Racism against Asian Americans — a long, ugly chapter in U.S. history

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, some U.S. politicians have blatantly spread and hyped up conspiracy theories to shift the blame for their failed response to the contagion onto Asian Americans, causing a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes.

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People march to protest against anti-Asian hate crimes on Brooklyn Bridge in New York, the United States, April 4, 2021. A big "Stop Asian Hate" rally and march was held here on Sunday. (Xinhua/Wang Ying)

On the morning of Feb. 13, 2022, 35-year-old Christina Yuna Lee was found dead in her bathroom stabbed 40 times after a man, Assamad Nash, silently followed her up six flights of stairs into her lower Manhattan apartment, only because of her Asian descent.

Following the random yet violent murder, mourners placed flowers, candles, photos and cardboard signs condemning anti-Asian hatred outside the residential building. However, the makeshift memorial for the Korean-American victim was repeatedly vandalized.

Every attack on the memorial is pretty much anti-Asian and “it is very scary now,” said Brian Chin, Lee’s former landlord, whose family came to the United States from China six decades ago. “They’re doing it with hate.”

Lee’s tragedy and similar racist incidents are just the tip of the iceberg regarding anti-Asian racism in the country.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, some U.S. politicians have blatantly spread and hyped up conspiracy theories to shift the blame for their failed response to the contagion onto Asian Americans, causing a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes.

Over three years into the pandemic, the U.S. government, turning a blind eye to science and basic facts, recently introduced discriminatory restrictions targeting tourists arriving from China, raising concerns about further aggravating the situation.

“THEY DON’T DARE GO OUTSIDE”

In the past few years, shocking racist attacks against Asian Americans have occurred frequently in the United States.

For instance, on July 14, 2020, in New York City, an 89-year-old Chinese American woman was slapped in the face by two male strangers on the street, and when she tried to escape, the men set her clothes on fire from behind.

On Aug. 30, 2021, an elderly Filipino woman was pushed down the stairs by a white man in Rego Park Subway Station in Queens, New York, resulting in her sustaining serious facial and physical injuries.

Jenny H., in her 60s, has been living in San Francisco for more than 30 years. She didn’t give her full name to Xinhua for fear that she would again become a target of racial assaults after the interview.

The lady used to like going outside, doing voluntary work, talking to strangers on buses … though such a life is now nothing but a distant memory to her.

In 2020, she had her bones broken in a subway station after someone violently pushed her to the ground. Furthermore, she was once hit in the face by a bus passenger, leaving permanent damage to her eye. Nowadays, she must go to the hospital every three months for a medical checkup, but other than that, she doesn’t dare to go outside amid the spike in Asiaphobia.

Some U.S. politicians bear a great deal of responsibility for this situation, as they tend to scapegoat the Asian community and deliberately stoke xenophobia and racism to cover up their own incompetencies in solving domestic political problems.

Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans, an Asian American advocacy group, told Xinhua that the United States is regressing in the fight against racial discrimination at an alarming rate.

In 2021, hate crimes against Asian Americans rose sharply by 339 percent compared with 2020, showed data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, a U.S. nonpartisan research and policy center.

Between March 2020 and December 2021, nearly 11,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were reported to the national coalition Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate. One in five incidents occurred as an attacker attributed the impact of COVID-19, income volatility and other problems to Asians and Asian Americans.

In March 2021, Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, opened fire in three Asian Massage shops and spas in Atlanta with a gun, killing eight people, including six Asian women.

When addressing a speech at Emory University, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said, “Racism is real in America, and it has always been there. Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been.”

“Asian Americans have been attacked and scapegoated,” she said. “People with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate.”

In May 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. Yet a study published by Pew Research Center in May 2022 showed about six in ten Asian adults see violence against Asian Americans in the United States as increasing, while 19 percent say there has not been much change.

ANTI-ASIAN AMERICAN RACISM IN U.S. HISTORY

In June 2005, construction crews unearthed bones and artifacts while widening a road to make room for the Gold Line rail extension to east Los Angeles. Archaeologists later found 174 burial sites, some dating back as far as the 1880s. A few had headstones with engravings in Chinese, and some contained artifacts such as teapots and jade jewelry.

Historians believe the site was once a potter’s field, a cemetery for the poor, that was lost to developments in the 1920s. Many Chinese were buried there because they were not allowed to be buried among whites in the nearby Evergreen Cemetery.

In 1863, the United States embarked on the Pacific Railroad project, North America’s very first transcontinental railroad, and recruited some 12,000 Chinese workers to construct the project under extremely dangerous and challenging conditions.

Over five consecutive months between late 1865 and early 1866, more than 3,000 Chinese railway workers were killed in avalanches caused by frequent snowstorms. The victims, in ragged clothes and barefoot, were not discovered until the snow melted months later.

Despite their historical contributions to U.S. development, Chinese Americans have become victims of social repulsion and racial violence.

In 1854, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Asian Americans were not and could not be citizens in a case, and such restrictions on Asian Americans’ access to citizenship were not finally abolished until around the 1940s.

The earliest record of organized violence against Asian Americans was in 1871, when a group of whites rushed into an Asian community near Los Angeles’ Chinatown, shooting and hanging 21 Chinese Americans to death, burning down the community, and driving the residents out of the city.

The severe prejudice against Asian Americans eventually led to the prohibition of Chinese immigrants in the United States with the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which stayed in force until 1943.

The sin of racial discrimination is deeply rooted in U.S. history, with the Chinese Exclusion Act being one epitome, said Shue, head of the above-mentioned Chinese Americans advocacy group. Targeting and suppressing a specific ethnic group, the law has caused irreparable harm to Chinese Americans.

On the night of June 19, 1982, 27-year-old Chinese American Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white autoworkers in the U.S. city of Detroit at a time when local politicians, union leaders and auto executives blamed Japan for the decline of the U.S. auto industry, and Chin was mistaken as a Japanese.

The two criminals were eventually fined 3,000 U.S. dollars and sentenced to probation. Charles Kaufman, a former U.S. judge who ruled the case, said, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail … You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”

“In 1982, Mr. Chin was made into a scapegoat not only for Japanese autoworkers and executives but also a deteriorating way of life for those once solidly in the middle class but quickly falling out of it,” wrote David Shih, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, in an opinion piece published in The New York Times last year.

Today, Asian Americans are also “the scapegoat for a fading sense of well-being in a market-driven and hypercompetitive society,” Shih said.

“IT’S A DEEP-ROOTED PROBLEM”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instituted discriminatory entry restrictions against China, requiring travelers flying from China to the United States to provide negative COVID-19 test results taken within two days of departure or proof of recovery from the disease within 90 days.

Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine and surgery at the George Washington University School, tweeted in response that “The U.S. plan to require travelers from China to be tested prior to departure is mostly performative,” adding “The Chinese testing is just a gesture.”

The policy itself isn’t the main concern, but rather the larger anti-Chinese environment under which the rule has been imposed. And it’s an issue that extends beyond the pandemic, said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“We are concerned that that is another place where it will be an excuse to China-bash and thereby cause a backlash against Chinese Americans and the Asian American community as a whole,” Yang said.

Just about a week after the entry restrictions took effect, an 18-year-old Asian woman at Indiana University Bloomington was attacked and stabbed several times in the head by a 56-year-old white woman with a knife on a bus. The suspect told police that her target was “Chinese” and it “would be one less person to blow up our country.”

Huping Ling, a renowned U.S. historian focusing on Asian American studies, said xenophobic violence against Asian Americans has deep historical roots in the United States. She pointed out in her book “Asian American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia” that driven by racially biased and discriminatory laws and policies, xenophobic violence began with the first wave of Chinese immigrants to the United States and has been repeated ever since.

Li Minjin, an Asian-American writer who grew up in Queens, New York, said in an interview with American media that no matter how educated Asian Americans are or how safe their communities are, they are likely to encounter insults and attacks, and may even be killed. This is the historical result of the long-term persecution of the Asian community.

Some scholars argue that unlike discrimination against African Americans, discrimination against Asian Americans in U.S. society has been xenophobic historically. At its core, from its psychological roots, is a view of “alienating Asians permanently.”

Chinese-American historian Erika Lee wrote in the book “The Making of Asian America: A History” that while the discriminatory laws of the past have been repealed, Asian Americans have not achieved full equality in American society. Many Asians settled in the United States generations ago but are still considered outsiders, which has allowed discrimination against them and made them the target of violence, murder, and hate crimes.

Chinese-American writer and journalist Katherine Chen admitted in a review article that for many years, she has felt like an outsider in the United States, with no choice but to alienate her ethnic traditions and culture. Asian-American groups were beaten, stabbed, or pushed onto subway tracks, but “what happened to us was not noticed among our peers, nor in history textbooks and civil rights speeches,” she said.

In a broader sense, anti-Asian racism is one manifestation of systemic racial discrimination in the United States. Like African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and other ethnic minorities, Asians have all been objects of discrimination and oppression by “white supremacists” in the United States for a long time. They are also the victims of racial hatred and antagonism incited by U.S. politicians who are acting out of their own interests.

“We are a nation of immigrants with a history of discrimination and exploitation of minority groups. We are still learning from the mistakes of the past. Asian Americans have contributed mightily to the success of the United States, but there is still much work to be done to treat Asian Americans as Americans,” said Committee of 100 President Huang Zhengyu.

The fight against racist words and actions of certain politicians and leaders towards the Asian American community as well as long-held stereotypes is staged on a daily basis, Huang added.

Zhang Yunhan, a tea shop owner in Washington, D.C., was subject to anti-Asian attack, and he believes that the surge in hate crimes in the wake of COVID-19 is a culmination of the racism that has plagued the United States for centuries. “It’s not going to go away. It’s a deep-rooted problem,” he told Xinhua.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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