Overcoming anti-Asian hate: Can the US learn from its past?
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In 1834, Nathaniel and Frederick Carne brought Afong Moy to New York from Canton, known now as Guangzhou, in China’s Guangdong province. Reportedly the first Chinese female immigrant to the United States, she was exhibited as “the Chinese lady” for 50 cents a view.
What could more clearly have foreshadowed the perpetual state of “otherness” and the dehumanizing stereotypes faced by many Asian women today than being exhibited live as a curiosity?
Why We Wrote This
What's at the heart of anti-Asian hate? For our commentator, it's seeing another as "other."
A long history of discrimination and violence against Asian American men and women underscores how so many in our community continue to be seen, if not displayed, as “other” in America.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden called out “vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who’ve been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated.”
“It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop,” he said. Five days later, the mass shooting in Atlanta occurred.
Yet there are signs of hope, including demonstrations across the country bringing together activists, officials, and individuals from across races and community groups.
To make hope real and push back against hate, we must continue to learn from our history and to build common ground in our shared pursuit of a more perfect union for all.
Amid the tragedy and heartbreak of the recent shootings in the Atlanta area – including six women of Asian descent – I have hope that out of this murderous act can come an awakening in America.
I have hope that our leaders in government and in business as well as everyday people of every race, gender, and ethnicity can see that more must be done in our pursuit of a more perfect union. And I have hope that this moment of shared grief and outrage will not be for naught, and that the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in particular will continue to make their voices heard.
Let us remember all the names of those killed: Suncha Kim, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels.
Why We Wrote This
What's at the heart of anti-Asian hate? For our commentator, it's seeing another as "other."
Sadly though, I also recognize that the context for these latest killings at three spa and massage businesses is a history of mistreatment and stereotyping of Asians in America, particularly of Asian women, dating to this nation’s earliest decades. In 1834, Nathaniel and Frederick Carne brought Afong Moy to New York from Canton, known now as Guangzhou, in China’s Guangdong province. Reportedly the first Chinese female immigrant to the United States, she was exhibited as “the Chinese lady” for 50 cents a view.
What could more clearly have foreshadowed the perpetual state of “otherness” and the dehumanizing stereotypes faced by many Asian women today than being exhibited live as a curiosity? A long history of discrimination against Asian American men and women underscores how so many in our community continue to be seen, if not displayed, as “other” in America – interchangeable and perpetual foreigners.
An endemic virus of hate
The emergence of a virus of hate in a changing America long preceded the arrival of the novel coronavirus. Nearly 150 years after Ms. Moy’s arrival, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin, also originally from Guangdong province, went with friends to a strip club in Detroit in 1982 to celebrate his upcoming wedding. Two white autoworkers, apparently mistaking him for Japanese and upset over the success of Japanese automakers in the United States, beat him to death. The killers were ordered to pay a $3,000 fine each and given zero prison time.
The enduring story of violence and otherness continues today, horrifically with the Atlanta killings and also with attacks on often older Asian Americans. This included January’s fatal assault, caught on a security camera, of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco.
According to Stop AAPI Hate – a reporting center founded a year ago to address discrimination against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community during the pandemic – nearly 3,800 firsthand reports of anti-Asian hate, including physical and verbal assaults, have been made from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28 of this year. Such attacks are likely underreported, however, due to language and cultural barriers as well as a lack of trust in law enforcement.
For many of the perpetrators behind these crimes, I suspect they saw their victim not as a fellow American but as a nameless “Asian,” not specifically Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, or of another AAPI heritage. The victim was probably perceived simply as “other” – from a community that would not speak up or fight back, but would simply eat the bitterness and move on.
Not all attacks are violent, of course, but even subtle, unintended slights suggest an assumption of otherness. I am always struck, for example, when people with, I believe, no ill will, still compliment my English or ask, “Where are you (originally) from?”
Behind Asian stereotypes: Diversity
In his national prime-time address marking one year since the pandemic began, President Joe Biden called out “vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who’ve been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated.”
“It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop,” he said.
Welcome words. Yet, particularly in times of hardship and economic uncertainty, the search for a scapegoat endures – and Asian Americans’ diversity remains hidden. The Atlanta shootings came five days after President Biden’s address.
The U.S. AAPI population accounts for approximately 7% of the nation. More than 22 million Asian Americans trace some part of their roots to countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and another 1.6 million have at least some Pacific Islander ancestry. These numbers do not even include those who trace their roots to Central or West Asia. All these AAPI communities are diverse in other ways too – from economic levels to religions.
Yet this diversity is lost amid the stereotypes – whether of the “model minority” or of those created by Hollywood. Many are surprised, for example, to learn that more than one-fourth of all Asian Americans live under the poverty level in New York City. Millions of Asian Americans are struggling to get by in the pandemic, especially those who speak little English, finished only high school, and had limited job opportunities before the pandemic devastated the small restaurants and businesses where they might have found employment.
The lives of the Asian women killed in Atlanta were not those of the “crazy rich” but like those of many other immigrant women before them, traveling a difficult path and working toward a better life and their own American dreams.
In January, the National Women’s Law Center reported that 44% of unemployed Asian American women had been out of work six months or more – higher than the rate for Black women (40.8%), Latinas (38.3%), and women overall (39.9%). A report by the New York-based Asian American Federation – a nonprofit group on whose board I once served – found that Asian American unemployment in New York City jumped from 3.4% in February 2020 to 25.6% in May 2020. That was the biggest increase of all the city’s major racial and ethnic groups.
Just as it should not have taken the horrific death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor to bring attention to the long-standing issues called out by the Black Lives Matter movement, it should not have taken a mass shooting to bring the very real plight of Asian Americans and especially Asian American women into focus.
So, what is to be done?
Building resilient communities
Government, businesses, nonprofit groups, and, importantly, everyday citizens have a role to play in building and uniting communities to stop hate. Commitments of time, funds, and engagement are all critical.
More information is needed as well. In America, it is typically only what gets measured that gets managed. That’s one reason the lack of research and data on the Asian American community can be so harmful when it comes to city, state, and federal government budget allocations. And when data is collected by businesses or government, it should be done in a way to allow for greater data disaggregation, helping to build understanding of the specific needs of a diverse Asian American community.
The need for culturally sensitive and community- and language-specific programs has once again been made clear during the pandemic. Numerous Asian American small-business owners struggled to understand the support offered by the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the federal government’s response to the pandemic. And some older Asian Americans are having trouble accessing vaccinations – a challenge made maddeningly worse for non-English speaking, non-tech savvy-individuals who are now fearful about anti-Asian hate crimes.
Yet there are signs of hope beyond President Biden’s and others’ important, tone-setting messages against racism. These have included demonstrations in major cities across the country bringing together activists, officials, and individuals from across races and community groups.
Importantly, many Asian Americans who might well have silently endured racism also have begun to speak up and to push for greater AAPI civic engagement. So, too, have some of America’s leading corporations and brands, from Apple to WarnerMedia, adding their voices to ensure that “Stop Asian Hate” is not a call to action embraced by Asian Americans alone.
Toward a more perfect union
Over a decade ago, I was sworn in by unanimous consent of the Senate as U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, becoming only the fourth U.S. ambassador of Chinese heritage and going on to serve under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Those days and that role – along with its U.S. embassy-provided security detail in the Philippines – are long past. Now, when I take yet another pandemic-era walk in America, I am cognizant as I never was before of those around me. In the back of my mind, I wonder what that next passerby might be thinking of me. Do I appear simply as an “other”?
The reality is that this pandemic will pass. And I believe so, too, will this latest wave in a long history of attacks on Asian Americans. Yet history suggests a new wave may lie ahead, amid tensions between the U.S. and China, and important questions about China’s transparency with regards to the origins of the coronavirus.
That is all the more reason we must not just call out anti-Asian discrimination and violence today, as well as the persistent, harmful stereotyping of both Asian American men and women. To make hope real and push back against hate, we must also continue to learn from our history and get America’s house in order. We must continue to build community and common ground in our shared pursuit of a more perfect union for all.
Curtis S. Chin is a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.