Asian Americans and social justice
| May 6, 2021 1:00 AM
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and we should note recent achievements. Congress finally acknowledged the 20,000 Chinese Americans who, despite intense racism, served in the U.S. military during the Second World War. Taiwanese American Charles Yu’s novel about that racism, "Interior Chinatown", won the National Book Award. Kamala Harris, a woman with roots in India, became U.S. vice president.
Even more remarkable is Gintanjali Rao, an Indian American from Colorado. Over the past five years, Rao has invented technologies to measure lead in drinking water, diagnose opioid addiction, and detect cyberbullying. She has conducted international science workshops, given public talks, and learned to pilot an airplane. And she’s only fifteen!
Unfortunately, hate crimes against Asian Americans are increasing, especially in large cities. Around 4,000 such crimes were reported in the past year, of which two thirds were against women. The actions ranged from verbal harassment to workplace discrimination to physical assault.
Many of the victims were elderly. In New York, a 61-year-old man needed 100 stitches after a stranger slashed his face with a boxcutter. Two teenagers hit an 89-year-old woman in the face and lit her shirt on fire. In San Francisco, an 84-year-old man died after being violently knocked to the ground. A 91-year-old man was assaulted in Oakland’s Chinatown.
What is going on?
First, there is the racist belief that U.S. residents of Asian descent are too different from people of European descent and, thus, not “real Americans.” This was demonstrated during the Second World War, when the U.S. military placed Japanese Americans, but not German Americans or Italian Americans, in concentration camps.
Second, xenophobia (fear of outsiders) increases during crisis, and the USA currently faces three crises at once: Covid-19 pandemic (short-term), middle-class economic decline (mid-term), and climate change (long-term). All three are causing dislocation, uncertainty, and suffering, and some people are taking out their angst on “Asians.”
This isn’t new. During economic crises in the late 19th century, many in the U.S. West scapegoated Chinese immigrants, who they called “coolies.” Anti-Chinese riots, massacres, and expulsions followed, like the 1892 forced removal of Chinese residents from Bonners Ferry.
Third, cynical politicians use race-baiting and anti-immigrant rhetoric to appeal to unhappy voters. In the 1870s, some California candidates ran on “anti-coolie” platforms. Recently, we’ve seen politicians blame “China” for all three of our crises. Blaming outsiders is a way to deflect attention from internal problems.
Already last July, a Pew Research study found that 30% of Asian Americans reported experiencing pandemic-related discrimination. They’ve been intentionally coughed on. They’ve been told to “Go back to China!” They feel unwelcome and unsafe in their own neighborhoods.
But why are the victims so often women? Yes, bullies target perceived weakness, but there are other factors.
On March 16, a man opened fire at three Atlanta massage centers, murdering eight people, including six women of Asian descent. He said he killed them because they were a sexual temptation he hated but couldn’t resist. In U.S. culture, there is a long history of the sexual fetishization of Asian women as exotic, submissive, and disposable. The behavior of many U.S. soldiers in the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam perpetuated this racism.
One thing has changed. In the 19th century, the anti-Chinese argument was that they were poor and dirty, would work for pennies, and thus took menial jobs from Euro-American laborers who demanded a decent wage. Today, many U.S. citizens imagine, falsely, that all Asian Americans are well-educated and successful—the “model minority.” For U.S. citizens facing economic difficulties, it’s easy to assume, wrongly, that “Asians” are taking all the best jobs.
By studying such social justice issues—including questions of human rights, access to opportunity, distribution of wealth, and racism—we can gain an understanding of how injustices arise. This is an important first step toward finding ways to promote a more harmonious society. For example, because they understand the history, FBI analysts accurately predicted this outbreak of hate crimes.
Lately, though, prominent individuals, in Idaho and beyond, have been denouncing the teaching of social justice and “critical race theory”—a fancy term for racial understanding. They falsely claim that public schools are “indoctrinating” students. One has to wonder why these individuals feel threatened by efforts to explore our national history. Ignorance of the past leads to misunderstandings about the present, which are particularly dangerous in a time of crisis.
The Boundary County Human Rights Task Force encourages you to reject stereotypes, reject hate, and have empathy for the suffering of all people. This requires the willingness to listen to others, to hear their stories, to see how our commonalities are much greater than our differences. Social justice issues affect us all.
Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence. He is the author of "Peace Lessons".