By john a. powell
March 10, 2021
Like many of you, I was deeply disturbed by the increase in violent attacks targeting Asians and Asian Americans at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last year. I am pained by the immediate suffering and sense of exclusion brought on by these attacks on a community of friends and colleagues I care deeply about. We must visibly and consistently condemn this violence because of our shared humanity and concern for each other.
Although we can never know all of the facts in each case, the general rise was no doubt fueled by the daily drumbeat of racist remarks made by Donald Trump and members of his administration, part of ongoing attacks they made on a large number of groups including Muslims, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, Mexicans, and many others.
Trump also engaged in strong attacks on China which extended far beyond a concern for trade. As Americans became increasingly fearful of the coronavirus, Trump kept referring to it as the “China virus” and suggested it was possibly a weapon used by the Chinese government. Trump’s attacks, in both tone and frequency, were clearly designed to be broadly anti-Chinese.
While there may be legitimate concerns related to China, the virus, trade, and human rights, this is no excuse to engage in broad racial tropes. Attacking a country and its leadership should not be conflated with attacking the people of that country, or Asians, more generally. As anti-Asian bias and attacks increased in the United States, the Trump administration was largely silent and complicit.
As President Biden has moved to a reset on a number of Trump’s more extreme positions, he has continued to take a hard line on China. This may be appropriate. But he must also decouple the challenge to China with an attack on Chinese and other Asian Americans. This association still operates in too many American minds and builds on a long history of the stereotype of the Asian other.
While he did not deliberately deploy anti-Chinese racism the way the Trump administration did, it was nonetheless unfortunate to witness anti-Asian overtones emerge even from Biden's campaign, widely denounced by Asian advocacy groups. Biden must now work to correct this. We still have much work to do to end the racial scapegoating and fear-mongering tactics used by our leaders to divert attention away from the fundamental issues underlying our country's social crises.
When a new wave of anti-Asian violence was recently reported to be hitting the Bay Area, news media left us with an impression that we were in the midst of a conflict pitting Blacks against Asians. But this is a misleading reading of both the specific incidents they reported on, and the context of relations between two communities of color with deep roots in the Bay Area, both of which have historically faced institutional barriers to housing and employment.
These recent attacks are appalling, including the case in San Francisco when a teenager shoved 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee to the ground, killing him, and in Oakland's Chinatown, when a young unhoused man shoved a 91-year-old into the pavement. Meanwhile Chinese-owned businesses in the area were also reported to be experiencing a spike in robberies.
Thankfully, some investigations into these incidents cast doubt over claims that the attackers and robbers were motivated by racial animus towards Asians. The homeless attacker mentioned above had a long history of mental illness and committing seemingly indiscriminate assaults during an episode. The prosecutor in Ratanapakdee's death said there was no evidence of racial animus in the attack, but the victim's family disputes that. As for the robberies, those reportedly increase each year around the Chinese Lunar holiday, and were no doubt accelerated by the increasingly desperate economic conditions experienced in the pandemic.
But not to make too fine of a point, it is very clear that anti-Asian attacks and bias exist today as they have for a long time, and should be widely condemned, no matter who the culprits are. We must also not ignore the reality that there is and can be tension between any two marginalized communities, including Blacks and Asians.
So how do we make sense of what's happening? What's the proper context from which to understand these events? And what is our commitment—as a multiracial community concerned about protection and care—to each other?
The story is complicated, but let's consider at least two things. The first is that virulent anti-Asian bigotry in the country goes back over 150 years to when Chinese immigrants first arrived in California, long preceding Donald Trump or the coronavirus pandemic. The first large wave of immigration started with the Gold Rush, and over 15,000 Chinese immigrants risked their lives to help build the Transcontinental Railroad under unsafe conditions while getting, in some cases, half of the pay provided to white laborers (many of them Irish immigrants working in substandard conditions).
Anti-Chinese hysteria was common, and from the 1870s through the 1890s, there were some 200 violent anti-Chinese pogroms across California, in 1880 San Francisco placed a ban on laundromats designed to target the livelihoods of Chinese immigrants, and in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively banned all Chinese immigration. That ban would not be significantly loosened until 1965. Many western states explicitly barred Chinese men from marrying white women. And approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned in camps from 1942 to 1945.
Our history is also filled with many persistent stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans, including that they carry disease which made a resurgence in the wake of the pandemic. But even "positive" stereotypes have been damaging as they pit our different communities against each other. My colleague in the Ethnic Studies department Catherine Choy says portrayals of Asian Americans as either disease carriers on the one hand, or a "model minority" on the other, constitute racist stereotypes that work hand-in-hand. She explained, "They are stereotypes of Asian Americans as either subhuman or superhuman, but never quite human, and certainly not American."
The second thing to consider is that our communities are squeezed tighter than ever before in this period of economic decline and uncertainty, and that has a bearing on how our communities interact with each other. We can either see ourselves as in competition with one another and blame each other for our suffering, or we can come together to identify and challenge a system that has us all hurting.
In 1982, there was a famous case of a pair of white auto workers in Detroit beating to death a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin, blaming him for the success of Japanese automakers they believed were the source of their industry's decline. It didn't matter that he wasn't even Japanese. But the killers needed a villain, and Chin was the one offered to them.
This is why we need a new story for what's happening in our communities today, and that story must include Asian Americans as Americans, too. Some of our leaders are still clinging to the old story, the one that tries to drive a wedge between us.
These are nuanced issues. There are many common conditions and goals that could help us unite, and there are real historic and existing tensions, and a lack of information that should not be papered over. For example, the discussion on policing can easily be used as a wedge issue. While some will see the increase in police presented as a straightforward solution, others will see the police as a cause for concern. In the context of police violence and profiling, the issue is more likely to be salient within the Black community. The desire for more police on the street may be likely to find more support within segments of the Asian community. Every community wants and needs full recognition and safety. But there will be different roads to achieve this.
But the bottom line is that we have to reject the hate crimes and attacks on Asian Americans. Not because there is complete agreement on all issues, but because we must keep each other safe and hold on to our shared humanity. At the same time, we must be sensitive to the concerns for the Black community in how solutions are discussed and used.
The local reporting by Oaklandside revealed a troubling surge in shootings and homicides in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods in East and West Oakland, which is receiving far less attention than the crimes in Chinatown, even though they are arguably connected. What connects them is the reality in which poverty, homelessness, and institutional racism combine to produce the type of neglect facing our cities across the country that are the source of the crime and violence.
The solution cannot simply be to increase police presence nor can we categorically ignore that many people in the community, including in the Black community, want some police presence. We must take a more comprehensive approach. We need new systems to alleviate poverty, deal with mental health, and provide housing for our growing unhoused population.
I was encouraged by the scenes that took place last month in Oakland with Black and Asian community members coming together for a solidarity rally. But we need to go further by affirming that our fates are intertwined. Without denying our agency and tensions, we must also acknowledge that many of the problems we face are due to a system grounded in white supremacy that harms us all including Blacks, Asian, whites, and others. We need a new story where we all can contribute and co-create, one that acknowledges our respective suffering, and that insists that we all belong not because we agree, but because we care and we are human.