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Anti-Asian Violence and the U.S. Role in Asia

What are fundamental causes resulting in thousands of documented acts of anti-Asian hatred and violence, in many instances directed at Asian American women and elders? This analysis must include the long history of U.S. global anti-Asian animus.

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The outcry against anti-Asian violence triggered by the mass killings in Atlanta on March 16, when six Asian American women lost their lives, has ignited protests throughout the country. As we join together to denounce violence and to create a better future, we must also turn to the past to evaluate the fundamental causes that
have resulted in the thousands of documented acts of anti-Asian hatred and violence, in many instances directed at Asian American women and elders. This analysis must include the long history of U.S. anti-Asian animus in the global arena.

Although Asian Americans have been an integral part of the United States since the 1850s, we have consistently been viewed as foreigners. Even Asian Americans like us, with deep, multigenerational roots in this country, are inevitably asked, “Where are you from?” We have lost count of the many times we
have been complemented on speaking English without an accent, although English is our first language.

During World War II, 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in U.S. concentration camps. No similar acts were taken against German or Italian Americans, although the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy. Even after returning to their homes and communities, Japanese Americans were subjected to racial hatred and discrimination.

The long, tragic legacy of anti-Asian violence in the United States is directly related to U.S. foreign policy in Asia. During the Vietnam War, Asian people were dehumanized. The brutal massacre of Vietnamese women and children in My Lai, Vietnam, was conducted by U.S. soldiers who viewed the Vietnamese people as less than human. The U.S. military used napalm, Agent Orange, antipersonnel weapons and massive bombings to target and kill millions of civilians, all justified through the lens of white supremacy and anti-communism.

The dehumanization of Asian people has had tragic results for Asian Americans. In 1989, five Vietnamese and Cambodian schoolchildren were shot and killed in a schoolyard in Stockton, Calif., and more than 30 people were wounded, including a teacher. The white gunman expressed hatred toward Asian immigrants and blamed them for taking jobs from native-born Americans.

In the 1980s, Japan was blamed for the demise of the U.S. auto industry. Auto workers gathered in union parking lots to smash Japanese-made automobiles, venting their anger based on the misguided belief that Japan, not U.S. corporations, was responsible for their factories shutting down. In 1982, two unemployed white auto workers in Detroit killed Chinese American Vincent Chin with a baseball bat, mistakenly believing he was Japanese. The two killers were sentenced to probation and a $3,000 fine.

Today, China has emerged on the world stage as the main economic competitor of the United States, but too many see China as the enemy. We are witnessing a new Cold War perpetrated by leaders of both Democrat and Republican Parties and by U.S. corporations. This new Cold War has been exacerbated during the
COVID-19 pandemic. More than half a million people in the United States have died from COVID-19, more than in any other country.

The former administration refused to accept responsibility for the disgraceful failure to contain the pandemic and instead chose to blame China and Asian people. The president referred to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” and promoted the lie that Asians were spreading the virus in the United States. This racist
messaging had a direct impact on the spike in anti-Asian violence. The organization Stop AAPI Hate has documented nearly 3,800 anti-Asian incidents since the beginning of the pandemic.

The demonization of the people of Asia by the U.S. government and U.S. military has had a direct impact on the rise in anti-Asian violence throughout the country. Today’s crisis is an opportunity for Asian Americans to stand with people of conscience to demand a multi-racial democracy that the United States has never fully
embraced. Asian Americans have joined in the massive protests for Black lives. We mobilized at the airport to oppose the Muslim ban and have traveled to the border to protest the separating of families. And Asian Americans are opposing new Jim Crow voting policies in Georgia and other states and defending affirmative
action.

It is time to confront the history of white supremacy in this country. The United States has never confronted the legacy of slavery, lynching, mass incarceration and police violence directed against Black people. Racism is at the core of the separation of families and the caging of children at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the Muslim ban introduced by the last administration. The current attacks on voting rights are also motivated by white supremacy and intended to disenfranchise people of color. It is time to build a true multiracial democracy that represents the hopes and aspirations of the vast majority of people in this country.

Kent Wong is director of the UCLA Labor Center and the founding president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO.

Stewart Kwoh is the founder and president emeritus of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and a civil rights attorney.

This article has also been posted on the American Federation of Teachers blog.