Harassment among Asian Americans has increased over the past year, according to Stop AAPI Hate, an organization tracking these reports, Over 2,800 incidents were documented in 2020. More recently, a wave of violent attacks against the elderly has re-focused on this issue.
These incidents – from avoidance at work to physical assault – have been wide-ranging.
In February, a 27-year-old Korean-American man was assaulted and racially attacked in Los Angeles. Last winter, a 16-year-old student in the San Fernando Valley was beaten so badly by his classmates that he had to go to the emergency room. And last March, a restaurant in Yakima, Washington, was vandalized using racist language.
The Stop AAPI Hate reports also describe other forms of harassment, including spitting in a restaurant and verbal assault in the park, and being denied service in various facilities. "I was in line at the pharmacy when a woman came up to me and sprayed Lysol on me," said a report. "She yelled," You are the infection. Go home. We don't want you here! "
There are notable patterns among these attacks: women were more likely than men to report targeted attacks, multiple attacks targeting children, and harassment in retail stores and pharmacies increased as people restricted their activities during the pandemic.
“So many of us have experienced it for the first time in our lives,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, a group that helped set up this tracker. "It makes it a lot harder to go to the grocery store, take a walk, be outside of our homes."
Kyle Navarro, a school nurse, says he was just unlocking his bike when an elderly white man labeled him a racial fraud and spat on him in San Francisco. The FBI predicts attacks on Asian Americans will increase as coronavirus infections increase.
Jeff Chiu / AP
This surge in anti-Asian harassment has occurred as the US continues to grapple with Covid-19. This is followed by months of xenophobic rhetoric from former President Donald Trump, who frequently used racist names for the virus and associated it with Asian Americans.
The wider surge in racism is not just fueled by the pandemic, however. Though the uncertainty of the outbreak – along with the former president's rhetoric – compounded it, that prejudice is rooted in long-standing prejudices against Asian Americans that have persisted since some of the earliest immigrants came to the US generations ago.
"I think this surge is (driven by) the rhetoric that the political leaders have used … but I don't think we would have seen the rise in anti-Asian bias without a fairly strong foundation on the 'forever foreigner & # 39; based. Stereotype, ”says Janelle Wong, professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland.
The "forever alien" idea referred to by Wong has been used by "other" Asian Americans in the US for decades: it suggests that Asians living in America are fundamentally foreign and cannot be entirely American . Persistent tropics, which Asian Americans have linked to disease, and the consumption of "strange" foods that have re-emerged in connection with the coronavirus are among those that flow into this concept.
The revival of these stereotypes and the recent increase in harassment have had a clear effect: they are forcing a reckoning of the existence of anti-Asian racism in the United States.
The current xenophobia stems from ingrained racism against Asian Americans
Racism against Asian Americans goes back a long way.
In fact, it came into law when some of the earliest generations of Asian Americans immigrated to the United States in the 19th century. The Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, two of the country's first immigration laws, were specifically designed to exclude Sino-American workers because of widespread xenophobia and workplace competition concerns.
These laws – along with others that prevented immigrants from re-entering the country if they visited China – were among the earliest to label Asian American immigrants as foreigners who did not belong in the United States. "While the United States government believes that the arrival of Chinese workers in this country will jeopardize the order of certain places on their territory, ”the first lines of the exclusion law read.
"Uncle Sam Throws the Chinese Out" is an 1886 advertisement referring to both the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882 and the "George Dee Magic Washer" that the makers of the machine hoped would make the Chinese laundry operators would displace.
In addition to limiting immigration, the law guaranteed that Chinese Americans could not become US citizens for decades. "Very early in this country's history, Chinese Americans were seen as a group of people we wanted to keep out of the way," said Grace Kao, a sociology professor at Yale.
And immigration policy wasn't the only place where such discrimination was evident. As diseases like smallpox and bubonic plague spread in the late 19th century, San Francisco's Chinese residents were repeatedly used as "medical scapegoats," according to Joan Trauner, San Francisco State health researcher.
For example, when the city was struggling with an outbreak of smallpox in 1875/76, according to Trauner, officials accused the "foul and disgusting fumes" – and "unhealthy" living conditions in Chinatown – of fueling it. Even after the epidemic continued after the city-ordered fumigation of all Chinatown homes, the guilt remained.
"I do not hesitate to declare my conviction that the cause lies in our midst of 30,000 (as a class) unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinese who disregard our hygiene laws and who have concealed and concealed their smallpox cases," said City Health Officer JL Meares wrote at the time.
Likewise when the city encountered cases of bubonic plague In 1900, one of which was discovered in Chinatown, San Francisco attempted to quarantine approximately 14,000 Chinese Americans who lived in that part of the city. City officials once suggested that Chinese residents be sent to a detention center where they could be cordoned off from other members of the public, even though a district court rejected the plan.
Two girls cross the street outside a vase shop in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1899.
Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images
In both cases, the vitriol toward Chinese Americans was driven by explicit racism, a fundamental lack of medical knowledge, and the backlash to the influx of Chinese workers competing with white workers for job opportunities. Guideline ordinances were actively informed through the assumption that Chinatowns was an "infection laboratory," explains Trauner.
"A common problem in American popular culture was that the Chinese ate rats and lived in dirty, crowded neighborhoods," said Beth Lew-Williams, a history professor at Princeton University. "In the 19th century, San Francisco routinely banned Chinese from public hospitals."
Chinese Americans' recurring association with the idea of being "dirty" or sick is inextricably linked to xenophobia – and, as Nylah Burton writes for Vox, it is an association that many people of color, including Mexicans, are used to "other" people Americans and African Americans.
And now that the origins of the coronavirus can be traced back to a damp market in Wuhan, China, where people buy groceries, that information has renewed racist jokes and statements about the types of foods Asian Americans eat. It's a feeling so common that it was a plot on the ABC television show Fresh Off the Boat when a young Eddie Huang, the show's Asian-American protagonist, is shunned after consuming his lunch in front of his white classmates has because they see the noodles in it as "gross" and "nasty".
This treatment of Asian foods is just another example of the otherness of Asian Americans: by classifying anything different or unknown as exotic or disgusting, the notion that Asian people are fundamentally alien is further strengthened.
The effects of the “forever foreigner” trop are briefly explained
While the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in the 1940s, the racism it embodied played a central role in shaping the United States' view of Asian Americans.
The idea that Asian Americans are "forever aliens" helped lay the foundation for Japanese internment during World War II when Japanese-American citizens were sent to detention camps based on ethnicity on suspicion of to support the Japanese government somehow. Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, Islamophobia against Muslim Americans and prejudice against South Asian Americans were similarly fueled by the assumption that people were not loyal to the United States because of their religion, ethnicity, and appearance.
Front page of the San Francisco Call announcing the Chinese Exclusion Convention for the Protection of “American” Labor on November 20, 1901.
"It's always easy to activate, it's very persistent, it's very familiar to many Americans," says Wong of this assumption. "I'm a sixth generation Chinese American in the US, and I still feel it."
Given that Asian Americans' hostility over this US affiliation issue originated, some – including New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang – have suggested that Asians combat this prejudice by showing their patriotism and commitment to their community .
It's a misguided argument based on "respectability policies" that keeps Asian Americans under a duty to demonstrate how American they are – and it shows how much some people still think Asians have to compensate "differently "to look like.
"Very early in this country's history, Chinese Americans were seen as a group of people we wanted to keep out."
The political backlash into China, including dealing with the virus, has also been linked to hostility towards Chinese Americans, so historical U.S. tensions with Asian nations in the past have been projected onto people of Asian ancestry.
Last year, former Chinese governor of Washington, Gary Locke, was featured in a Trump report of aggression against President Joe Biden. Because of the framework, the ad appears to imply that Locke, who once served as U.S. ambassador to China, is a Chinese official, not an American.
"Asian Americans – whether they are second, third, or fourth generation – are always viewed as foreigners," Locke told the Atlantic. "We're not saying this about second- or third-generation Irish Americans or Polish Americans. Nobody would think of including them in a picture when you were talking about foreign government officials."
The recent incidents force a dialogue about racism
Although racism against Asian Americans has persisted for generations, it is rarely explicitly confronted or discussed. "Asian discrimination is often overlooked and largely tolerated, even in educated classes," Josephine Park, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, told Penn Today.
There are many reasons for this, according to Asian-American academic scholars. Asian Americans have been discriminated against to varying degrees compared to other people of color, including Black and Latin Americans.
In addition, because of the diversity within the Asian-American community, which includes more than 30 ethnic groups, there is a wealth of experience that is not always the same. "It is rare that all parts of the Asian-American community are equally affected by a problem," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of political science at UC Riverside and director of AAPI Data.
Maintaining the myth of the "exemplary minority" introduced by sociologist William Petersen in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article made the conversation about Asian Americans and racism even more difficult.
As part of his play, Petersen pitches minority groups against one another, arguing that Japanese Americans have been able to achieve economic success in the face of injustice and discrimination in ways that other groups that Petersen called "problem minorities" have not. It's a fictional argument that has been used repeatedly as a "wedge" between minority groups, Kat Chow reported for NPR.
By branding Asian Americans as an "exemplary minority," writers like Petersen obscured how systemic injustices have disproportionately hurt black Americans. The term also reduced the visibility of racism against Asian Americans.
"The dominant culture's belief in the" exemplary minority "allows one to ignore the unique discrimination faced by Asian Americans," writes Robert Chang in his book "Disoriented: Asian Americans, Law and the Nation-State".
Now, an increase in harassment is starting a new conversation about the kind of prejudice Asian Americans experience. For some, this is one of the rare times when they face this problem in such an explicit way.
"I haven't been pestered for my race in years. It's been a really long time and it felt like it came out of nowhere," California-based Julie Kang told Vox's Catherine Kim.
Experts see these incidents forcing people to speak more openly about discrimination against Asian Americans. "I think there is a new understanding for a lot of people," says Kulkarni. "We hope that frankly this will lead to more dialogue and more action."
Some also believe it has the potential to increase solidarity between Asian Americans and other people of color, many of whom have been exposed to racial harassment and violence, including from the police, on a regular basis. "I hope we see that this kind of process is happening to other groups all the time," says Ramakrishnan.
Members of the Congress of Black, Asian and Hispanic Congregations speak to reporters to discuss the 2020 census and concerns about an accurate census in minority communities on March 5th.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
The reaction of some lawmakers has helped to underline this solidarity: A few weeks ago a group of House Democrats representing the black, Asian and Hispanic assemblies denounced unequivocally anti-Asian rhetoric and violence.
"The Asian-American community is facing a hate crisis that we cannot tolerate," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). “We will not tolerate anti-Asian bias, we will not tolerate anti-Asian bigotry, we will not tolerate these hate crimes. We all stand by the Asian-American community until we can end this scourge. "
The attacks Asian Americans face across the country bring dialogue about longstanding prejudice to the fore. And because Americans have more open discussions about race and institutional bias, they are not as easy to ignore as they have been in the past.
"To … address these kinds of dominant stereotypes that are really ubiquitous and so easily activated, it takes public education and the general public to understand the race in America," says Wong. "There's a possibility that it could be a really strong reminder that Asian Americans are being racialized in the US and that we can't do it on our own."