Anti-Asian Hate Crimes: How Recent Violence Shows the Unfortunate Truth of Systemic Racism in America - Isabella Health Foundation

Anti-Asian Hate Crimes: How Recent Violence Shows the Unfortunate Truth of Systemic Racism in America

The recent course of violence and hate against Asian Americans has once again laid bare the ways America actively maintains its systemic racism. The racialization of COVID-19 and the murder of six Asian Americans in Atlanta in March, like so many other acts of violence, are products of the racial hierarchy that is so integral to America.

Over a year into the pandemic, communities across the country are grappling with vulnerability, loss and anger as the crisis deepens inequalities and inflames existing fears. The reaction to this vulnerability among White America—the society produced by systemic racism and dependent on racial hierarchy—has been to direct violence at those they believe are threatening their privilege.

As Lok Siu, associate professor of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley, wrote after the Atlanta murders, “One might say that our economic system kind of inherently breeds this sort of racism and antagonism that produces racial conflict and violence.”

Structural racism has taught Whites that their privilege ought to shield them from the harshest impacts of any crisis, and it does: racial minorities in the US face disproportionately higher rates of exposure, severe illness, hospitalization and death due to COVID-19. New research is also showing the impact of the pandemic on Asian Americans is vastly underreported.

America’s reaction to COVID-19—from the continued dehumanization of Asian Americans, to our inability to address the resulting violence and hate crimes—directly reflects the country’s systemic racism.

America depends on excluding the “other”

In a primetime address condemning anti-Asian American hate, President Biden told the country, “It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.” Biden’s words of support and his condemnation of the violence were crucial, but these hate crimes are “American”, in that they reflect the cultural and social processes that allow the continued dehumanization of Asian Americans and other people of color.

This dehumanization is based on a process of “othering”, a process of alienation inherent to the country’s racial hierarchies and its economic and political systems. This othering allows much of America to ignore structural racism, leaving inequalities in income, education, employment, housing, health care and political representation in place.

This is the same process by which America permits violence against women. As the country has long seen Asian women as hypersexualized and “immoral”, it has prevented them from ever becoming a part of White America’s self-image.

As Jiayang Fan wrote after the mass shooting in Atlanta, “Misogyny and racism have never lived neatly in their separate categories; they ravage by mutually reinforcing a narrative of a dehumanized ‘other.’”

A key step in this process is to pretend that the ongoing hate crimes are an anomaly, calling them “un-American” and concealing them by calling them simply “race-related”. The country continues as it does because we say race was not a factor at all, as the FBI has done in the case of the Atlanta shootings and as the lawyer of former police officer Derek Chauvin has done with the murder of George Floyd.

For Asian Americans, the country is able to deny that they are impacted by systemic racism largely through the myth of the model minority: Asians “outperform” other racial minorities and therefore can’t be subject to racial injustice. But this denial also serves a function. According to a recent study in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, “Such a seemingly affirmative representation of an entire race masks a negative dynamic of consistently relegating Asian Americans to a permanent foreigner status.”

The racialization of COVID-19 makes it increasingly difficult to deny that racism is systemic—if it is a “Chinese virus”, then it is racial. The data on the resulting hate crimes is now well-known: 3,700 acts of anti-Asian hate have been reported since March 2020, one third of them physical assault and 68% of them against women.

Anti-Asian bigotry during COVID-19 follows a long pattern of systemic racism

The labeling of COVID-19 as a threat from a foreign other is a product of systemic racism but also the result of intentionally targeting China and the broader Asian and Asian-American communities.

America’s history of systemic racism against Asian immigrants and Asian Americans has always been a process of othering—of fear, violence and misogyny, justified through racism and alienation.

As the author and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen put it, “The history of anti-Asian violence in this country goes back to as long as we’ve had Asian immigrants in this country, that Asian immigrants have been brought here to have their labor exploited.”

America exploited Asian labor to build much of the west coast, constructing our railroads and working dangerous mining jobs. Whites justified this—and their own fears—through racism and the creation of an “other”. This racism manifested in violence and government policy, creating a cycle and yet another engine of America’s self-image.

In the late 1800s, Whites regularly enacted anti-Chinese racism through violence. There were 150 anti-Chinese riots across the country in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1871, a White mob killed 17 Chinese men and boys in downtown Los Angeles. In 1884, 34 Chinese miners in Oregon were murdered. This violence was codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the country’s first law banning an entire population from immigration and citizenship.

From the beginning, this process was also deeply gendered. Seven years earlier, in 1875, the Page Act had already specifically prevented Chinese women from immigrating, as the government claimed it couldn’t tell if Chinese women were immigrating to work in the sex trade.

The early 1900s saw White America invent the concept of “yellow peril” and the fear of Asian “domination”, stemming in part from Japan’s victories in two major wars, one against China and one against Russia. With America’s involvement in World War II, this systemic racism was put to use in the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, yet another revision of the country’s ideals in the service of reinforcing our racial hierarchy.

A similar process was used to justify the country’s wars in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Korea. The othering of those we fought, as well as those we supported, became integral to our national image. Through the American military, the country came to see Asian women as sex objects and then brought this fetishization to bear on the waves of immigrants and refugees fleeing these wars.

This is the history that has allowed many of the country’s leaders and society more broadly to permit the racialization of COVID-19. As Angela Gover, professor at University of Colorado Denver, writes, “the state has often implicitly reinforced, encouraged, and perpetuated this violence through bigoted rhetoric and exclusionary policies.”

As the country turns its attention to the violence committed against Asian Americans, a critical look at systemic racism—the ideas that permit this violence—is vital. As Jiayang Fan writes, “This increase in anti-Asian violence leading up to the Atlanta killings is not an aberration but, rather, a culmination of systemic and cultural inequities exacerbated by the pandemic—a global calamity for which Asians throughout the world have been maligned as the culprits.”

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