Anti-Asian Sentiment in America Is Not New

Zilana Lee

March 25, 2021 | Racial Equity

When I briefly heard a report on television about the shootings that took place last week at three spa locations in Atlanta with no detail about who the victims were, I was first angry about the persistent gun violence plaguing this country. However, after learning that six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent and the shooter was a white male, the pieces of the story began to fit together and it became quite clear that this was an anti-Asian attack. While feeling deeply disturbed, disgusted, and distraught for the victims’ families, I was not surprised.

There has been an underwhelming focus in the media on the rise of anti-Asian attacks despite an almost 150% surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans last year. The rise in hate crimes against the Asian community is inextricably tied to the use of Asians as scapegoats for the coronavirus pandemic. This xenophobic and racist narrative was encouraged by former President Trump’s rhetoric – referring to the virus as “Kung flu” and the “China virus.” This attitude has translated to both verbal and physical violence against Asian-Americans. For example, a white woman was charged with a hate crime last March after she bumped into an Asian woman crossing the street in Manhattan and said, “You’re the reason why the coronavirus is here,” before spitting on her and pulling out some of her hair. An Asian-American restaurant owner in Texas found racist slurs covering his restaurant’s windows and patio tables. Unfortunately, this narrative of finger pointing and blame is not new to America, and the history of anti-Asian sentiment and violence in the country begins way before the pandemic.

In the mid-nineteenth century, China was in debt after the Opium Wars against Great Britain. Many Chinese laborers left the country to find work and emigrated to the U.S. during the California Gold Rush. There was great tension between white miners and Chinese immigrants and the 1854 Supreme Court case, People v. Hall, ruled that the Chinese – like African Americans and Native Americans – were not permitted to testify in court, making it impossible for Chinese immigrants to seek justice against the growing violence against them. Then in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, suspending Chinese immigration for 10 years and declaring Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. These were certainly not the only actions taken against the Asian community: the Rock Springs Massacre where dozens of Chinese miners were murdered and their homes burned in Wyoming in 1885, the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and sadly the list goes on.

Furthermore, hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women plays a critical part in the history of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S., and played out in the Atlanta shootings.

Authorities have not yet declared the attack in Atlanta a hate crime because the gunman claims that his actions were not racially motivated but driven by a sex addiction and that he wanted to “eliminate” a “temptation.” However, Asian American women frequently experience racism and sexism in tandem. Asian women are often fetishized, exoticized, and perceived as submissive; there is even the notion that we are physiologically different to other women. The gunman’s claim that he shot the women to eliminate his temptations somehow puts blame on the women instead of the man. The fact that the gunman “eliminated” his sexual temptation by killing eight people, six of them Asian women, is painfully dehumanizing to the victims and to Asian American women.

Largely due to the Black Lives Matter movement, more people in the U.S. are becoming aware of the racism that exists in this country and how various communities of color have experienced it for decades. History has shown time and time again that no matter the crisis, society blames a minority group whether it is based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. It is time to speak up for those who are being unjustly targeted and call the shootings for what they are – a hate crime against Asian Americans.

Join the National Partnership March 26 on social media for a day of action to #StopAsianHate. Ending the horrific spike in hate incidents starts with people speaking up about this growing problem.

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