The Recent Attacks on Asians Align Well with America’s Racist History

On March 16, a gunman killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent, at three Atlanta-area massage parlors. The suspect Robert Aaron Long, who is white, claimed he targeted the spas because he wanted to remove a sexual “temptation,” the authorities have said. The killings have sparked renewed outrage, fear and renewed attention to the rise in violence against Asian-American people.  

Unfortunately, the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes over the past year isn’t exactly surprising. Early on during the pandemic, when there was no official name for COVID-19, the disease was called a variety of names from the Wuhan coronavirus to the novel coronavirus. Once the WHO officially named it COVID-19, most people followed suit. One very notable exception was former president Donald Trump, who went so far as to eliminate the word “coronavirus” from his notes and replace it with “Chinese virus” before a White House briefing in March 2020. While the president tweeted a few days later that “We have to protect our Asian Americans,” he continued using racist names for COVID-19, like “kung flu,” which continued to pour fuel on the already raging fire of racial hatred. Many of his supporters continue to use the term “China virus” when referring to the coronavirus. Some even cite the 1918 flu pandemic as a reason why it should be called “China virus,” all while also ignoring the fact that the Spanish still despise the name “Spanish flu” for the same reasons Asians despise the name “China virus.” The absurdity of not connecting the dots was satirized by Ryan Higa in a YouTube video last April, which still rings true.

A sharp uptick in anti-Asian sentiment across the country followed after the arrival of COVID-19, which the FBI predicted would happen. At the beginning of 2020, when reports were first emerging from China about the virus, the first casualty of irrational fear was Asian-owned businesses, which saw revenue sharply drop at least a month before other businesses did. Sadly, this hate isn’t only confined to the business world. There have also been violent attacks in places like New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, cities with large Asian populations. In addition to the most recent Atlanta shooting, there is a long and disturbing list of violent attacks against Asians. In New York City, a woman taking out her trash was doused with acid, a Filipino man was slashed across the face while taking the subway to work and an Asian man was stabbed in Chinatown. In San Francisco, Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai man, was shoved to the ground on his morning walk so violently, he was killed. In Midland, Texas, a father and two of his children were slashed in a Sam’s Club. And as horrifying as these accounts are,  they are but a few of the violent attacks that have targeted Asians all over the world since the emergence of the coronavirus.  

In the U.S., many Asian American communities have grown increasingly weary and horrified by this constant harassment and threats of violence. While attackers choose their victims because of their perceived “Chineseness,” many of the victims aren’t even Chinese. One of the most common targets of abuse are older Asians. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that there have been far more attacks than were reported because of a variety of reasons, such as the language barrier, cultural differences or simply not wanting to raise a fuss. Asians experience this discrimination on top of other forms of harassment, like being flipped off at a stoplight, that can’t be reported to the police. 

To me, none of this is a surprise. This anti-Asian violence is part of our country’s ugly history of knee jerk reactions to events no single person can control. Immigrants are always blamed for whatever social woes are prominent at the time. In the 19th century, Irish Catholics were blamed for increased violence and drunkenness, culminating in the rise of the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s. In more modern times, many Americans have taken to blaming all Muslims for the events of 9/11. Asians have not been spared from this pattern of scapegoating. In 1982, Vincent Chin was murdered in Detroit by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, both of whom were auto workers. At the time, there was high anti-Asian sentiment in Detroit because Toyota was breaking into the American auto market, causing the revenues of the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) American car manufacturers to decline. Even before this decline, the 1979 recession had also occurred a few years earlier. Americans were trying to save fuel and money where they could and Japanese cars did the job well, at least compared to American cars. Some believed that these imports were taking over the American auto industry and that people like Vincent Chin, who was an automotive worker himself, were to blame for this; after all, he was Asian and so were the auto imports. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were convicted of second degree murder but never faced any serious punishment besides being fined $3720, ordered to pay $780 in court fees and three years probation. Thankfully, Vincent Chin’s murder was a positive turning point for Asian American civil rights. His death was not in vain.

At the same time, when immigrants try to carve out a new life for themselves and their families, they are blamed for “taking our jobs.” In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, there was an influx of refugees from Southeast Asia who resettled across the country. Many of them faced discriminiaton, harassment and hate. In Texas, newly resettled Vietnamese shrimpers clashed with the Klan and its militia. Texan shrimpers would set their traps in increments while the Vietnamese shrimpers, who didn’t know because no one told them, set all their traps in one spot. A clash between the two parties resulted in Vietnamese shrimp boats being torched. As a result, the Klan successfully forced some of these refugees to flee to Louisiana. Eventually, the Southern Poverty Law Center stepped in to help the Vietnamese shrimpers using a combination of federal and state laws. Thankfully, these racial tensions have since eased, which has allowed for a thriving community to take root in the region. 

The vast majority of my family came here as Vietnam War refugees, though they didn’t face the same hostilities as the shrimpers did. Most of my family settled in Hawaii and still live there. I grew up with stories from my mother about how an old man one day realized at the grocery store register that she didn’t know much English. He took time out of his day to show her around the store, pointing at different items and naming them in English to help improve her vocabulary. Later, my parents moved to Houston, where I was later born and raised. My family shielded me from much of the ugliness that is racism when I was younger, and many people in the community did the same for their children. But to say that I wasn’t ever made fun of because of who I was would be a lie. 

One of my earliest memories happened in daycare when someone a few years older than I was made “ching chong” noises at me. Since I was only a toddler, I didn’t know what exactly that meant, so I went home that night and told my parents. They of course called the daycare’s principal to discuss what had happened. I don’t blame that person for making racist noises at me; they were young like me and simply reflected who their parents were, what their values were and what they taught them. I was lucky enough to grow up in a neighborhood that also had kids like me, kids of immigrants. At my elementary school, however, it was a different story. It was a majority white school with a small ESL class for each grade. Often, I was the only Asian student in my entire grade. Most of the ESL students were my friends and the ESL teachers would often ask to borrow me to share my home life. They were also kind enough to adorn their classroom door with decorations during the Lunar New Year, which none of my ESL friends celebrated at their homes. Luckily, they were always happy to partake in the little classroom celebration. 

Asian Americans have contributed to this country’s history since the 1800s. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many people of color in America, their history has been brushed aside, whitewashed and minimized. Some families have been here for five or six generations but are still seen as foreigners. What does an American even look like? Their ancestors may have helped build the transcontinental railroad or served in the all Japanese American 442nd Infantry Regiment, but they are still seen as foreign. Instead of being celebrated, Asian Americans are routinely attacked and belittled for a virus outside of their control. 

St. Louis doesn’t have a massive Asian American population compared to places like New York City or California, but it’s not insignificant either. Wherever there is an Asian family, there is a grandparent with them who loves to go on morning walks or who exercises at the park. They  often partake in these activities alone. Most people don’t pay much attention to them on walks because they are old and don’t bother anyone. Besides, what harm is an old person going to cause? Now, we are faced with the unique situation of watching over them and asking about their well being as they go about their daily routines because they could be hurt or even killed for minding their own business. It should go without saying, but the elderly are people too. They ought to be protected, cherished and loved. Instead, they have become the victims of vile and vicious violence. We can be better than this. Will you choose to stand up for the targeted and marginalized, or will you stand by and watch as your fellow human beings are attacked simply because of the way they look? Pick wisely. History has its eyes on you.