of anti-Chinese language has impacted the public’s perception of the pandemic, leading many people to blame the coronavirus onto Asian people. For example, orientalist depictions of Asian people show them as dirty due to their strange diets.
Every government should be responsible for ensuring the safety of its citizens, which includes consistently condemning racism and supporting the communities that have been targeted due to racial discrimination during the pandemic. As an Asian American, I believe that the American government has failed my community in this sense.
It’s clear that the coronavirus has contributed to the rise of anti-Asian sentiment; however, it isn’t new because it has been built into the American system since the 19th century. The current physical attacks that are targeting Asians are not isolated events; they are the result of numerous xenophobic and racist policies being passed, resulting in this violence being normalized and the Asian community being dismissed whenever anyone tries to share their experiences.
For any Asian Americans who feel invalidated, please take the time and space that you need to process your feelings. You’re not alone, and your identity is completely valid.
Written by writer Michelle Guan