History of Anti-Asian Violence

Jeantelle Laberinto | 04/23/2021
Dismantle white supremacy
Photo Credit
Joseph Smooke

On March 16, news broke that a gunman murdered eight people, six of whom were Asian women, in massage parlors in the Atlanta area. I felt devastated and angry— and above all, I felt numb. This tragic news came off the heels of a cluster of attacks against Asian elders in the Bay Area, where I was born and raised. 

Constantly consuming images and videos of violent attacks is traumatizing, especially when the targets of violence look like you and the people you love deeply, including your family, friends, and community. As an organizer rooted in the struggle of the Filipino community in San Francisco, I’ve received calls, emails, and messages from people looking for answers to address the violence we’re seeing directed at our communities. As I continue to engage in these difficult conversations, I remind myself and others that while I don’t have all the answers, placing these events in a larger historical context can provide a deeper understanding and point toward some solutions.

There have been nearly 4,000 reports of anti-Asian violence over the past year alone according to Stop AAPI Hate. And in recent weeks, it’s been nearly impossible to wake up without hearing of yet another attack on our communities. In the wake of tragedy, we desperately search for answers and information to help us process and make sense of our pain, grief, and anger. We are scared and outraged, so we ask ourselves: Why did this happen? How do we protect ourselves? How do we stop this from happening again? We feel unheard and vulnerable. Who do we trust? Who do we hold accountable? Who will stand with us? While we grapple with these questions and the reality of the violence our communities are facing, we must realize that these 4,000 reported incidents are not anomalies. In fact, this current rise in anti-Asian racism is not exceptional by any means; it is persistently and quintessentially American.

The History and Legacy of Anti-Asian Violence 

Racism is the original pandemic
Black Lives Matter protest in the Mission District, San Francisco June 3, 2020

There is a long legacy of American violence against Asians that spans centuries, and these recent attacks only build on the long legacy of white supremacy, systemic racism, exploitation, and imperialism that have impacted both Asians in our homelands and in the diaspora alike. Anti-Asian legislation can be traced back as early as the late 1800s soon after Asians first started arriving in the U.S. Policies directed at Asian immigrants include the Page Act of 1875, which prevented Asian women, particularly Chinese women, from immigrating to the U.S., citing concerns over prostitution and venereal disease. This act then paved the way for the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering the country due to racial tensions, particularly over labor. As the first law to explicitly restrict immigration on a racial basis, the Chinese Exclusion Act is especially significant, as it set a precedent for future race-based immigration restrictions. 

The U.S. also has a deep and tangled history of imperialism and military aggression in the Asia-Pacific region that has impacted many Asian countries. The extractive and exploitative relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines dates back to 1898 and has repercussions to this day, including an ongoing advocacy campaign for recognition and benefits for the military service of Filipinos who enlisted in the U.S. forces during WWII, and current legislative efforts to suspend U.S. military aid to the Philippines that continues to enable the human rights abuses occurring under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. The U.S. was the principal aggressor in the Korean and Vietnam wars and inflicted subsequent military aggression against Cambodia and Laos, causing many people to flee to the U.S. as refugees only to face the same kind of violence upon arrival. The U.S. has seized land and built military bases throughout the Asia-Pacific region, which only serves to strengthen the presence and expand the reach of the U.S. empire. And there are countless instances of Asian violence that have occurred on U.S. soil— from the forced detention of Japanese Americans during WWII, to the rise in hate crimes toward Central and South Asian communities post 9/11, to the violence happening in our communities today. It is clear that anti-Asian violence has been part and parcel of the American story.

Consequently, much of the rhetoric and violence inflicted on our communities today stem from these legacies of imperialism and the persistent exploitation of Asian laborers, migrants, women, and refugees for the insatiable needs of the U.S. empire. Given this history, and the fact that violence tends to victimize women most, it becomes clear that the recent murders in Atlanta were not incidental, but part of the legacy of the exploitation and objectification of Asian women that has been perpetrated in many forms throughout history, from the brutal accounts of wartime sexual violence to human trafficking through the predatory industry of mail-order brides.

Racial Divisions: Scapegoating Asian Communities

In times of economic crisis, Asians have historically been scapegoated and excluded, which has only served to stoke racial conflict and sow division among communities. Violent riots— including the Rock Springs Massacre against Chinese miners in 1885, the Watsonville Riots that targeted Filipino agricultural workers in 1930, and the violent attacks toward Vietnamese shrimpers in Texas perpetrated by the KKK in the 1980s— expose the long-held notion that Asians are a perpetual foreign threat to Americans. This racist idea persists despite the fact that the U.S. intentionally extracts labor from Asian countries to build their infrastructure, grow their food, and fight their wars

Most recently, anti-Asian rhetoric and anti-China propaganda proliferated by the Trump administration have been used as a smokescreen to distract from that administration’s failure to implement a comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has left millions unemployed and hundreds of thousands of people dead. Instead of addressing this health crisis head-on, the U.S. government has once again shifted their unfounded blame to a group that has been relentlessly scapegoated during crises caused by those in power throughout history.

The model minority myth— which paints Asians as a monolithic group of hard working, studious, successful, and deferential people— has also been used to foster division and disrupt interracial solidarity, particularly between Asian and Black communities. While model minority stereotypes seem positive, they obscure the myriad of issues facing our communities. By portraying Asians as rule-abiding, apolitical, and economically prosperous, the model minority myth erases our struggles and invalidates the need for political intervention and resources. The dominant white culture then exploits the perceived success of Asians as proof of a fair and color-blind society, effectively undermining Black-led demands for justice and accountability in the process. In rising up against anti-Asian racism, we must also reject the model minority myth that attempts to both erase our pain and pit us against other communities. We owe it to ourselves, and the communities that we are tied to in the struggle, to confront white supremacy as we unite in solidarity.

Re-envisioning Safety in our Communities

Enough is enough
Protestors hold signs demanding police accountability following the murder of George Floyd 

In heightened times of fear, a natural response is to call for more police to provide safety and security. Police are supposed to serve our communities, keep us safe, and prevent and respond to crime and violence— but the sad reality is that it is not that simple. At this moment, it is easy to fall back on tough-on-crime measures that seem to provide simple solutions to address our pain and fear, especially when it’s all we know. But this moment demands nuance, and we need to be intentional about the demands we are making in response to anti-Asian racism. No community exists in a vacuum, and calls for more policing and carceral solutions will impact communities far beyond our own. 

Last summer, we saw the world rise up to demand justice for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all victims of police violence. The Black Lives Matter movement pushed the entire country to have a real reckoning with the institution of policing and its function as a tool of oppression and systemic racism. Many Asian communities stood in solidarity with Black communities across the country as they called for cities to divest from policing and invest in resources that directly address the root causes of violence and provide community-based solutions for public safety. But we must realize that these demands don’t only aim to protect Black lives, but all lives impacted by violence.

It’s important for us to recognize that anti-Asian violence is not limited to the category of interpersonal violence. While the model minority myth would suggest that Asians are impervious to the dangers of state violence, there is a growing list of Asians harmed and murdered by police. In December 2020, a Filipino man, Angelo Quinto from Antioch, California was suffering from a mental health crisis when his family called the police for help. When police arrived on the scene, his family reported that Quinto had already calmed down, but Antioch police officers proceeded to pin Quinto on the floor and kneel on his neck to detain him. According to his family, Quinto pleaded to officers, “please don’t kill me.” Minutes later, he lost consciousness, and three days later, he died. Angelo Quinto’s death so painfully mirrors the death of George Floyd, and begs us to reconsider the function of police in protecting our communities, especially those like Quinto who experience mental health crises.

Today, in response to the rise of anti-Asian violence, many cities are creating special Asian Hate Crimes Task Forces. While the intent is to provide a level of cultural competence and build trust in order for victims to feel comfortable reporting crimes, we must interrogate whether these efforts will truly bring safety to our communities. It should not be forgotten that while Derek Chauvin’s knee was on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes, an Asian police officer, Tou Thao, stood with his back turned as George pleaded for his life. Police officers, regardless of whether they are Asian, are still part of a system that has inflicted irreparable harm and violence on communities of color. “Cultural sensitivity training” is an unequivocally inadequate response to address the white supremacist foundation of policing and state-sanctioned violence. We must resist any analysis that flattens the conversation about racial violence to simple solutions, and we must contextualize this current moment as part of the larger legacy of racial oppression in this country.

Violence perpetrated by the state also extends beyond police brutality and significantly impacts our communities. The state apparatus inflicts violence in more covert ways, including the school to prison to deportation pipeline, which examines the often overlooked impact of incarceration and deportation on Asian communities, particularly those of Southeast Asian descent. This past March, 33 Vietnamese immigrants and refugees were deported under the Biden administration, following the previous administration’s steady removal of Cambodian refugees, effectively sending many refugees back to places they once fled as a direct result of U.S. intervention. These incidents of forced removal also constitute violence, and we must join efforts led by other communities— including efforts to abolish ICE, halt deportations, and end mass incarceration— to dismantle institutions and structures that imprison, deport, and forcibly remove our communities and other communities of color.

A History of Building Solidarity

Violence touches all of our communities, and those impacted deserve justice, accountability, and real solutions for safety. How can we hold space for our grief, but remain principled in our anger and united in the pursuit of justice and healing together? As Asian communities continue to search for answers, questions about Asian and Black solidarity have become a focal point. While the Atlanta gunman was white, many of the recent attacks on Asian elders were carried out by Black individuals, and this continues to stoke division and mistrust. Looking at the identity of perpetrators and victims also demands nuance. While interpersonal violence is tragic and should not be minimized, it is also important to understand that these attacks occur because of the existence of structural forms of violence that are rooted in white supremacy. It is incumbent upon us to battle the structural violence that exists and reject narratives that force us to choose our survival and safety at the expense of others. Asians can lift up the fight for Black lives, while also naming our pain and truth without compromise. We can and must hold people accountable for the harm they’ve caused, but nuanced conversations about race, class, hierarchy, and power can still occur as we better understand how our suffering and liberation are linked. Until we recognize that our struggles are connected, we may never be able to fully reconcile what is dividing us today.

Just as there have been moments of pain and violence, there have also been moments of solidarity, fierce resistance, and hope throughout history. A particular struggle that is emblematic of the power of collective organizing and multi-racial solidarity is the fight for the International Hotel, a decade-long struggle against the evictions of Asian tenants (mostly Filipino and Chinese elders) in San Francisco’s Manilatown for the expansion of the financial district and the city’s plans for urban renewal. This fight came at an especially pivotal moment in time; the 1960-1970s encompassed periods of intense struggle for multiple ethnic groups, including the Civil Rights Movement, the period of Martial Law under the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, the Vietnam War, and the rise of the Third World Liberation Front. 

A collective consciousness around the need for self-determination for marginalized communities was heightened in this moment, and thousands came to aid the Asian elders— including students from San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley who were also in the midst of a multi-racial fight to demand representative faculty, fair admissions practices, and ethnic studies at their universities. They were joined by activist groups including the Black Panthers, faith-based, neighborhood, and LGBTQ+ groups, and labor unions. On the night of the evictions in 1977, thousands of supporters quickly mobilized to form a human barricade to prevent riot police officers from physically removing the Asian tenants. Though the International Hotel tenants were eventually evicted by the police, this fight led to the creation of the tenant movement in San Francisco which continues to this day, pointing to the need for and importance of multi-racial solidarity in fighting for justice, and also serving as a formative experience for Asian American organizers who are building on this legacy to meet the contemporary needs of our communities today.

Though the fight for the International Hotel is only one story, it is part of a legacy of multi-racial solidarity and resistance that has too often been sanitized and left out of history books, including Black civil rights leaders and protestors denouncing the Vietnam War, the United Farmworkers Movement that brought together Filipino and Mexican agricultural workers for labor justice in California’s farms, the powerful friendship between Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement, Grace Lee Boggs’ legacy of organizing alongside the Black community in Detroit for labor justice, and the Asian solidarity in defense of Black lives just last year. History shows us that interethnic solidarity is critical in pushing for justice and transformative change. While solidarity should never be transactional, these legacies of resistance show us that standing with and in solidarity with other marginalized and oppressed communities is more powerful than trying to appeal to those in power to make them fully recognize, value, and accept our humanity. These are the legacies we should recollect and uplift. 

Know History, Fight for Change

Black lives matter
Nationwide unrest draws thousands to gather in San Francisco to protest against racial injustice and police brutality

The tide is turning, and we can’t ignore it and stay silent. Demanding an end to anti-Asian racism includes uprooting every form of violence that white supremacy has planted in our communities, including Asians experiencing homelessness, incarceration, deportation, evictions, displacement, gentrification, labor exploitation, mental illness, and poverty. Ending anti-Asian racism includes decriminalizing sex work, eradicating gender-based violence as well as targeted violence toward our LGBTQ communities, and investing in mental health resources for our communities, so others like Angelo Quinto don’t have to rely on police for help. It includes looking at COVID impacts, including the fact that joblessness for Asian Americans has surged under the pandemic, and that while Filipino nurses comprise only 4% of nurses in the U.S., they account for 32% of total nurse COVID-19 deaths, and how this too stems from the historical extraction of labor from Asia. It includes understanding how U.S. military aggression and occupation in the Asia-Pacific continue to exploit and devastate our homelands, and taking steps to organize against U.S. foreign policy that perpetuates this violence. Our demands for justice cannot be divorced from an analysis of the suffering material conditions for Asian people in the United States and abroad, because we must confront violence everywhere, in every form we see it.

Our fight for justice includes empowering our communities and putting those most impacted at the forefront of driving that fight. This means divesting from the model minority myth and narratives that have rendered us invisible and minimized our needs. It includes implementing ethnic studies programs in schools to lift up and reclaim our histories and legacies of resistance that have been obscured for far too long, and divesting from Eurocentric curricula that disempower our communities. It includes investing in community organizations and community-based solutions that not only keep us safe, but empower us to determine our futures. 

Though recent incidents have commanded our attention, we must not let the stories of racial division become the dominant narrative and overshadow the work that has been done, both historically and contemporarily. Today, grassroots and community-based organizations are engaging in critical work to support Asian communities, while also working in coalition to address shared issues that impact communities across race lines. And today, we are seeing cross-racial solidarity in real time, as well as mutual aid that keeps our communities safe. Hundreds are signing up for volunteer foot patrols to escort Asian elders and community members to keep them safe. Rallies to protect Asian lives are being held all across the country with multi-racial communities showing up in solidarity. Organizations are hosting bystander training sessions to make sure that our communities are equipped to step in and stop and de-escalate violence when we see it. The safest, most empowered communities are those equipped with resources, and these instances of community-based solutions are part of what will keep us safe.

History will be our guide as we search for answers and build solutions. Knowing that anti-Asian racism is woven into the fabric of America, that white supremacy has historically pitted communities against each other, and that we have legacies of resistance to learn from, we must bring this knowledge to the forefront as we engage in the struggle to build a better world. Let us review our history and root ourselves in the study of past social movements and moments of solidarity and ask ourselves: What has worked in the past? What can we build from? How can we use history as a means to better understand the past and present-day roots of racism and violence, and forge a path toward a world that we all can thrive in and feel safe in?

Now more than ever, we need to stand together in solidarity to reimagine a world where all of our communities are safe and thriving. That starts with understanding how interconnected our struggles are, and how much we need each other as we invest in a new world, built on systems of care and community-based solutions that support, nurture, and prioritize our communities long-term. The work ahead of us is vast, but there is no better time than the present to get organized, pursue justice together, and invest in the collective liberation of all of our communities.