SAN JOSÉ, CA – For more than a year Asian Americans have seen a rising tide of violence aimed at individuals of Asian descent. Starting with a vicious knife attack on a father and his two sons, aged six and three years in Midland, Texas in March 2020 and now the murders of eight people, six of whom were Asian American women, near Atlanta, Georgia, thousands of attacks have been reported in the last year – and many more have not.
Modern violence against Asians goes back to the 1980s, when Vincent Chin was killed by two white Americans who blamed him for the rise of the Japanese auto industry, despite the fact that he was Chinese American. His killers were sentenced to probation and a $3000 fine. In contrast, African American Michael Vick was sent to jail for 21 months and had to put up $1 million following a conviction for dog fighting, showing that a Chinese American life is worth less than the suffering of dogs.
While the Vincent Chin killing followed in the wake of the rise of the Japanese economy, U.S. government harassment of Chinese Americans has been tracking with the recent rise of China. Chinese Americans, such as nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, army chaplain Captain James Yee, and hydrologist Sherry Chen were persecuted by the U.S. government, only to have charges dropped.
This latest wave of anti-Asian violence was fanned by the Trump administration, whose toxic mix of anti-immigrant xenophobia, anti-Asian racism, and U.S. imperial foreign policy brought about these tragic results. But violence against Asian Americans has been a feature of the oppression we have faced in the United States. In 1854, just a few years after large scale immigration from China began, the California Supreme Court ruled that courts could not accept the testimony of Chinese people against a white person, in effect legalizing crimes against Chinese Americans.
Chinese American workers were paid less than white workers while building the Transcontinental Railroad, adding to the profits of the early U.S. monopoly capitalists known as ‘robber barons’, such as Leland Stanford. Chinese American miners were subject to a Foreign Miners’ Tax that provided up to 25% of tax revenues for the state government of California.
Hostility towards Chinese Americans peaked in the 1880s. The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 virtually ended immigration from China. A few years later, 28 Chinese American miners were killed and 15 more wounded in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885.
Chinese and other Asian Americans have been the target of racist laws first aimed at other oppressed nationalities. For example the anti-miscegenation laws designed to prevent African Americans from marrying white Americans also were applied to Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants up to and through World War II. While California never had the sweeping Jim Crow laws of the U.S. South, local school districts could and did segregate Chinese, Japanese and Chicano children into separate schooling from whites.
Racist laws also flowed the other way. Restrictive covenants that were first used in San Francisco to prevent Chinese Americans from buying homes outside of Chinatown spread across the country to mainly target African Americans and to preserve white-only neighborhoods.
Asian Americans have also suffered from U.S. foreign policy. When the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Navy base in the U.S. colony of Hawai’i, the U.S. government immediately began to round up thousands of Japanese immigrants who were in any way prominent, including businesspeople, religious leaders and cultural teachers. This ended up with the mass incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in concentration campus in the western United States for the duration of World War II.
But our history is also one of resistance and struggle for equality. Chinese workers struck for equal wages while building the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1965 Filipino American farm workers joined with Chicanos and Mexicano workers to go on strike in California’s Central Valley, leading to the formation of the United Farm Workers union. And in the 1980s, Japanese Americans with the help of many other Americans, won redress, an official apology and reparations, or monetary compensation, for their World War II incarceration.
Asian American struggles have benefitted other oppressed nationalities, and the struggle of others has helped our communities. When racist immigration authorities tried to exclude Kim Ark Wong, who was an American-born U.S. citizen, the Chinese American community fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark ruling in the 1898 Wong Sun v. United States case affirmed that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution did apply to all those born in the United States, and established that Asians, Chicanos, Latinos and others born in the United States were U.S. citizens.
In the same way, the biggest advances for Asian Americans came about because of the African American freedom struggle. The Civil Rights Movement against segregation and for voting rights ended up with Congress scrapping the racist immigration quotas, leading to the immigration that has largely shaped Asian America today. In 1970, the largest Asian American nationality were Japanese Americans, but today Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Korean and Vietnamese Americans have larger or almost as large populations. The growth of Asian American communities has been met by fear and hatred of white supremacists, such as the KKK who confronted Vietnamese American fishermen in Texas in 1979.
Even the concept of Asian American is a recent one, born out of the struggle alongside African Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, and Native Americans for ethnic studies courses in the 1960s. This solidarity in struggle goes back more than 100 years to Japanese farmworkers who joined with their Mexicano brothers and sisters to strike in the fields of California. In 2001, Japanese and other Asian Americans were among the first to stand with American Muslims who were being targeted by the government in the wake of September 11. Just last year, Asian Americans from all walks of life joined in the massive protests calling for justice for George Floyd and denounced the history of racist policing from the Southern slave patrols to the present.
While some Asian Americans, especially business organizations, have called for more policing to fight anti-Asian violence, we have to remember that the police are not just infected with anti-Black ideas, but also anti-Asian ones. The police spokesman in Georgia who said that the murderer of six Asian American women was “having a bad day” was exposed as promoting racist views of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many politicians, including President Biden and Vice President Harris, whose mother was Asian American, have voiced opposition to these racist attacks on Asian Americans. But at the same time the Biden administration has not only kept all of the anti-China policies of Trump, but has even stepped up attacks on China. This will only feed the fires of anti-Asian American racism.
Only the people’s struggle, in unity with other oppressed nationalities who face similar issues of racist discrimination, can lead to victory. At the same time we must fight against the growing anti-China policies, propaganda and military confrontation of the Biden administration, which are deepening anti-Asian sentiment in the United States.
-Masao Suzuki is the chair of the Joint Nationalities Commission of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization. He became active in the Asian American movement in 1970 after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. This article appeared in Fight Back News.