Today’s Anti-Asian Bigotry Has Deep Roots In American History

The modern surge in anti-Asian hatred is built upon a foundation of centuries of discrimination, scapegoating, and violence.
The 1877 anti-Chinese San Francisco race riots. (Illustration by H.A. Rodgers for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper/Wikipedia)

The 1877 anti-Chinese San Francisco race riots. (Illustration by H.A. Rodgers for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper/Wikipedia)

Hans-Georg Betz is an adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Over the past several months, America’s East Asian community has received a rude awakening – or at least anyone who happens to look “Chinese.” For a long time, Asian-Americans were touted as America’s “model minority,” their success attributed to hard work, “family values” and an overwhelming emphasis on the importance of education. And above all, Asian Americans tended not to make waves; if they encountered discrimination, if they were verbally abused, harassed, or threatened they tended “to suffer in silence.”

After the Atlanta massacre, things have changed. As one Asian American community leader of the great Atlanta metropolitan area put it, people are kind of tired of that Asian experience, that Asian silence, and people want to break that silence.” The “Asian experience” obviously refers to the past reluctance of many Asian Americans to voice their grievances. It could, however, be read in a different way, as a reference to the long history of anti-Asian racial bias in the United States, but not only there. In fact, similar incidences have been recorded in Canada and Australia, both, like the United States, “settler” countries.

A few days ago, CNN ran a story headlined “White supremacy and hate are haunting Asian Americans.” Unfortunately, it took a massacre to finally provoke significant public outrage in the face of a wave of anti-Asian American harassment, abuse, and violence largely seen as having been triggered by Covid-19. While the perpetrator blamed his problems with a sex addiction for the rampage – which brought him in conflict with the sex-hostile dogmas of the Christian fundamentalist church to which he belonged– the mass murder was largely framed as an anti-Asian hate crime, committed by a white male against defenseless Asian women.

The reality, as has increasingly been acknowledged, is significantly more complex. The motives behind this horrific crime are multidimensional, touching upon a number of facets of contemporary American reality – misogyny, sexual bigotry couched in terms of “purity” and “temptation,” religious self-righteousness paired with hypocrisy, and, last but not least, the hyper-sexualization and fetishization of Asian women as the exotic other.

One hopes that acknowledging the multidimensionality of the Atlanta massacre will contribute to a necessary national debate on each of these questions; it does, however, little to address the question of the dramatic rise in anti-Asian harassment and violence over the past year or so. To be sure, the rise was triggered by Covid-19 and particularly by Donald Trump’s various characterizations of the virus as Chinese. As a recent academic study shows, Trump’s reference to Covid-19 as the Chinese virus provoked a wave of anti-Asian tweets on social media, which, in turn, were likely to have resulted in anti-Asian acts.

Here the crucial factor is what the authors of the study call “institutional support” which played a significant role in reinforcing latent racist attitudes. This is hardly new. Take the case of anti-Semitism. When Nazi Germany took over Austria in 1938, from one day to the other Austria’s Jews became targets of hatred, often resulting in humiliating and demeaning treatment, if not worse. All this was not only sanctioned but encouraged by the new Nazi administration. In short, official approval to act with impunity brought out the worst in human nature, be it in Austria, France, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.

The war against Europe’s Jewish population was facilitated by the long history of anti-Semitism which informed Nazi ideology and resonated in numerous countries. The same certainly holds true with respect to the long history of white racism in the United States directed against its African American population. And, I would argue, also holds true for the current wave of anti-Asian racism. It should come as no surprise if Asian-Americans are being harassed and asked to return to where they came from.

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America’s Dark History Of Anti-Asian Racism

For most of America’s history, Asian immigrants were anything but welcome in the United States. This was certainly true for Chinese labor migrants, but also for migrants from Japan and India. In the second half of the nineteenth century, anti-Chinese sentiments ran high, particularly in the West Coast states, and there particularly in the labor movement.

As Michael Kazin has noted, in the 1880s in California, “union men ran for office on a program that included the eight-hour day, public ownership of utilities, police neutrality during strikes, and the permanent exclusion of Chinese labor.” This came at the heel of the San Francisco riot of 1877, which set parts of San Francisco’s Chinatown ablaze, left four Chinese residents dead, and caused 100,000 dollars in damage (at the time, a business could be bought for a bit more than 1,000 dollars).

One year later, one of California’s most prominent labor leaders, Denis “The Chinese must go!” Kearney, put the blame for the problems California’s white labor force confronted at the time – the 1870s and 1880s were a time of a severe depression caused, among other things, by the federal government’s adoption of the Gold Standard, which led to a prolonged period of deflation – squarely on cheap competition from Chinese labor.

As Kearney put it, the “misery and despair” of Californian labor was caused, in part, by America’s corporate plutocracy which “sent to China—the greatest and oldest despotism in the world—for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor. These cheap slaves fill every place.” White working-class women added to the anti-Chinese frenzy. In the months that followed the riot, San Francisco “was awash in an anti-Chinese rhetoric that graphically depicted the sensationalized and sexualized image of white working women as victims of competition of Chinese male workers.”

The labor movement’s anti-Chinese rhetoric did not come out of nowhere. Politicians had prepared the ground. As early as 1862, in his inaugural address, newly elected Governor Leland Stanford minced no words expressing his disgust with Asian migrants: “To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged, by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population. (…) There can be no doubt but that the presence of numbers among us of a degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race, and, to a certain extent, repel desirable immigration. It will afford me great pleasure to concur with the Legislature in any constitutional action, having for its object the repression of the immigration of the Asiatic races.”

Fourteen years later, in a lengthy speech in the American Senate, John Hippel Mitchell from the state of Oregon, in a departure from what he called his customary decorum, saw fit to address the question of Chinese migration. The Pacific States and Territories, he noted, “are, more than any portion of our country, the theater upon which this new evil, dangerous, threatening, imminent as it is (…) to our moral, social, and political structure, is exhibited in all its loathsome features and degrading tendencies.” This evil, he continued, was “this sudden and alarming influx of the Mongolian race” which “menaces to-day the stability and purity of our moral peace, the integrity of our social and political structure, and jeopardizes and disturbs the civilization of our age.”

Anti-Chinese measures adopted in San Francisco turned rhetoric into public action. In 1880, the city declared San Francisco’s Chinatown a “public health nuisance” after the city’s Board of Health had raided the area. Chinatown was characterized as a breeding ground for infectious diseases – such as the outbreak of smallpox a few years earlier – a “laboratory of infections” inhabited by “unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen,” who showed no regard for American sanitary laws and the wellbeing of the American people. At the same time, Chinatown was denounced as a “’moral purgatory’ through which all who pass come out nauseated and disgusted, and perchance defiled by Mongolian filth or disease.”

This was because of Chinese prostitutes, predominantly serving a white clientele and held responsible for most of the venereal diseases among San Francisco’s young white males. Immorality and prostitution had already been behind the Page Law of 1875, which banned the immigration of Chinese women suspected of being prostitutes. The legislation proved quite effective: The number of Chinese women entering the United States from 1876 to 1882 actually declined 68 percent compared to the previous seven years.

A few years later, in 1882, all concerns were alleviated. The United States passed a law, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned any further labor migration from China. But the notion that the Chinese were filthy and carriers of infectious diseases lingered on. In 1899, Hawaii was struck by an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The first victim was a shopkeeper in Honolulu’s Chinatown. In response, the city’s health authorities investigated the area finding “numerous insanitary conditions” which led them to conclude that the plague “lives and breeds in filth and when it got into Chinatown, it found its natural habitat.” The authorities recommended laying fire to select buildings in Chinatown. Unfortunately, the fires got out of control, laying waste to much of the area. The fire burned for 17 days, destroying some 4000 homes, mostly inhabited by Chinese and Japanese residents. Most of them left the area to settle elsewhere in the city.

The Effects Of This Anti-Asian Bigotry

Filthy, carriers of infectious diseases and purveyors of immorality – these were some of the major stigmas attached to America’s Asian population during the latter part of the nineteenth century, which informed the way white Americans viewed Asians, and here particularly the Chinese. All of this led to the conclusion that the Asian customs, way of life, and values were incompatible with what was taken for granted in the United States and that, as a result, Asians could not be assimilated.

Add to that widespread resentment in the face of competition for work; accusations that Chinese and Japanese residents’ allegiance and loyalty was to their authoritarian regimes at home rather than the American republic; and the alarmist notion that migration from Asia constituted nothing short of an “invasion” that would ultimately overwhelm the West Coast’s white population. In 1919, in an article on the “Japanese evil in California” that appeared in the North American Review, Senator Phelan of California raised alarm about the high birth rate of California’s Japanese residents. “It is easy to calculate,” he warned, “how, by geometric progression, the Japanese in a very few decades will have supplanted the men and women of California who have pioneered, developed.” Among today’s conspiracy theorists, this is known as the “great replacement.”

Given the depth and intensity of anti-Japanese sentiments, nourished and simmering for decades, the “relocation” and internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese residents, most of them from the West Coast, during World War II was hardly surprising.  It reflected the same suspicions of treachery and disloyalty, which had emerged during the 1870s.  And, one might add, which had always been the hallmark of American nativism.  The Japanese, whether American citizens or not, were, as John Higham famously put it, ‘outsiders who were in it [i.e., the nation] but not of it.’ This also held true for Canada and Australia, both of which interned their Japanese residents during the war.

Racialized prejudices and bigotry have a long shelf-life. It took decades for the Irish to “become white.” As late as the early 1870s, cartoons depicted Irish men as drunkards with ape-like features. Many appeared in Harper’s Weekly, which promoted itself as a “Journal of Civilization.” For decades after their arrival in the 1830s and 40s, Irish immigrants were discriminated against, particularly in the labor market. “No Irish need apply” classified ads were ubiquitous in the big North Eastern cities, appearing even in The New York Times – the first one in November 1854. NINA ads could be found well into the second half of the nineteenth century. In some cases, they were even used by politicians to besmirch their opponents.

Given the long history of nativism in general and pervasive anti-Asian bigotry in particular, It is hardly a coincidence that anti-Asian violence, verbal and physical, has erupted over the past year or so. At first sight, the motivation appears clear – a pandemic largely associated with, and blamed on, China. An administration that went to great lengths to construct China as America’s new enemy fueling anti-Chinese resentment. The strategy was highly successful. In early 2021, a majority of Americans had a negative view of China, with repercussions for individual Chinese. In March, 55 percent of respondents in a Pew survey agreed with the suggestion that the number of Chinese students studying in the United States should be limited.

At second sight, however, it might very well be that the wave of anti-Asian abuse, in its different forms, has also been informed by the dramatic sociodemographic and particularly sociocultural changes American society is in the process of undergoing, which have provoked a significant backlash, particularly among parts of America’s white population. On this reading, Asian Americans have become the most recent targets of a type of white moral panic lashing out against anything and anyone that epitomizes a rapidly changing world. In recent years, a number of studies have documented the frustration, anger, and resentment engendered by these changes, and their political impact. Unfortunately enough, in the process, Asian Americans have become collateral damage.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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