Since last spring, when former President Trump began referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” there has been an alarming increase of anti-Asian violence. Hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have increased 169% in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the same time period in 2020, and about 3,800 hate incidents have been reported over the last year. In March, a man targeted three Atlanta-area massage parlors and killed six women of Asian descent.
To understand the current moment in a historical context, David Myers, the director of the Luskin Center for History and Policy, spoke with Karen Umemoto, the Helen and Morgan Chu Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, and David Yoo, vice provost of the UCLA Institute for American Cultures. The conversation about the history of anti-Asian hatred was recorded for an episode of the “Then & Now” podcast. Below are a few notable moments, edited for length and clarity.
Myers: Where do Asian Americans fit into the race puzzle of the United States?
Yoo: I want to look at three different areas to answer that question. The first is this notion of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. I think the characterization of Asian Americans in terms of otherness has often been defined by exclusion. By exclusion, we often think of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but I think more foundational than that is the Naturalization Act of 1790, [in] which naturalization is limited to “free white persons.” And that becomes a particular way that Asian exclusion unfolds around the concept of those who are ineligible for citizenship, and [it] becomes the basis for things like the alien land laws, [which] bar Asians from land ownership, not only in California, but also in Oregon and Washington. [There’s] also the Cable Act of 1922. [Previously, women lost] their citizenship if they [married] a non-U.S. man. The act was really intended to restore white women citizenship, but Asian women, who overwhelmingly were marrying Asian immigrant men, still lost their citizenship, because it was really on this ineligibility for citizenship that it hinged.
The other [area] is the role that empire and war play in the history of Asian Americans. If you look at the 20th century, for example, the Philippine American War, World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam — these wars and the U.S. involvement in them really shaped the American empire, [which] has tremendous ramifications for so many Asian American groups.
And then the final piece is, I think a lot of the bias and violence that’s directed toward Asian Americans really are built upon this larger racial pattern and structure that affects other racialized groups in the United States. For example, the foreign miners tax during the gold rush, which gets applied to Chinese Americans in a particular way, actually was first set up for Mexicans. Or if you look at California’s People v. Hall, which makes Chinese testimony inadmissible in the courts, that is building on certain earlier statues that disallow Native American and African American testimony. There are ways in which we can’t really understand the role that race plays for Asian Americans without thinking about the larger racial structures.
Myers: What does the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, culminating in the Korematsu case [in which the Supreme Court ruled the incarceration was a “military necessity”], tell you about the American legal and political order?
Yoo: That’s a tough question, because I think it tells us many things. The thing that I take away are the efforts of attorneys and community groups to really fight those cases, both during the war and after the war. And that leads in many ways into redress and the hearings, [where] Japanese Americans, sometimes for the first time, speak publicly about what happened to them. Those are the things that I focus on, in terms of that legacy of resistance. To me, that community effort and the social movements that are built out of that, in some ways, extend into the present.
Myers: There’s been discussion about whether racial hatred was a main motive in the murders [in Atlanta on March 16]. Can you unpack this line of inquiry?
Umemoto: There has been a lot of frustration within the Asian American community when people are questioning whether or not this is a hate crime. But I think we need to really separate and differentiate between an act of racial violence and the legal definition of a hate crime. An act of racial violence is violence enacted on a person or group of people whose race is a factor, leading to their victimization. A hate crime is a criminal act defined by law in which bias — whether it’s gender based, sexual orientation, religion or other descriptor — can be proven to be a central motive. The idea of racial violence is based on the outcome, whereas a hate crime is based on proven intent. In the case of the Atlanta shootings, an act of racial violence was clear for all the reasons that people have alluded to so far: the fact that Robert Long traveled specifically to three different Asian-owned massage parlors; that six of the eight victims were Asian woman who appeared to be the target of his attack; and his admission that he did this to “eliminate his temptation.” We can’t really separate this targeted killing from the fetishization of Asian women and the history of U.S. militarism that’s become steeped in popular culture, and that is fed into human trafficking and the sex industry itself. I think by separating those two ideas — whether or not this is an act of racial violence, or whether or not this is a hate crime — really helps us disentangle ourselves from these legal rabbit holes that then lead to greater and greater frustration.
Myers: Have allies outside of the Asian American community been responsive and effective partners in combating this particular form of American racial bias?
Umemoto: I think we’re starting to see that more and more now. First, in the form of statements issued by various groups, including the NAACP and other major organizations, so that’s always heartening. I think the important part that we all have to deal with next is, what does solidarity mean in practice and in finding shared struggles. Even though violence against Asian Americans is not new, people are beginning to see it in the light of day now. I think there are commonalities that are being drawn between the Asian American experience and other experiences of racial violence, so I look forward to a new period and new era of solidarity building.