Violence against Southeast Asian people is at a fever pitch. Though only 3% of the population, Chinese Americans specifically have endured months of ridicule and blame for things completely out of their control, from spreading disease to bolstering and profiting from vice in the cities. This slowly boiling hatred and resent can be traced all the way back to 1871 when 20 Chinese American residents were killed in one night at the hands of an angry Los Angeles mob. They burned shops and houses. They strung up the bodies in makeshift gallows. Though the mob was 500 deep, approximately 10% of the LA population at the time, only 25 people were indicted. Of them, 10 actually stood trial, and of those only 8 were convicted of manslaughter. Their convictions were later overturned. No one was retried, so 500 people got away with murder. We are still dealing with anti-Asian hate today.
As 2020 saw a sharp spike in racist violence against Asian people in America and #StopAsianHate started trending, I could not help but think of the Los Angeles race massacre of 1871. People are attacking Asian people wantonly based on false, hateful rhetoric, sometimes disseminated by our own government. The anti-Chinese rhetoric in 2020 after COVID-19 news led to many Americans assailing Asian Americans minding their own business. A lot of times the victims weren’t even Chinese, but racist terrorists are not known for their ability to discern such things. 3,800 Anti-Asian attacks, mostly against Asian women, were reported in 2020. This may be a shocking number, but given how the US has treated its citizens and residents of Asian descent it shouldn’t be.
The first immigration law in the United States was an anti-Chinese immigration law. This was after the US government had already used Chinese labor to build a transcontinental rail network. After Pearl Harbor, The United States rounded up Japanese Americans and put them in concentration camps on American soil, as all Japanese people were under suspicion of being spies for the Axis powers. It didn’t matter that they were American citizens. It didn’t matter that German sympathizers had an actual nazi rally at Madison Square Garden a few years earlier. The crime of looking Japanese was enough for families to be herded into camps, and the United States Supreme Court approved of this decision. Both Korean and Vietnam conflicts resulted in more suspicion of-and violence against-any Americans of Asian descent. Days after the Twin Towers fell in 2001, a Sikh man was murdered in his own gas station. Our leaders can make as many flowery statements as they want to, but they have not truly taken this issue seriously since the 1871 massacre, and even that has been ignored in mainstream historical narratives. Anti-Asian hate and violence is as American as apple pie.
The man who “allegedly” murdered eight people, six of them Asian women, is already being coddled by law enforcement and the press. The “alleged” killer specifically chose Asian massage parlors to target, yet both he and the sympathetic police who arrested him don’t think racism was his motive. We are hearing about his “sex addiction,” and the police captain at the press conference described him as “having a bad day.” Usually when I have a bad day, I just binge watch something or eat a huge meal. It never dawned on me to murder people. I expected this downplaying, as the Asian women in this case were working at massage parlors. Though no one knows the nature of the businesses, many assume that the parlors also provide sexual favors, and our society loves to simultaneously sexualize everything and demonize the providers of anything sexual, and Asian women in particular are disproportionately exoticized in America. I could write a whole other article about how de-criminalizing and de-stigmatizing sex work would protect both workers and their customers, but that is irrelevant to the matter at hand. It doesn’t matter what type of work the women were doing. They didn’t sign up to be murdered by a white man who was “having a bad day.”
One troubling result of the murders this week and the year of violence is that I hear a lot of Black folks in my circle voice their apathy on the issue. “Why should we be concerned for them when they weren’t there for us all summer?” Though this is a small (albeit loud) minority, I heard this line in a few iterations, and I understand from whence it comes. Anti-Blackness has been spread as far and wide as European colonialism, so everywhere. I had a few friends who warned me that they would be disowned if they were to take me home to their immigrant parents. Whitening creams are still million dollar industries in India and China and parts of Southeast Asia. Older anime and manga lean heavily into the Sambo images of American cartoons when they wish to depict a Black person. Even Pokémon is not immune to the imported bigotry. I cannot deny this, but I also can’t use it to excuse not doing anything about the violence. The “model minority” myth may have deluded a few, but racism will have the last word if we let it.
For those unfamiliar with the Model Minority myth, it essentially puts people of Asian descent on a higher echelon than other non-white people. Asian immigrants are seen as more hardworking, more studious in school, more adept in STEM fields, and more willing to “assimilate” into American society. The truth is that there is no “model minority.” All the stereotypes, even the “positive” ones, distract from the fact that Chinese Language schools had to open to help young Chinese immigrants learn since their grasp on English wasn’t well enough to keep up in classes. Even though Asian Americans may excel in math and science, they are still less than 1% of executives in science and technology firms. The only thing the idea of a “model minority” does is infantilize human beings, as if groups of people are children vying for the favor of a white father at the top of the ladder. No one truly benefits from it, beyond being temporarily shielded from racism targeted at others.
So long as #StopAsianHate trends, we should remember that it is not in conflict with #BlackLivesMatter. All “minority” groups in this country have been targets of America’s racism. Working together is the only way to combat it. We can parse who has suffered more and for how much longer, or we can recognize that our true enemy is white supremacy and its sanctioned terrorism.
About Chris Thompson
(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog he currently writes and regularly posts on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon. Chris is also a regular contributor for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is www.chroniclesofnonesense.com.