The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘bad day’ defense after the Atlanta shooting reinforced the idea of White victimhood

Anti-Asian sentiment is deeply rooted in American history

Candles and signs at a memorial in Atlanta after the shooting rampage in which three spas were attacked. (Candice Choi/AP)

The shooting last week that killed six Asian women and two others in Atlanta is the latest episode in a recent wave of anti-Asian violence and vitriol in the country. The shameful response of a local law enforcement spokesman made the tragedy even worse, revealing a casual indifference to the humanity of the Asian victims and their families. During a news conference, a spokesman for the Cherokee County sheriff’s office, Capt. Jay Baker, said the 21-year-old man accused in the massacre had been having a “bad day” when he allegedly opened fire. Baker added that the suspect disclosed that he viewed the Asian women as a “temptation … that he wanted to eliminate.” This jarring confession, which conjoins sexual desire, self-pity and punishment, is part of a long tradition of transposing blame for criminal acts onto victims of racialized violence.

White vigilantes have long sought to rationalize or absolve their violent acts by claiming that they were carried out in self-defense against disfavored groups, usually racial minorities or immigrants, whose presence was viewed as a threat to the social order. This rhetorical strategy casts White perpetrators as victims themselves by claiming that they were driven to violence as a response to the alleged misdeeds of unwelcome outsiders endangering the White community through malicious behavior — stealing jobs, spreading disease, promoting sexual deviancy or engaging in unfair economic competition.

Antipathy toward Asians in the United States has toggled back-and-forth between two interrelated cultural ideations. The first is that Asians represent a contaminating force in American life exemplified by the stereotype that they are carriers of disease or agents of sexual deviancy (e.g. prostitution, race-mixing) that endanger the larger society. The second is that Asians represent a competitive threat, who through treachery or cunning jeopardize the American standard of living. This double helix of contamination and competition has long served as the seedbed of anti-Asian enmity.

Outbreaks of extralegal violence targeting Asians date to the mid-19th century when nativist leaders declared Chinese immigrants to be a threat to the health and prosperity of White Americans. Nativists and their political allies characterized segregated Chinatowns as vectors of disease and vice.

Public health officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles warned that unsanitary conditions in Chinese neighborhoods would eventually spread disease among the White population unless drastic measures were taken. They amplified fear of Chinese sex workers by accusing them of using their purportedly exotic powers of temptation to lure innocent White men into debauchery, thereby endangering White families through marital infidelity and the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

This incendiary rhetoric spurred a wave of riots and vigilante attacks targeting Chinese communities on the West Coast from the 1870s to the early 20th century that left hundreds dead and injured. Rarely did the perpetrators of these attacks face any legal consequences as local White residents frequently applauded the revanchist aims of the vigilantes, claiming that the violence was defensive rather than offensive and carried out to safeguard the community from a problem population.

Similar extralegal campaigns targeted Philippine immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s. Nativists denounced the entry of “cheap” Philippine workers, who were accused of displacing native workers and driving down wages. Nativists also highlighted the competitive threat to domestic agricultural producers posed by “cheap” imported goods from the Philippines that entered the United States tariff-free because it was an American colony. Filipinos, like the Chinese before them, were accused of sexual deviancy, except it was Philippine men who allegedly tempted young White women into interracial relationships and threatened to contaminate the biological and reputational integrity of White families.

Nativist leaders called for public action to confront the “Filipino boy crisis,” inciting dozens of race riots, including the infamous one in Watsonville, Calif., when 500 to 700 armed White residents formed “hunting parties” to attack Filipinos over multiple days with the goal of expelling the unwelcome outsiders from the region. The incident attracted national media attention, and eight men were eventually charged in the attacks, including the murder of Philippine laborer Fermin Tobera.

And yet, local residents rallied in support of the vigilantes, including the men arrested in Tobera’s killing, claiming that their actions were self-defensive in nature and that violence was justified by the community’s own sense of victimization at the hands of Filipinos, who “stole” jobs from White men and brazenly defied the color line to lure White women into lives of moral degeneracy.

This reminds us how deeply rooted anti-Asian sentiment is in American history, and how fears of economic competition and contamination fuel an escalation in xenophobic animosity.

The United States’ geopolitical rivalry with China and the social strain occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic has provided fertile ground for such dangerous attitudes to resurface. Indeed, one of former president Donald Trump’s signature achievements was his successful yoking of economic nationalism with the politics of racial grievance. It is not surprising that his political messaging resonated with militia groups and White nationalists, who, like the Atlanta killer, are “fed up” with being “victimized.” As historian Kathleen Belew has shown, these paramilitary groups are often animated by a sense of victimhood and see themselves as righteous guardians confronting powerful foreign and domestic enemies. They fantasize about violent retribution against their perceived adversaries — immigrants, Black Lives Matter activists, liberals, etc.

In a prime-time address, President Biden condemned the surge in “vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans, who have been attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated,” adding that such attacks were not only wrong but also “un-American.” Sadly, however, that is not the case. Anti-Asian violence is a recurrent pattern in American history, like the violent purges targeting Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans that must be acknowledged if we are serious about addressing racism.

Biden’s remarks in Atlanta got closer to the truth when he urged Americans to speak out against anti-Asian racism, adding that “our silence is complicity.” The silence in question, however, is not about individuals’ responsibility to speak out against discriminatory behavior, but rather a societal reticence to speak honestly and forcefully about the foundational role of racial and gendered violence in the making of the American nation. The resurgence of anti-Asian racism and antagonism is part of a long tradition of scapegoating outsiders for this country’s problems. Acknowledging the connections among nativist, misogynistic and racially charged political discourse, and the escalation of violence targeting those deemed a threat to the national community is essential to actually putting a stop to the centuries-long pattern of racist violence in America.