Asian Americans are spat, harassed, assaulted – and even shot. I am saddened by the severity of these attacks, but I am not surprised.
As a Chinese American living in the United States since 1949, I have seen a full spectrum of attitudes towards Chinese Americans. I have also felt the effects of attitudes towards other Asian groups, as we are often treated as indistinguishable by the Americans who target us.
This past year has seen some of the worst anti-Asian hates in my memory. As the specter of a unique pandemic grew, many responded with fear and division. Officials, political parties and neighbors have drawn battle lines over closures, school closures and the wearing of masks. But one thing united the two sides – the certainty that China was to blame for the coronavirus.
The anger was not only aimed at China, but the Asian-American community. According to a recent Pew survey, 39% of Asian Americans said people were uncomfortable with them, 31% had suffered racist jokes or slurs, and 26% felt threatened. In a study of 16 US cities, the total number of hate crimes fell in 2020, but those specifically against Asians rose 149%.
After the Atlanta shooting last month, President Biden, Vice President Harris and other officials spoke out against the current wave of anti-Asian hatred. The racism we face has attracted attention. But I’m afraid that’s not enough. I’m afraid this racism is blamed on unusual circumstances or Trump’s “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu” rhetoric. I fear that when the pandemic anxiety wears off, concerns about racism against Asian Americans will die out as well.
The blatant violence against Asian Americans may recede as the country recovers, but it will not go away. And Asian Americans will fearfully await the next wave of extreme hate.
While anti-Chinese hatred has been exacerbated by the pandemic, that sentiment was already on the rise. In 2018, long before COVID-19, I no longer felt welcome in President Trump’s America. The tension between the United States and China was increasing. Trump’s racial denunciation of China quickly translated into growing mistrust of Chinese Americans. However, he was not the first president to use anti-China rhetoric as a rallying cry to gain his support, nor will he be the last.
There is still strong bipartisan pressure in Congress to stay “tough on China.” The main focus, which will last long after the pandemic, is the economy. During the auto boom in Japan in the 1980s, anti-Japanese sentiment exploded, leading to the murder of a Chinese American. Today, China is considered the main economic challenger. This reinforces a common theme seen in xenophobia and racism – the image of foreigners (whether American citizens or not) who steal jobs from “real” – white – Americans.
Today, official rhetoric is not limited to specific business practices or political goals. The emphasis is increasingly on the Chinese Communist Party, ideology and worldview. China is presented as diametrically opposed to the American model and leadership. Although aimed at the Chinese government, in practice such language hammers home the idea that the Chinese people are fundamentally at odds with American values.
This rhetoric reinforces the view of Chinese as non-Americans, regardless of their nationality. Asian Americans already face racism and prejudices born out of ignorance and based on misconceptions about Asian culture, language and identity. Now we are also subject to mistrust, questions about our values and the control of our loyalties.
The racism that the Asian-American community experiences today is symptomatic of a long cycle of alienation, mistrust and persecution. We often have the impression that our acceptance here is temporary and conditional. Asians have been targeted throughout US history: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the massacres of 1871 and 1885; the yellow peril; Japanese internment; the KKK’s targeting of Vietnamese after the Vietnam War – the list goes on.
The common thread is how quickly the Asian community in America is turned on or used as a scapegoat. We are tolerated in Chinatowns, Chinese restaurants and other “acceptable” careers, and pushed into the mold that suits the majority (in recent years the model minority trope has been popular). Then, if we try to get out of that box or if it fits the current political situation or the social environment, we are attacked and not seen as welcome anymore.
Our voices are not often shared in American society. Our struggles are often dismissed as being less important than other forms of injustice. We end up with a feeling of invisibility, forgotten and neglected – until we are not. And when that happens, we are rather faced with hate.
I don’t want my granddaughter to grow up in a world where she is seen as less American than her neighbors. People are now talking about anti-Asian hatred. The Asian-American community must seize this moment and keep the momentum going.
Dr. Chi Wang is the former head of the Chinese and Korean section of the US Library of Congress and is the co-founder and chairman of the US-China Policy Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization based in Washington, DC.