I remember the exact moment I heard the news that the coronavirus had been traced to a city in China. My first thought was that it was just a matter of time before the scapegoating would begin. I knew this immediately — that Asian Americans would be unfairly blamed for the pandemic. And my prediction came true. In the last year, Asian Americans have been verbally abused, harassed, assaulted, and in extreme cases, lost their lives because of racist hate.
The scapegoating of Asian Americans in times of crisis is nothing new. During the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants who worked building the Transcontinental Railroad were scapegoated by their white counterparts for “stealing” jobs. This led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred further Chinese immigration to the U.S. and prohibited those already here from obtaining citizenship and owning land. Chinese immigrants were forced to live in crowded slums with no access to adequate medical care. They were hit hard by infectious diseases such as smallpox and were further scapegoated for the disease.
In more recent history, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned in concentration camps during WWII without due process. During the 1930s, Filipino farmworkers faced discrimination and violence from white people who were angry over labor competition and fears about Filipino men dating white women. After the Vietnam War, refugees from Southeast Asia were subjected to discrimination and violence, including attacks by the Ku Klux Klan on shrimpers in Texas. In 1982, during a recession that was partly blamed on the Japanese auto industry, Vincent Chin was bludgeoned to death by two white autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. Following 9/11, South Asian communities in the U.S. experienced a surge in hate crimes.
The history of anti-Asian racism is not well known, and its invisibility is complex. The stories of Asians in American history are not accurately or adequately taught in schools. Incidents resulting from anti-Asian racism are often not considered newsworthy enough for media coverage.
The Asian community itself has often been, for various reasons, unwilling to talk about it. My 95-year-old-father is a WWII veteran who was born and raised in Seattle. I asked him how he dealt with racist behavior throughout his lifetime, and his response was, “I didn’t go looking for trouble.” Many from his generation coped the same way and maintained a low profile when it came to speaking out. After all, history taught them not to expect change. When Vincent Chin’s attackers were convicted and sentenced on manslaughter charges, neither spent a single day in jail. The judge in the case defended his sentence by stating, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” Why would my father, or anyone, reasonably believe that speaking out against racism could make a difference?
Anti-Asian racism is nothing new. We know it exists, and we know that we do not deserve to be bullied, harassed and attacked because of it. It is no longer acceptable for Asian communities to remain silent. We need to tell our stories because no one else is going to do it for us.
This is the first time I can remember anti-Asian racism receiving so much attention on a national level. The pledge of support from other communities of color and white allies to stand in solidarity with us is encouraging. This is particularly meaningful coming from the Black community, which is already exhausted by its fight against anti-Black racism. It is time for all of us to work across communities to educate each other about our shared struggles and find common ground as we work to create an anti-racist society.
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