Elderly Asian-Americans and women have particularly been targeted. In the Bay Area, in February, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year old-immigrant from Thailand was brutally assaulted and shoved to the ground while on a morning walk. He sustained brain hemorrhaging and died.
In April last year, a 39-year-old Asian-American woman was doused with a caustic chemical as she took out trash in front of her home in Brooklyn, New York. She sustained severe burns to her face, neck, hands and back.
The advocacy organization, Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, logged 2,808 first hand accounts of hostile and violent incidents directed against Asian-Americans between March 19, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020. These occurred in 47 states and the District of Columbia.
Examples of the violence abound:
A 67-year-old Asian-American man from San Francisco was standing in an aisle in a hardware store when suddenly he was struck from behind. Video surveillance at the store verified the incident in which a white male used his bent elbow to strike the man’s upper back. The white guy launched a verbal tirade saying “Shut up, you Monkey!”, “F— you, Chinaman”, “Go back to China” and “Stop bringing the Chinese virus here.”
On March 9, a stranger approached an 83-year-old Asian-American woman who was walking on a sidewalk near her home in Westchester, New York. The stranger cocked his head and then spit in her face. He then punched her in the nose, knocking her unconscious and causing extensive bleeding.
On Feb. 3, another stranger approached a 61-year-old Filipino-American, Noel Quintana, on the New York City subway and slashed his face from cheek to cheek with a box cutter. “Nobody came, nobody helped, nobody made a video,” he said.
While it is hard to know what is going on in the mind of those carrying out the assaults, there is now a well-established pattern directed against Asian-Americans. Jo-Ann Yoo, Executive Director of the Asian-American Federation, a collection of New York City non-profits, has said, “The attacks are random and they are fast and furious.”
For many urban Asian-Americans, the effects of the attacks are tangible. People are afraid to leave their homes. They are afraid to go to the grocery store or to travel alone on public transportation. They change their travel route out of fear. Peoples’ sense of personal safety has been eroded.
Another dimension is the racist bullying of Asian-American youth during the pandemic. More Asian-American children have stayed home as they have also been targets of harassment, shunning and cyberbullying.
While America has a long xenophobic tradition with extensive scapegoating of Asians in the past, I think former President Donald Trump bears a high degree of personal responsibility for the anti-Asian violence. He repeatedly called the coronavirus the “China flu” and the “Kung flu.”
Blaming China for the spread of the virus was a form of scapegoating. It was a convenient form of blame-shifting. The “China virus” rhetoric obscured the Trump Administration’s disastrous mis-handling of the pandemic which has led to countless needless deaths.
Identifying the coronavirus with a nationality is a dangerous and irresponsible characterization. The origins of the virus are still murky but the conspiracy theory accusing China of manufacturing the coronavirus as a deliberate act of bioterrorism is widely discredited. Can there be any doubt that many unhinged Trump followers would transfer the association of the virus as “Chinese” to Chinese people?
I do believe Trump’s words had consequences. They led to more Americans perceiving Asian-Americans as foreign and un-American. This is similar to the hate unleashed against Muslims after 9/11. History shows that all it takes is a loose association.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a study last October that showed a dramatic spike in anti-Asian sentiment after President Trump tested positive for coronavirus. For days after Trump’s diagnosis, the percentage of anti-Asian language on Twitter remained higher than usual. At that time, Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said:
“The level of hatred and vitriol that was aimed at Asian-Americans and Chinese people on social media is simply staggering. The hate speech and stereotyping are irresponsible and can spill over into real world violence.”
The tendency to vilify minorities during times of crisis is long-standing. Professor Sherry Wang of Santa Clara University has written that the U.S. has often promoted racist myths to portray different groups of people as inferior, dirty and dangerous to white people. She cites the “Yellow Peril” stereotype. In the 1880s Chinese laborers were scapegoated for a bad economy as they competed for jobs.
There is a history of tying Chinese people to the spread of diseases. Public health authorities misrepresented Asians as diseased carriers of incurable diseases, like small pox and bubonic plague. The association between disease and immigrants was used as a catalyst for immigration restrictions in the early 20th century.
Asian workers played a critical role in building the American infrastructure in the West, particularly railroads, but they were seen as “other” by whites. A white supremacist movement promoted the belief Chinese workers were stealing jobs.
These attitudes, encouraged by power elites, led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. It was the first law that excluded an entire ethnic group.
Many cities and towns throughout the West also expelled Chinese residents from their jurisdictions. In the fall of 1885, a white mob in Tacoma, Washington, kicked down doors, dragged Chinese from their homes, and violently expelled the Chinese population from the city. The mob then burned down Chinatown.
In the late 19th century, Chinese people in the United States were lynched with impunity. The largest mass lynching in American history occurred in 1871 when an anti-Chinese mob attacked Chinatown in Los Angeles. There were 18 lynching victims.
Asian-Americans had little legal recourse then. In California, an 1854 California Supreme Court case ruled that Asians were not allowed to testify in court as they were explicitly considered inferior. In 1863, the California legislature passed a statute prohibiting Asian Americans from testifying in court as either witnesses or victims.
Blaming Asian-Americans for public health crises is nothing new. But it needs to be said that the idea that Asian-Americans are spreading the coronavirus in America is malicious nonsense. It is time to pierce the invisibility of the racist hate being directed against Asian-Americans.
(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)