It has been a month since the Atlanta shooting where a white man bought a gun that morning, drove across town, barged into three Asian American-owned spas, and killed eight people, including six Asian American women.
The six Asian American women were not dead because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. They were where they were supposed to be – at their workplace, making a living to support their families. My grief for these women, and many others who have been victimized by anti-Asian violence over the past year, was briefly suspended when I saw the video of “kung fu” grandma who used a fragment of a two-by-four to whack the white man who punched her in the eyes in San Francisco. But my anguish deepened as another video popped up showing an Asian American woman being violently kicked down and repeatedly stomped upon on a New York city street in broad daylight. The attack that was captured on closed circuit television also showed two men going about their affairs inside the building as the beating happened just outside their doorsteps. Then a third man emerged on screen to close the door on the injured woman lying outside on the sidewalk struggling to get up.
During the year since March 2020 when Donald Trump started calling the COVID 19 “the Chinese Virus,” nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate and violent incidents have been reported, according to the non-profit Stop AAPI Hate. President Trump may not have started anti-Asian violence, he did misuse his bully pulpit to fan the hate. His hateful words led to the recent spate of violence and killings of Asian Americans.
Anti-Asian violence started almost at the same time as the arrival of the first group of Chinese laborers in California, around 1848, during the gold rush. (Asians had been in America before there was the United States of America. The first group of Filipinos arrived in Morro Bay of Northern California in 1587.) Robberies and killings of Chinese miners were commonplace. Such violence was sanctioned with impunity by the state. In the 1854 California case, People v. Hall, the California Supreme Court threw out the murder conviction of the white man who shot and killed a Chinese miner from behind by finding testimonies of Chinese witnesses inadmissible. In rendering the decision, Chief Justice Murray created the enduring caricature of Chinese as the perpetual foreigners who could not assimilate and were unfit to enjoy all the rights of citizenship.
Despite the significant contribution of Chinese laborers in completing the transcontinental railroad, the California state legislature and its Congressional representatives intensified advocacy for anti-Chinese laws. The first anti-Chinese immigrant law came in 1875 in the passage of the Page Act that ostensibly aimed to prevent entry of prostitutes, but in reality, was to bar wives of Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. The Page Act rendered the Chinese immigrant community a bachelor society where Chinese men could not build families.
The Page Act was followed by more anti-Chinese immigration laws starting with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that was extended for two ten-year periods until it became permanent in 1904. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese from coming to the United States and denied Chinese immigrants American citizenship. The 1888 revision of the Chinese Exclusion Act cancelled the certificate of identity that Chinese immigrants had relied on for re-entry after a visit home, stranding tens of thousands Chinese immigrants overseas. Chinese exclusion would later expand to exclude other Asians until the door for Asian immigration was completely shut in 1924 with the passage of the first Immigration and Nationality Act that officially racialized immigration to the United States.
By the time Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent had been rounded up and put in concentration camps, living in horse stalls with only what they could carry. Their homes, their farms, their stores and all their properties either were sold for pennies or were taken outright from them. The Alien Land Acts that were in force in many western states in the 19th and 20th Centuries had meant that Japanese immigrants who were barred from becoming American citizens could not hold property under their names. Over time they ended up losing their properties to the white friends or white neighbors who agreed to lend their names for these contracts and property deeds.
Chinese immigrants were finally able to become American citizens in 1943 when Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and allowed a quota of 105 Chinese to immigrate per year. Japanese immigrants were not allowed to become citizens until 1952 when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 was overhauled. It was not until 1965 when Asians could immigrate to the United States on almost equal footing as those from the western hemisphere. Despite the first group of Asians immigrating to the United States 173 years ago, the Asian American community remains a largely immigrant one because of anti-Asian immigration laws that spanned almost a century.
During that same century, Chinese immigrants built communities known as Chinatowns around the country to provide mutual assistance, and to guard against discrimination and assault from the mainstream society. Many of these communities did not survive erasure.
- 1868 – During the “Driving Out” or “Yellow Peril” period, 40,000 miners of Chinese ancestry were forcibly expelled from California.
- 1871 – Race riot and massacre in Los Angeles Chinatown resulted in 20 Chinese men lynched or burned alive by mobs of white men, four men were crucified spread-eagle and then executed with knife and gun. The first Chinatown of Los Angeles was wiped out.
- 1877 – Three days of race riots in San Francisco Chinatown claimed four lives and destroyed $100,000 worth of property of Chinese immigrants, including 20 laundries.
- 1879 – The State of California rewrote its constitution declaring that the Chinese people were “dangerous to the well-being of the State” and delegating “all necessary power” to towns and cities “for the removal of Chinese.”
- 1880 – Bloody riot in Denver Chinatown started as drunken brawl between some intoxicated white men and two Chinese men led to the hanging of one Chinese man, the brutal beating of numerous others and the destruction of all Chinese properties.
- 1885 – In Tacoma, Washington, vigilantes led by the Mayor raided the Chinese-owned stores, loaded up the Chinese residents (Chinese women with bound feet who could not walk were thrown into carts) and forced them out of the city. The Chinese immigrants walked the 140 miles along the railroad track built by Chinese laborers decades earlier to reach Portland, Oregon.
- 1885 – In Rock Springs, Wyoming, twenty-eight Chinese men were burned alive, and their bodies mutilated by local townspeople.
- 1886 – In Seattle, Washington, labor leaders rounded up 500 Chinese residents remaining in Chinatown and expelled them from Seattle.
- 1887 – In Snake River, Oregon, a gang of at least four hundred white men robbed, murdered, and mutilated thirty-one Chinese miners in the Hell’s Kitchen Canyon region of Snake River. Three men were tried but none was convicted. The Snake River Massacre was not revealed until 1995.
- 1906 – The Chinatown in Santa Ana, California was burned down by order of the City Council.
- 1907 – As South Asians began arriving in the United States in larger numbers, race riots expanded from anti-Chinese to anti-Asian. Hundreds of white men affiliated with the Asiatic Exclusion League attacked the homes of South Asians in Bellingham, Washington, driving 125, mostly Sikhs, out of town. Similar riots took place two months later in nearby Everett, Washington.
The list continues. The law that prohibited Chinese from testifying against whites was not repealed until 1955.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s sparked the enduring quest for racial and gender liberation. With it, the view toward Asian Americans also morphed from “yellow peril” to “model minority.” Being labelled “model minority” has led some Asian Americans to believe that they are protected from anti-immigrant attacks because they are the “good immigrants.” As State Representative Gene Wu pointed out at a “Stop Asian Hate” vigil last month, being called model minority does not shield Asian Americans from violence, the violence has not happened until recently “it’s just because your number was not up yet.”
The yearlong and continuing spate of Anti-Asian violence highlights the importance of allyship – to show up and speak out when others are oppressed, mistreated, discriminated against, attacked, or killed because of their skin color, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, disability, national origin, race, age, religious beliefs and practices. The fight for immigrant justice is a fight for racial justice. It is a struggle to correct a racialized immigration system that continues to discriminate along racial lines unabated.