Discrimination against Asian people in this country has long been minimized, if not outright ignored. Many factors contribute to this erasure, including xenophobia, which casts Asian Americans within the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype—people who will never fit into the United States—as well as the model-minority myth, which presents all Asian people as “crazy rich,” perfect at academics, aligned with whiteness, and high-achieving with minimal effort.
The model-minority myth is used by many people to assert that if Black and Brown people worked as hard as their model-minority counterparts, then they would be as well off as white people. According to a study published in Asian American Journal of Psychology from 2010 involving 165 Asian-American high school students, 99.4% of participants had been subjected to the model-minority stereotype.
Two additional studies published by Asian American Journal of Psychology in 2016 and 2018 found that white people who endorsed the model-minority stereotype held negative views about Asian Americans. They also found that Asian-American women were subjected to more overt forms of racism than their male counterparts, including false and derogatory assumptions about their sexuality.
Reality does not align with the model-minority myth that Asian Americans are automatically more prosperous than anyone else. If anything, Asian-American people are the most economically divided group in the country, meaning they have the greatest financial divide between rich and poor people within their own communities. So even though Asian Americans are noted as having the highest household median income among all groups in the U.S., that prosperity does not exist in all Asian communities.
According to a 2018 study from Pew Research Center, the top 10% of wealthy Asian people had 10.7 times more income than the 10% poorest Asian people, compared to a wealth gap factored by 9.8 times for Black people and 7.8 times for Latinx people and white people.
But within the Asian community, these discrepancies become even greater when looking at one’s country of origin. In 2016, Duke University and The New School delivered a report on the intra-racial wealth gap among Los Angeles’ Asian-American households. L.A. was selected because it has the largest metropolitan population of Asian people in the country. According to the report, Japanese households had a higher median wealth, at $592,000, compared to $23,000 in Korean households.
But even without the extreme wealth and class divide that they experience in this country, Asian Americans have been forced to suffer through centuries of hate crimes, immigration bans, and laws that made it illegal for them to testify against white people.
A History of Violations and Gains
In 1854, California’s Supreme Court ruled that people of Asian descent could not testify against white people in court, which allowed white-led racist violence to reign with impunity. In the so-called Chinese massacre of 1871, at least 17 Chinese men and boys were lynched across downtown Los Angeles. Though eight rioters were convicted of manslaughter, under the state Supreme Court ruling, their convictions were overturned. Testimony laws were invalidated two years later in 1873.
Additionally, people of Chinese descent born in this country were considered “subjects of the Emperor of China”—regardless of their desire to immigrate to the U.S.—and denied automatic citizenship at birth until 1898 during the landmark case, United States v. Wong Kim Ark. Under jurisdiction of the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment, Ark and all children born on American soil were granted automatic citizenship, regardless of the parents’ status, with limited exceptions.
However, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Immigration Act of 1924 (which included an Asian exclusion provision that barred immigration from Asian countries) all but eliminated legal immigration for Asian people to the U.S. Also in 1924, Congress created the apparatus for deporting immigrants by creating the U.S. Border Patrol, which was expanded under President George W. Bush into the U.S. Customs and Border Protection force in 2003.
The limitations on immigration imposed by the 1882 and 1924 acts remained in effect until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 into law, which effectively eliminated immigration quotas and certain kinds of state-sanctioned discrimination against people from other countries.
Rebirth of Racism
Unfortunately, these immigraiton bans were revived under President Donald Trump in 2017, in a move to bar immigration from Muslim countries. In total, the ban affected 13 nations: Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Yemen.
As if to highlight his intent, in January 2018, NBC News reported that Trump stated, “Why do we want these people from all these shithole countries here? We should have more people from places like Norway.”
The attacks on Asian people began in earnest in 2020, when on Jan. 20 of that year, Trump banned foreign nationals who’d traveled to China in the previous two weeks as part of an ineffective strategy to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
The irony of this ban for New Yorkers was that the coronavirus strain that ravaged their community came from Europeans. Despite this, and the eventual expansion of the ban to cover travel from 26 European nations, the former president used his bullhorn as leader of the “free world” to repeatedly attack Chinese people with virulent racism and anti-scientific lies that blamed them for the pandemic.
The former president first tweeted the term “Chinese virus” on March 16, 2020. According to research published in the American Journal of Public Health, which studied English-language hashtag data from Twitter, by March 23, 2020, the phrase had been used nearly 800,000 times. Half of those tweets included anti-Asian language. It only got worse from there, as racist declarations turned into hate crimes.
According to a report from Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino—which focused on racially motivated crimes within the 16 largest cities in the country—even as overall hate crime rates dropped by 7%, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 149%. This says nothing of crimes that went unreported.
But even as reports of murders against Asian people continue to flood the news cycle, some pretend that the issue has nothing to do with race.
Calling Racism by Its Name
On June 17, 2015, following a prayer meeting, a white terrorist murdered a group of nine Black women and men at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The racist motivation for this attack would have been clear even if the murderer hadn’t confessed. If only that logic held true for Asian people.
On March 16, 2021, a white terrorist murdered six Asian women and two non-Asian bystanders at three Asian-owned massage parlors, because, according to police statements, he had a sex addiction.
It has been suggested that the assailant had previously visited two of the parlors where the attacks took place. First, he went to Young’s Asian Massage, where he killed Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng; following that attack, he traveled to Gold Spa when he killed Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, and Hyun J. Grant; the assailant then visited Aromatherapy Spa, which was across the street, where he killed Yong Ae Yue after she opened the door for him.
Rather than address the clear association between sex, targeted Asian women, and murder, some media pundits and legal experts have rejected classifying this attack as a hate crime in favor of the assailant’s alleged confession of an addiction to sex, despite his lacking the training, qualifications, or credentials to render such a diagnosis.
Even though the Atlanta assailant did target Asian women, Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office gave him cover and told reporters that the suspect “was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”
In expressing sympathy for a man who targeted and murdered six Asian women, Baker reminds us why many Asian-American people—like many Black people—believe that they cannot turn to the police to protect their communities. By disseminating the Atlanta assailant’s faulty reasoning without pushback in the face of racialized murder, media pundits and authorities have endorsed silencing the pain of Asian-American people. Some have even implied that the murdered Asian women were sex workers—by pointing to old reviews about the establishments—and therefore deserved their murders. It is an odd bid to erase the racial dynamics of this crime.
What these people ignore is that one can walk and chew gum at the same time; the Atlanta assailant chose to visit and attack massage parlors operated and owned by Asian women. After attacking Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia, the assailant drove nearly 28 miles south to Gold Spa, completely bypassing New York NY Spa (a half mile away and also in Atlanta), which appears to be operated by two white women and has a Google review declaring, “It’s not massage it’s a brothel.”
Whether that is accurate or not is irrelevant; what matters is that if this were simply a question of sex, one could say that the Atlanta assailant had a preference for Asian women. While that is obnoxious, though permissible, to encounter on dating and casual sex apps like Grindr or Tindr, where people write that they are not being racist and are just expressing their preferences when they write “no Blacks” or “only into Chinese twinks,” it becomes a hate crime when it leads to murder.
Regardless of their professions, none of these people deserved to die, though the morals used to justify ending their lives mirror the same false equivalence used to excuse rape, sexual assault, and the “gay panic defense.”
Just as the Atlanta assailant blamed an “addiction” on sex for his decisions, the gay panic defense involves someone (usually a man) killing a person of the same gender and justifying the act as an attempt to prevent sexual assault. Currently, this defense is permissible in all but 12 states.
This punitive and decidedly Christian reasoning is equivalent to the culture of blame that violent offenders have long espoused while committing anti-Asian hate crimes. For Trump, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” wasn’t racism; for the man who stabbed three Chinese people at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas, on March 14, 2020, hate had nothing to do with it.
He stated that he was only attacking people who he thought were spreading the coronavirus, as if to obfuscate the fact that he, like Trump, equated Asians with a virus. Similarly, for some people, the murders in Atlanta were about sex and occupation rather than race.
This corruption of reasoning has terrible implications for society. Consider the consequences of Trump’s denial that white nationalism was a problem, despite the FBI’s repeated warnings: an attempted insurrection. Refusing to acknowledge that the targeted murders of Atlanta’s six Asian women was a hate crime allows legislators to continue to ignore that anti-Asian American racism has been rampant across the country for centuries and that they have allowed it to grow throughout the pandemic without committing sufficient resources to redress the problem.
As always, these rationalizations have their basis in virulent white supremacy, which seeks to deny the personhood of anyone who exists beyond white morals or values. Having survived the past four years intact, if not uninjured, it is incumbent upon all of us to resist these false equivalences and to follow the mantra of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson: “You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights.”