Asian Americans activists have called attention to the fact that these are not isolated incidents. Amanda Nguyen recently posted on Instagram a brief, powerful video linking Asian American victims of violence after the mainstream media failed to do so. Bay Area anti-racist organizer Kim Tran explained that “a common sense of racial scapegoating” characterizes these attacks, prompting community groups to take the lead in developing safety programs that are not dependent upon increased policing. By showing how such violence is part of a pattern, activists show that Asian Americans are in danger and in need of recognition, legislation and assistance in challenging racism and discrimination. This is something Asian Americans have always taken the lead on, in the absence of federal attention to the problem.
In the second half of the 19th century, Chinese migrants fled political and social unrest at home and sought employment in the U.S. From mining in the West to planting and harvesting sugar cane and cotton in the South on former plantations, Chinese workers met the labor needs of an expanding nation after the Civil War. The Burlingame Treaty, an 1868 trade agreement with China, guaranteed formal protections of Chinese migrants by the United States. But it wasn’t long before a White supremacist movement against the Chinese took root, seeking to expel and exclude Chinese laborers.
At the national level, politicians argued about the place of Chinese immigrants in the country. Democrats charged that Chinese immigrants posed a dire threat to the White, American working man, and thought the Republican Party was so devoted to maintaining diplomatic ties with China that it overlooked these threats. Republicans, in turn, argued that the Democrats and their virulent West Coast constituents inflamed racial tensions by passing anti-Chinese state and local laws that made it nearly impossible for the federal government to maintain trade relations with China.
In 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled that Chinese, along with Native Americans and African Americans, could not testify in court against Whites as the Chinese were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior.” The Court’s decision didn’t legalize attacks on Chinese people. But it did galvanize vigilantes to enforce city codes that unfairly taxed Chinese businesses in San Francisco. It also inspired community-drafted “public enemy lists” in Rancho Chico that forbade White lawyers from defending Chinese clients, families from hiring Chinese servants and anyone from teaching Chinese migrants to read or write English.
In 1871, Los Angeles police sanctioned an anti-Chinese mob to terrorize the city’s Chinatown, resulting in the lynching of 18 Chinese men. The next year, a group of Chinese merchants attempted to sue the city in a civil case for their loss of over $7,000 in property damages. Their suit failed, but they created a historical record and model that others would use to document incidents of violence.
Economic instability with the Panic 1873 lent an element of “economic anxiety” to anti-Chinese sentiment that already existed, resulting in a movement in California and the West to limit Chinese access to “White men’s” jobs. Campaigns smearing Chinatowns as dens of iniquity were bolstered by anti-Chinese political cartoons. Words and images are influential, and the anti-Chinese frenzy resulted in violence. This growing movement reached a fever pitch by the 1870s when, as Beth Lew Williams details, individual attacks turned into widespread expulsions of Chinese communities from the West. Local law enforcement officials either looked the other way, actively participated in or deputized mobs to terrorize the Chinese.
From Los Angeles to Washington, this state-sanctioned violence offered no recourse for the victims, creating a “method” for others to follow when mobs managed to use threats and fear to drive Chinese migrants out of their towns and cities with virtually no physical harm. Members of the Workingmen’s Party of California cried “The Chinese Must Go!” in their meetings in San Francisco. They used the threat of violence to make it a reality during a massive anti-Chinese riot in the city in 1877.
The culmination of local anti-Chinese laws and statutes came in 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. And yet, the violence continued. Between 1885 and 1887 alone, there were more than 150 known and attempted expulsions of Chinese from communities in the West.
Anti-Asian violence continued into the 20th century. Mobs used violent means to intimidate South Asian migrant workers in Bellingham, Wash., in 1907 and later the Filipino community in Watsonville, Calif., in 1930. Toward the end of World War II when the U.S. lifted wartime orders that excluded Japanese Americans from the West Coast, families returning home from detention camps were greeted with arson and murder from those who still questioned their loyalty.
Even as local law enforcement failed to adequately address the attacks, Japanese Americans worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to document these cases — as previous generations of Asian Americans had. Publicizing these incidents captured the attention of state and federal agencies and transformed a regional problem into one of national importance. This was a crucial step in addressing continuing anti-Asian violence.
When the Doi family returned to Placer County, Calif., in January 1945, four White men fired on their home and tried to dynamite their storage shed. The men later stood trial for the attack, but as the historian Brian Niiya explains, the defense successfully argued California was “a white man’s country,” and the jury acquitted them of all charges (despite one defendant confessing to the attacks). The courts failed the Doi family, but editorials comparing their plight to the racist violence seen in Nazi Germany and stories highlighting local protective groups who assisted returnees drew nationwide attention to a problem previously seen as only a few isolated incidents.
In the end, the federal government did not see these cases of violence as widespread violations of diplomatic treaties or basic civil rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled in 1922 and again in 1923 in the Ozawa v. United States, Yamashita v. Hinkle and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind cases that rights and protections belong to Americans, and the U.S. government showed that it defined “American” as White — which did not include Asian immigrants. The Chinese American community had some judicial success in the late 19th century appealing discrimination cases to the Supreme Court, but their victories rested on violation of property rights and the birthright citizenship of children born in America to Chinese parents. These cases did little to address the violence faced by these communities.
In 1943, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and later, as Jane H. Hong explains, Asian American activists worked with White politicians to pass the Immigration Acts of 1952 and 1965 that dismantled exclusion altogether. But even with sociologist William Petersen’s description of Japanese Americans in 1966 as “model minorities” who achieved educational and economic success despite past discrimination, violence against Asian Americans persisted. In the 1980s, a rising anti-Japanese movement in reaction to economic competition from Japan resulted in the brutal murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin. Chin’s murder further galvanized an interethnic Asian American Movement that emphasized the precarious position of Asian Americans in the U.S. and the lack of media attention to anti-Asian violence.
In 2021, attacks against Asian Americans are on the rise again, but there is a hesitancy among some to see these incidents as a pattern. President Biden released a formal statement condemning the anti-Asian violence that has increased during a pandemic that his predecessor labeled the “China virus,” and the House passed a bill outlining its recognition of anti-Asian sentiment. At the same time, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy balked at the bill, claiming that “there is no kitchen in America that thinks this [anti-Asian violence] is a priority.” McCarthy’s comment is directly contradicted by the evidence provided by projects like Stop the AAPI Hate, a database of reported verbal and physical abuse from across the country.
Acknowledging the attacks on Asian Americans and recognizing it for what it is — a pattern of racist violence rather than a smattering of isolated tragedies — begins with understanding how verbal abuse on streets and racist and xenophobic memes and faulty information creates the conditions for physical abuse and attacks. That is what happened around Chinese migration in the 19th century, and we have seen it play out in similar ways after President Trump opted to indulge racist scapegoating rather than try to quell the pandemic. Biden’s executive order is symbolic, but those working today at the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council to document these cases and those who are organizing across racial and class lines reflect the long legacy of Asian American activism when the government has failed.