‘The majority of Americans [regard] us with ambivalence… We [threaten] the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics [leaves] no room for any other color, particularly that of a pathetic little yellow-skinned people…’
-Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
“We don’t have coronavirus. We are coronavirus.”
– Cathy Park Hong
Since news of a novel coronavirus began to spread across the U.S., an incrementally high number of hate crime incidents directed against Asian Americans has continued to rise in unprecedented ways and at an accelerating pace with 60% of Asian Americans and one-third of all Americans personally witnessing an episode of anti-Asian harassment in 2020. Reports of verbal harassment, refusal of service, vandalism, physical assault and even murder has persistently plagued Asian communities nationwide over the last twelve months. Notably, there has been no concerted effort from federal agencies to curtail the rapid surge in COVID-related Sinophobia, nor the mishandling of (mis)information relating to the origin of the virus. Failing to stop the backlash, the Trump administration instead fuelled a sustained onslaught of race-hatred and disease racialisation through the usage of ‘China virus’ anti-Asian rhetoric. Compounding pre-existing racial anxieties with fears of an unknown ‘Kung Flu’, E. Tendyi Achiume stresses the acute degree to which such stigmatising language inevitably infects the tenor of media related to Asian individuals, with the head of government “essentially legitimising” an environment wherein “violence is more permissible and attacks more permissible.” Certainly, among Republicans in particular, there has consequently developed an atmosphere wherein blaming China and/or Chinese people is seen as “not racist at all”—since the virus, according to former President Trump, “comes from China!” It is this racially charged climate that fosters far-right ideologies in the form of hateful rhetoric and a virulent volley of violent actions.
Anxious, afraid, and ultimately affronted by its disproportionate impacts, the pandemic has been a deeply politicising experience for many Asian Americans; ominously reminding them how tenuous their American acceptance and immigrant inclusion is by effectively revealing how structural inequalities impact Asian Americans alongside other communities of colour. Indeed, while stories of xenophobic racism may have become disturbingly frequent over the past year, the acute stigmatisation of Asian Americans is not exactly new, but rather an amplification of the historical and current fault lines in the U.S. of race, class, poverty, and health care. Labelled as ‘perpetual foreigners,’ American history is in truth laden with examples of Asian and other non-white minority groups serving as scapegoats during national crises. As Vivian Shaw explains, “racist responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are a new iteration of the same issue that has been going on for a while.” In other words, whether it is the ‘Yellow Peril’ fears of Chinese immigrants as immoral, unsanitary carriers of disease in the 19th century; the stigmatisation of Black and gay communities during the 1980s AIDS pandemic; or the exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Muslim and Arab Americans in the wake of 9/11; racism following a major disaster is a very common story. Following Shaw, we can see then the ways in which the current displacement of COVID-19 anxieties specifically onto people of Asian descent follows a historic pattern of Orientalist racialisation in the U.S.; one that significantly spikes during times of internal or external economic or military crisis and fades when those pressures abate. Even as systemic racism is often framed in black and white terms in the U.S., the pandemic thereby furthermore reminds us that the same racist logic of white supremacy functions across, through, and within different racial communities. If we want a truly diverse future, we need to therefore consider the linkages between what is happening now, amidst the pandemic, and that mutual history of systemic and racial bias embedded in American society, and to further seek to address those historical, socio-political challenges to multiracial intersectional solidarity as a matter of ethnical pedagogy. Only then can we begin to better understand how to build an important intervention that not only centres the experience of anti-Asian racism, but which intervenes in binary racialised systems to create cross-racial structural reform with other marginalised groups.
For a long time, Asian and Pacific Islander American voices, stories, and concerns have been dismissed, downplayed, or oversimplified, effectively rendered invisible in larger conversations of race, inequality, and identity. What we are notably seeing now are the ramifications of this chronic, historic disregard for the needs and interests of Asian Americans, which mostly have been left out of the scope of responses to the current pandemic, regardless of the fact that the politics of race are central. Speaking out earlier this year against the lack of public outlets available to uplift Asian voices, civil rights activist Amanda Nguyên saliently explained: “This may be the first time you are hearing about this violence if you are not following Asian American news because the mainstream media does not spotlight our stories.” Actor Daniel Wu correspondingly condemned the ends to which crimes against APIA communities continue to be ignored and even excused under a majority lens, evocatively stating, “remember Vincent Chin”? Wu’s reference to the 1982 racially motivated murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin poignantly recalls arguably the most important anti-Asian civil rights case in America. What is more, the insidious implication of Wu’s question statement simultaneously calls attention to the fact that Chin, the most iconic Asian American civil rights martyr, “is not a household name, even among Asian Americans,” but merely an obscurity; one that perfectly reflects the status of Asian Americans. In evoking Chin’s forgotten memory—and in a moment of increasing anti-Asian animus—Wu, in line with a number of APAI activists, illuminates a pivotal moment in Asian American history that crystallised their status as secondary citizens living on the margins of society. There is markedly more to the invocation of the Chin case, however, than solely a grievance to prove Asian Americans have been, and continue to be, oppressed. Rather, there is a valuable lesson contained within the core politics of Chin’s murder, especially with regards to the legal failings surrounding the case and its subsequent negation from history, which enables us to conceptualise the intersectionality of racial trauma. Specifically, in the face of growing anti-Asian hostility and the horrific killings of Ahmaud Aubrey, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor—which, Viet Thanh Nguyen explains, “brought the life-or-death costs of systemic racism and economic inequality into painful focus”—an understanding of the socio-political conditions that made Chin’s murder not only possible but, moreover, acceptable empowers us to confront the fundamental ways in which anti-Asian hate is, and will always be, connected to a long history of unabating anti-Blackness and deep-seated, institutionalised oppression according to which only certain lives matter.
On Friday 19th June 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by Roland Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, two white Detroit autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. Witnesses to the murder later testified that the killers had taunted Chin about taking their jobs, alleging “it’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” The Michigan city had once been the capital of the global automobile industry, but fear of a Japanese take-over—led by the invasion of imported Japanese cars—was sweeping through the city, which was also enduring a recession and high unemployment. It is necessary to understand Chin’s murder in the context of this racially charged anti-Japanese mood of a declining 1980s Detroit, that is, as the continuation of a history effectively built upon the fault lines of xenophobia. In doing so, powerful parallels can be drawn between the recent spate of COVID-related hate crimes and a catalogue of international crises that has affected how Asians have been treated in America, including during the decline of the Detroit auto-industry, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (exactly 100 years prior to Chin’s killing). This trend, combined with the leniency of the killers’ sentences, serves as a strong indicator of the extent to which the roots of anti-Asian racism are constitutively intertwined with Black and Indigenous struggles, grounded deeply in a complex history of American colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy. Indeed, despite stalking, chasing, ridiculing, and finally “beating Chin’s brains out onto the street”, Ebens and Nitz were charged with only second-degree murder, with a plea bargain respectively softening the charges to manslaughter. They were eventually sentenced to three years’ probation and a $3000 fine with no prison time; a punishment later described by Kin Yee, President of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council at the time, as “a license to kill for $3000, provided […] the victim is Chinese.” Significantly, Chin’s death was therefore more than a hate crime, but also a failure of police, law enforcement, prosecutors, and the whole criminal justice system; for had the police department not been infected by systemic racism, had its support system not been already also corrupted by racial injustice, “the whole outcome of the Vincent Chin case,” Helen Zia contends, “might have been different, and not only that, Vincent Chin might be alive today.”
The Chin case was in many ways a wakeup call for the Asian American community; one that, to all intents and purposes, forced them to address racial intolerance and essentially enter into the civil-rights discourse for the first time. Prior to his death, the national discussion about race relations in the U.S. had centred on Black and white America, while Asian America stayed silent; the model minority with its back turned to the abuse of power. Galvanised by Chin’s death and the permissive punishment of his assailants, however, Asian Americans began to organise and unite across ethnic lines to form alliances, pulling insights from Black radical frameworks to advocate for change like never before, thus transforming a biracial discussion on race into a multiracial one. The succeeding accomplishments and contributions of this coalition building—which effectively resulted in Vincent Chin being the first Asian American protected by Civil Rights laws enacted in 1964— should be credited, as such, to those Black Power activists, whose struggles for freedom paved the way to ensure Civil Rights came to include all people of colour, and to whom Asian Americans therefore owe much of their presence in the U.S. This solidarity is not so affirmative, however, as interracial conflict has more often than not served as the master narrative determining interactions between Black and Asian American communities.
Within this framework, Asian Americans have frequently remained complicit in perpetuating racism and remaining silent when Black Americans were being killed. Reflecting upon the silence of Tou Thao, the Hmong American officer at the scene of George Floyd’s murder, poet Mai Der Vang addresses this very idea, namely, that not speaking up equates to reinforcing a structure of racial violence, to adding to “the perpetration of power on a neck.” Hasan Minhaj in turn exclaims why, in this present moment, Asians cannot stay silent about George Floyd, proclaiming: “We think we’re not part of the story, but we’re at the scene of the crime! That’s why the full picture matters. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it happens in a system.” It is silence, specifically Thao’s silence—a silence that permeates throughout much of Asian American history—that allows the names of countless causalities of state violence and systemic racism to fade into mere litany. It is silence that has likewise characteristically led to Asians being used as an example of a ‘good minority,’ one that does not protest or speak out, one that is hardworking and successful—successful precisely because it is hardworking and does not protest or speak out—thereby presenting a counterfactual to the notion that America is racist so as to conveniently erase centuries of anti-Blackness in America. Conservative author Candace Owens articulated the phenomenon exactly when, in response to resurgent Black Lives Matters protests, she tweeted: “If white privilege exists—why are Asian Americans the most successful group in America?” Following such assertions, it becomes clear the extent to which the contingent racial security afforded by the myth of the model minority is being used as a covert tool of white supremacy, one that serves to invalidate claims of inequality toward non-white Americans and in so doing creates a racial wedge between Asian and other communities of colour, primarily Black Americans; for to say that this minority (Asians) is the ‘good minority’ means you are essentially saying that there is by contrast a ‘bad minority’ (Blacks), which keeps those peoples divided.
The virulent violence against Asian Americans in the wake of the coronavirus nevertheless demystifies the neoliberal smokescreen created by the ‘model minority,’ viscerally demonstrating just how futile being the ‘good minority’ is. Despite former presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s seemingly apologetic call for Asian Americans to “embrace and show [their] Americanness like never before,” there is no question that assimilating and being ‘more American,’ or, indeed, ‘less Asian,’ will not protect Asian Americans from xenophobia or racism, nor will embracing condescendingly ‘positive’ stereotypes about the community or attempting to bolster their racial status by supporting a system that disadvantages Black people because of their race. Instead, the Asian American community must broaden the scope of analysis of how the COVID-19 pandemic has revived anti-Asian discrimination and look back at their formidable history of cross-racial solidarities to formulate an intersectional perspective that moves beyond the community itself. In this moment, Asian Americans in truth have a very particular role to play as allies; they need to actively reject the role that white supremacy attempts to pigeonhole them into; they need to be expressly loud and to join the fight against anti-Blackness; for only then will liberation be possible for both communities. As Anthony Ocampo explains, “the power of Asian Americans standing up for Black Lives Matter is that it sends a clear message.” Specifically, it demonstrates that, while the same racist logic schemes that are keeping communities down might look different in Black communities than they look in Asian American communities, it is still the same system; a system that seeks to relegate them to the margins, to keep them in subordinate positions, to keep them out of leadership positions, to basically be in a position where they cannot write their own stories. More powerful than that system, however, is the human spirit, which knows no colour; a truth espoused by Vincent’s mother, Lily Chin, who endeavoured to be the author of her own story by not staying silent, because even though “the skin is different… the heart is the same.”
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