Not New: The History of Anti-Asian Violence (and How to Fight Against it)

In March this year, eight people—six of whom were Asian women—were killed in a targeted mass shooting at three Atlanta-area massage parlors. In the wake of this repulsive act of anti-Asian violence, there has been increased media attention around anti-Asian discrimination and calls to stop Asian hate. Certainly, there has been a recent spike in anti-Asian hate violence and discrimination over the past year, stemming from racist and xenophobic discourse around COVID-19. Anti-Asian rhetoric directly results in increased hostility and violence directed towards Asian people, especially Asian women and Asian elders. In the last year alone, the Stop AAPI Hate coalition reported nearly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian hate, violence, and discrimination occurring in the United States. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 39% of Asian Americans reported that other people acted uncomfortable around them because of their race since the coronavirus outbreak; 31% of Asian Americans reported being subjected to racist slurs or jokes since the start of the pandemic.

While the recent surge of anti-Asian hate and violence is significant, it is by no means a new phenomenon in this country. Chinese immigrants began arriving in the U.S. in large numbers in the mid-1800’s. History books often portray Chinese immigrants as heroes who built the transcontinental railroad. In reality, these jobs were low-paying and very dangerous, but Chinese immigrants took them out of necessity because it was difficult to get other jobs to support their families. As more Chinese immigrants began arriving in the U.S., anti-Asian rhetoric and violence escalated quickly. The Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles occurred when a shootout between several Chinese men resulted in the death of a white civilian. After news of the civilian’s death spread, an angry mob murdered and hanged 19 Chinese people, over 10% of the city’s entire Chinese population. While eight men were convicted of manslaughter, the convictions were all overturned based on a legal technicality.

The growing anti-Asian resentment of the late 1800’s was also reflected in our federal policies. In 1875, the U.S. passed its first-ever restrictive immigration law, the Page Act, which prohibited East Asian women from coming to the U.S. This law was built on misogynistic and racist views that Asian women were immoral and sexually deviant. The recent mass shootings in Atlanta made it all too clear that even today, Asian women are still dehumanized and fetishized as sexual objects. The Page Act was a precursor to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all Chinese people from immigrating to America. This law remains the only law in American history that prevented all members of a specific race from immigrating to the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943.

In addition to the anti-Asian racism that was codified into our nation’s laws, Asian people throughout our country’s history have regularly been scapegoated during periods of national distress involving Asian countries. For example, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in WWII, over 120,000 Japanese Americans, many of whom were American citizens, were forced into internment camps. They were deemed a threat to national security and stripped of their human rights based on nothing other than their Japanese heritage. Similarly, after the Vietnam War, refugees from Southeast Asia experienced increased discrimination and violence.

In 1982, during an economic recession that was routinely blamed on the Japanese auto industry, two Detroit autoworkers murdered Vincent Chin, a Chinese American.  After the 9/11 attacks by Islamic extremists, South Asian and Middle Eastern Americans, especially those who were Muslim or perceived to be Muslim, were the victims of increased hate violence, racial profiling, and discrimination. Balbir Singh Sodhi, who emigrated from India in the 1980s, was killed just days after 9/11. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans are once again being blamed for national hardships and are experiencing increased hate violence as a result, such as in the recent loss of four Sikh elders to gun violence.

This Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month help raise awareness about the impacts of racism on Asian communities, especially amidst the current surge of anti-Asian hate violence.

You can help respond to anti-Asian hate violence, here are some resources to get started:


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