Violence against Asians in the United States has come to the forefront of public discourse in the wake of tragedies like the March 16 shooting in Atlanta, Georgia and ongoing attacks on citizens in cities all over the nation. But while the media has made violence and prejudice against Asians more visible, the racialization and discrimination against these communities is nothing new.
The Racial Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion (REDI) Task Force at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies dedicated the recent installment in its discussion series, “Critical Conversations: Race in Global Affairs,” to consider the new wave of anti-Asian racism and violence. The discussion featured UCLA sociologist Min Zhou, IDEAL Provostial Fellow Eujin Park, and REDI Task Force Chair Gabrielle Hecht, and was moderated by Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
A Long History of Hate
Like many racialized groups, Asians often face a variety of overt and covert attacks. As identified in the 2021 Stop AAPI Hate National report, overt violence and harassment of Asians includes acts such as yelling, bullying, physical attacks, and the use of racial slurs. Physical assaults increased from 10.2% of the total hate incidents reported in 2020 to 16.7% in 2021, while online hate incidents increased from 5.6% in 2020 to 10.2% in 2021.
For Min Zhou, these numbers are the most current evidence of a reoccurring cycle of violence and antagonism against Asians that reaches back to the earliest history of Asian communities in the United States.
“Historically, Asians have been considered an existential danger to the Western world and to American culture,” she explains. “They have been seen as a threat to the American working class and their struggle for labor dignity and rights.”
The first large migration of Asians into America was in the mid-1800s when workers from China joined laborers in the western United States in the booming mining and railroad building sectors. Initially praised as “useful workers” for their work ethic and willingness to endure backbreaking hours, Asian immigrants were quickly scapegoated as sources of vice and division when work became scarcer in the post-boom, contracting economy. Labor movements successfully codified discrimination against Asians in the 1875 Page Laws and 1882 federal Chinese Exclusion Act, and continued codifying systemic discriminatory practices in the Immigration Act of 1917.
Zhou explains that this kind of targeted discrimination against Asians resurfaces whenever Western society has felt cultural or economic competition with Eastern countries, citing the internment of Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1945 and the increase of violence against Asians following rising economic competition between East Asian and American auto manufacturers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Anti-Asian racism today is nothing new,” cautions Zhou. “It is part of a longstanding history of systemic racism in the U.S.”
Understanding the Current Moment
But history is only one context for understanding violence against Asians. As Gabrielle Hecht, the chair of the REDI Task Force reiterates, “[There is] a tremendous variety of racists tropes, practices, and violence that run through American society that need to be addressed specifically as well as systemically.”
In the case of Asian discrimination, this includes dismantling the perceptions of the Asian American community as either a “model minority” or conversely as “perpetual foreigners.” As Eujin Park explains, both of these characterizations circumscribe Asian experiences into a framework of white supremacy and institutional violence.
Being seen as perpetual foreigners creates a narrative in which it is impossible for Asians to be authentically American or fully assimilate. The perception of being a model minority both upholds the myth that the U.S. is a race-neutral meritocracy and often fuels the perception that violence against Asians is limited to discrete personal experiences rather than part of a pattern of systemic and intersectional problems.
Examining how racialization intersects with sexualization, classism, ageism, and the broader Black-white paradigm of American race relations is crucial to understanding the very different experiences and varying types of discrimination within the Asian American experience. As a group, Asians are incredibly diverse, representing over 30 distinct countries of origin and innumerable cultural and ethnic groups. Over 60 and sometimes upwards of 70 percent of Asian communities in the U.S. are immigrants.
Looking to the Future
These overlapping and complicated realities of demographics, experience, and history mean that truly impactful advocacy against anti-Asian American violence will require equally interconnected and thoughtful partnerships and proactivity.
“This current moment is a significant opportunity for Asian Americans and our allies to expand our understanding of the violence that shapes Asian American lives and to turn our attention toward state and institutional violence,” says Eujin Park.
As for the particular responsibilities the Stanford community has in countering rising anti-Asian hate and violence, APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin, the moderator for the discussion counsels:
“It is not easy to participate in rational and constructive conversations, particularly those that are politically sensitive and involve many emotional components. Still, it is our duty as an academic community to confront these uncomfortable realities and engage ourselves in dialogue and discussions.”