The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Transcript: Race in America: History Matters with Erika Lee & Helen Zia

MS. LEE: Good afternoon, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Michelle Ye Hee Lee, a national reporter at The Washington Post.

Joining me today are two esteemed guests. First, we have Erika Lee, professor of History and Asian American Studies. She is also director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. And we also have Helen Zia, author and activist and a spokesperson for the Justice for Vincent Chin Campaign.

We're here to discuss the rise in anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic and the long history of attacks and discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islanders in this country.

So, thank you both for joining us, and welcome.

DR. LEE: Thank you so much.

MS. ZIA: Thank you. Good to be here to talk about this important subject.

MS. LEE: Well, let's dive in. Helen, let's start with you. We've seen a rise in anti-Asian attacks for nearly a year, you know, since lockdown started, and early on in the pandemic, early on in the lockdown in April 2020, you actually foresaw that the attacks would rise and could rise. You wrote in The Washington Post, "There are hundreds of reports of anti-Asian harassment and violence. This violence could become much worse as more people lose jobs and lives." You almost predicted what was going to happen. Why did you think it could get worse, as it has?

MS. ZIA: Well, very sadly, we have seen this terrible nightmare before. The history that Professor Erika Lee has written about so brilliantly in many places, you know, really this has been told over and over again in the history of Asian Americans in this country. This is where we fit into the white supremacy, you know, a hierarchy of keeping people apart, to take attention away from the real problems, to blame, scapegoat, attack, kill, harass, and, you know, Asian Americans have been bearing the brunt of that from the time we've been on this continent.

So, we don't even have to go that far back. We've seen this happening after 9/11. We've seen this, and I was part of a time when anybody who looked Japanese was under attack and being killed because they looked Japanese. And that happened in Detroit in 1982 when a young man named Vincent Chin was killed. That was a time of incredible economic stress, crisis in America, the collapse of the entire manufacturing sector of America, and it took a little while, but sooner or later, the groups that were blaming each other arrived at a group to blame.

And that was Japan and anybody who looked Japanese. Japan was blamed because they made fuel-efficient cars, but hello, so did Germany. However, targeting people who looked German was going to be not a great strategy. So, the idea was people who looked Japanese, and that meant anybody East Asian. And there were deaths.

Actually, Vincent Chin was killed in the third year of that economic crisis, and we've seen this many, many times played out in American history. So, at the beginning of this pandemic, it was very clear. People were losing jobs all over the place. Even before the first case was reported in North America, there was harassment, shunning the collapse of Chinatown and the businesses there.

So, everybody who was Asian American knew that this was already bad, and it was likely to get worse because not only is there a terrible economic--a global economic crisis, no economist can really predict when this is going to end. People are suffering. People are also losing loved ones, getting sick, not knowing where to turn, struggling to get food and shelter. So, we know that already the pump was primed to blame people who look Chinese. You know, blame China and anyone who looks that way.

So, we knew. I wasn't prescient then. I was merely vocalizing what most Asian American already knew, and learning from history, we know that it's not going to end today, even with this recognition and the conversations that are being had now. Sadly, it's going to continue and will probably get worse, and I hate saying that, but that's what history shows us.

MS. LEE: Well, thank you for that overview. I think thinking about this in the context of economy, the domestic pressures, the outward-looking, blaming, you know, I think that's really important to keep in mind.

And, Erika, I also want to ask you because you've spoken out about this before. You've highlighted that immigrant communities have been singled out in public health crises, and that there has been this phenomenon of anti-immigrant disease rhetoric, which I think is really important to talk about here. Why is that, and what can we learn about what the AAPI community is facing during this pandemic?

DR. LEE: Yeah, that's a great question. So, one of the ways that I like to start thinking about this with my own students is to identify some of the labels that we commonly use to describe immigration. It's an invasion. It's a plague. It's a [audio distortion]. It's very threatening. It's very invasive, right?

And going back to some of the very earliest immigration debates that we've had in the United States, it's very clear that whatever immigrant problem was identified in our country was often tied to a public health outbreak. So, when yellow fever struck Pennsylvania in the 18th century, it was called the "German flu." Jewish immigrants were blamed with bringing typhoid. Italians were blamed for a polio outbreak on the East Coast.

But there is something really [audio distortion] about Asians and Chinese people that have taken on this sort of outsized idea of China being dirty, diseased, and Chinese people being sources of contagion. We saw this in 1900 in San Francisco when there was a bubonic plague outbreak. The local officials decided to quarantine all of San Francisco Chinatown, keeping those people in Chinatown but making sure that White residents were evacuated.

And I think that what's so important here about what's happening today is that this isn't just a culmination, a logical culmination of our really long and deep history of racism and racial violence directed at Asian American and Pacific Islanders, but that there was a specific spark in 2020 and 2021, and that was the divisive political rhetoric of many of our leaders who insisted on calling the coronavirus the "China virus," the "Chinese flu," the "Wuhan virus," et cetera. This allowed what had been certainly, again, a deep-rooted sentiment and stereotypes about Asians and Chinese people in particular to explode, to justify the violence that we have seen this past year.

MS. LEE: Thanks for that.

Well, I want to get into that deep root of the history here. Erika, you're one of the nation's leading historians on immigration and the Asian American experience. Give us a big-picture overview. Take us through that history and where we stand now in this moment in the context of that.

DR. LEE: How much time do we have, Michelle?


DR. LEE: You know, one of the things I think is so important--and The Washington Post "Race in America" series, you dip into some of this history. Helen has been speaking about much of this history today and in many other interviews. But I cannot impress upon all of us today enough the fact that Asian Americans have been at the heart of some of our country's most racist laws, some of our country's most racist and violent incidents, and these are just things that most people do not know.

So, I know that in the intro to this segment, it mentioned the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, of course, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, but peppered throughout our timeline of history are many other race riots, expulsions, massacres. The largest mass lynching of people in the United States happened in L.A. targeting Chinese in 1871. All of Seattle's Chinese residents were forcibly pushed out of the city's limits in 1886. There are anti-Filipino riots in 1929 in California. South Asians are driven out of Bellingham, Washington, in 1907.

So, this is not something new, what we are seeing. It is built on this history of violence, but it is also a history that most Americans don't know, and I think that this is one of the greatest travesties of where we find ourselves today, that we have to continually remind our communities that this is--that Asian Americans are a part of the history of racism, and that this isn't going to go away anytime soon, and we need broad-based solutions to be tackling it.

MS. LEE: Right. And, unfortunately, it has been a longstanding problem, and there is a feeling that it's not going away. In fact, just before logging on here, I saw a tweet saying "Chinese pandemic," and it's March 2021, and we're still talking about this every day, which is why it's so important to remember that context, I think.

And I want to take a moment to talk about that 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, because when you talk about 1882, it seems so far away, but then upon research, I remembered it was in place for 61 years. It wasn't repealed until 1943, which is quite recent.

Helen, can you tell us about the significance of that act? I mean, this country legally banned Chinese people for 61 years. Tell us why that's been so significant, and what were the fallouts of that prohibition in the decades to come?

MS. ZIA: So, yes, 1882 was definitely, you know, a year when the entire United States government took its institutions and power to consecrate, to put into law what was already going on in the kinds of things that Erika just mentioned. I mean, they were going on well before 1882, and in fact, 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was merely the culmination of that to turn all of those massacres and what I--lynchings, driving out, putting people on boats into the sea without food, water, or any way to whatever, so that they would die, these were part of an ethnic cleansing, if we call it for what it is, that led to the federal government coming up with this law, and as you pointed out, that continues for 60 years for Chinese.

But the other thing that happened with this law was it was extended periodically, not just in time, but also to apply to basically every other Asian ethnicity that had emigrated to the U.S. and to ban eventually every Asian person from becoming a citizen to the U.S. And so, you know--and it wasn't just 1940, you know, the 1940s when that was removed for Chinese, but it wasn't until 1952 that that ban of citizenship and participation in the American democracy was removed for all Asians.

So, when we look at that, that's not that long ago, and what it means to not be able to become a citizen means you cannot become part of the American process. You cannot participate. You cannot vote. You cannot become an elected official, all of those things, and in many cases, you couldn't own property. You couldn't really become an American and be fully in American life.

So, when we look at Asian American sort of political evolution over time, you really have to say that didn't start until 1952 when people were allowed to become naturalized American citizens.

But one thing I think it's important to remember is all of these things, we have been--we, Asian Americans, but also we, all of the American people, have been deprived of this history, and it hasn't been an accidental deprivation.

We know that there have been, for example, with the golden spike of joining the Continental Railroad. Chinese workers who built the most difficult part of that railroad were deliberately excluded from the picture, and you could take that as a metaphor for how Asian American history has been treated. We've been excluded from the history and excluded from the dialogue and the political discourse of America, and the damage of that is that, you know, kind of we're absent as real history and real people. And what gets filled in people's minds instead is this kind of cartoon character of this contagion, this invader, this enemy alien, or if we go into the model minority, that the people who served the role of being the good minority but also who are silent and passive and never fight back. And all of those are ingredients to feed into the racism that we see today.

People are attacking Asians for one, that they are blaming and targeting Asians, but also because they think they're not going to fight back. You know, there's not going to be any repercussions. The demagogues in government who are looking to deflect blame from themselves for being incompetent in dealing with this pandemic, instead it's blame the Asians, and so all of this kind of poison that inhabits our people's minds, instead of real history and real facts and real people, is the damage, not only of 1882, but all of the things that preceded that and have followed that, even in today's rhetoric.

And I just would like to say that we say "China virus," "Wuhan virus," and now people are saying "UK variant" and "South Asian variant." It's not just the words. It's all of the rhetoric, the hatred, the hysteria, the emotion that went behind the speaking of those words. It wasn't just the words themselves, and behind that hysteria is also just the weight of all of this history and the continued use of Asian Americans in that way, to divide people so that we don't come together and say, "Hey. What? You know, let's deal with the real problem here." Instead, they're attacking Asian Americans.

MS. LEE: You've touched on so many great points there, I mean, from the point about the exclusion of a lot of this history. I mean, just even looking back at some of these major cases and incidents, it's hard for me to recall learning about it in school, and I know that, Helen and Erika, you have both talked about the need for more education in our school system about this history. And you also touched on the fact that the rhetoric around just tying specific geographies and people to the disease is just so dangerous and in fact warned against by the WHO. I mean, that's a real big concern.

Speaking of the exclusion in history and those cases that the broader public might not know about, Erika, I was wondering if you can tell us about Wong Kim Ark, the Chinese American cook who was at the center of a landmark but often forgotten Supreme Court decision, and tell us why this matters, especially for people who may never have heard of this case before.

DR. LEE: Yeah, I'm so glad that you brought that up because in addition to this long history of what was done to Asian Americans, there is also the same history of what Asian Americans have done, what Asian Americans have done to combat this discrimination, and also why it matters for all of us, and that is why the case of Wong Kim Ark is so important.

Wong Kim Ark was born in the United States during a time of just great anti-Chinese sentiment. It was also a time after that Congress had put in place the 14th Amendment being that all persons born in the United States should be considered citizens thereof, an amendment that was directly applied to African Americans, to free Blacks but eventually encompassed all of us.

But in this period of great anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia, immigration officials in San Francisco tried to toy with the law. They wanted to test it, and they tested it on Wong Kim Ark. He was a U.S. citizen, but he decided to take a trip to visit his parents who were residing in China. And when he returned back to the United States, the land of his birth in San Francisco, immigration officials denied him entry, and they said, "You know, we see that you claim that you've been born in the United States, but your parents are Chinese, subject to the Chinese emperor, and our nationalization laws," which Helen mentioned, "say that only White persons can be naturalized citizens of the United States. So, we don't think that the 14th Amendment should apply to you because we think that citizenship is something that is inherited by blood versus related to where you were actually born."

And Wong Kim Ark decided to take them to court. He hired a lawyer. The case went to the federal district court. The federal district court said, "You are right. The 14th Amendment does include you. It includes anybody who was born in the United States, regardless of their parent's status or their citizenship." The U.S. government appealed, and so it went to the Supreme Court, and in 1898, the Supreme Court ruled in Wong Kim Ark's favor, thereby ensuring that birthright citizenship is guaranteed to all of us, regardless of our parents' immigration status or our parents' heritage but all of us who are born in the United States.

This is a landmark decision. It matters to all of us. It's not just something that applies to the rights of Asian Americans, and it's so important to understand in our contemporary period because this is a ruling that has continually been under threat in recent years by some lawmakers who want to limit birthright citizenship to change the way in which birthright citizenships works, especially in relationship to undocumented immigrants or children of undocumented Americans.

MS. LEE: I'm so thankful that you described that for us. I think it's such an unknown case for so many people, and framing it as the contribution of the AAPI history is so important, I think, because so much of this conversation is around what's been done to or against AAPI communities. So, I think it's important to mark this case and talk about it.

And, Helen, one of the most notorious events in Asian American civil rights movement was the 1982 death of Vincent Chin, and Vincent Chin is a name that's very common in my Asian circles and I'm sure your circles as well. But I don't hear him talked about much at all behind my Asian friends. Tell us about your role in the Justice for Vincent Chin Campaign and how his killing was a turning point that galvanized Asian American communities.

MS. ZIA: Well, thanks for that question, and it's really true that not only is what happened in the Vincent Chin case something that Asian Americans talk about, but what's happening today is eerily similar to what happened at that time.

I had mentioned that it was a time of great economic crisis. I was in Detroit at that time. I had gone to Detroit as a young activist, community organizer, and some friends said, "You know, if you really want to know about social change in America, you should go to the Heartland of America."

So, I ended up in Detroit, and I got a job. I actually worked in a stamping plant, an auto factory for a few years until I was laid off with every other autoworker, millions of people, and not just autoworkers, but really the entire industrial Midwest was suffering, out of work. And in that time, as I was saying earlier, the forces that could do something about it instead said it was Japan that was to blame.

And a young man named Vincent Chin was killed. He was Chinese, not Japanese, but as every Asian American knows, people don't ask your actual ethnicity. And in these times when groups like Stop AAPI Hate have been recording the attacks that have gone on--and more than 3,000 so far in this period--the majority of people who have been attacked have not been Chinese. So, this is another part of the experience that we as Asian Americans know.

So, I just knew that when Vincent Chin was killed in a climate of intense hate that there was more to it. I was a young journalist then. I had been laid off. I knew the misery that people were experiencing. I knew that they were looking for some way to lash out with their frustration, and that Vincent was killed then, but it could have been me. It could have been anybody I knew who looked Japanese.

And within that, you know, it's not that long ago, 1982. There wasn't this acceptance of a term called "Asian American." That had come out of a student movement, an Asian American movement, but it hadn't reached the restaurant workers, the mainstream of Asian Americans. It wasn't in Chinatowns and Japantowns and Little Manilas and places like that. So that's when other Asian Americans came together and said, "You know what? We are different. We have different languages, cultures, and so forth, but when it comes to somebody who might want to attack us because of how we look, we are all in danger." So, really, that was the beginning of a movement, and I was part of that.

I felt that my understanding of organizing--I was a budding journalist. I knew how to write press releases and talk about our history to people. That's who I got involved and little knowing that it was going to take over my life for quite a while, but I wasn't the only one. It was really a whole bunch of communities coming together with--and it wasn't Kumbaya. We had a lot of issues to deal with.

Could Chinese and Japanese Americans work together considering the history of World War II wasn't that long go? What about South Asians and Southeast Asians, and how do we all sort of fit in together? And then how do we relate in a city like Detroit to a largely Black African American community and just really the whole dialogue of race in America?

So that's what the Vincent Chin case came to, to really elevate and exemplify the evolution of Asians in America and how we see ourselves and how we can become part of a national discourse that we were always part of, but we were what I call "MIH," missing in history. You know, the right of every Americans to be an American citizen because they're born here is because of Asian Americans.

Brown v. Board of Education was also based on another Supreme Court case that Asian Americans fought for, Chinese Americans in the 1880s. So, these things have been missing in history.

DR. LEE: Right, right.

MS. ZIA: And as long as they continue to be missing, these kind of things will continue to happen because this is part of white supremacy. The continued ignorance of people helps support white supremacy.

So, this stuff about Asian Americans, it's not just an Asian American thing. It really is an all-American thing, and if we really want to fight systemic racism and address white supremacy, everybody has to know these things and do something about it.

MS. LEE: So, I'm really glad you mentioned that, and I have no idea how we now only have a couple minutes because I feel like I have only been talking to you for a couple minutes, but in our final moments, I want to ask both of you about that, that which is allyship and bringing other communities into this conversation, working alongside other communities toward the same goal of just equality and justice.

Many of AAPIs have been thinking during this moment, how can we be good allies during this moment of racial reckoning, recognizing the pains that other communities are going through? But also, how do we assert ourselves and our pains during this moment and claim the seat at the conversation around race and racial justice?

For some reason, this is a struggle for our community, and part of it might be that feeling of invisibility, maybe the lack of knowing our history. I hate to ask you for succinct answers to this because we can talk about this forever, but, Erika and then Helen, can you speak to this in our final minutes?

DR. LEE: Absolutely. You know, the quick answer is that we've done this before. We've done this before. We have come together across ethnicity, across racial alliances, across faith, and one of the things that we have seen in the past four years is, I think, a greater commitment to ending racial discrimination, a greater commitment to allyship across so many [audio distortion] that typically divide us because we have seen how in the most brutal conditions, an attack on one of our communities is an attack on all of us.

So, I do find great frustration and anger and sadness today but also great hope knowing that from [audio distortion] we can, we can and we are building these bridges, but also that we're in a good place right now after four years of making those bridges even stronger.

MS. LEE: Helen, your final thought?

MS. ZIA: I would just like to wholeheartedly agree with everything Erika just said and for young Asian Americans or all Asian Americans to recognize that we have been deprived of our own history, and so at this time, when Asian Americans want to be part of this, they want to end the division that's been going on and really build towards something better to support Black Lives Matter or to talk about the attacks on the Asian American communities, we have to understand where we fit in. And I think that's where some of the insecurity for Asian Americans--you know, we have to define ourselves, and we have not done that, and society has--you know, it benefits society by not having us understand that, anybody.

So, we have nothing to be ashamed of. We have contributed to the progress and justice in America, and we have a lot more to do. So, the thing is to be visible about it, don't let this invisibility continue, and to recognize that what we're experiencing now and since time immemorial here, other communities have too, and to really understand how we fit in and not always in good ways in this framework that was built on the enslavement of people from Africa and the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Our experience was also part of that too, and so we have something to say, and we have a role to play. And it's not just an Asian America thing but all Americans who care about the future of this country and this world really should understand this history too.

MS. LEE: Well, I feel very inspired by what you both have just said and also having had this conversation with you about the history of our community.

We know that an entire generation of civil rights leaders, who have worked so hard for us to get to where we are, are now passing, and I know that many young generations are looking to them and trying to emulate them. And I think it's important to talk about this and talk about the history.

And, unfortunately, that's all the time we have. I wish I could talk to you for much longer, but I thank you so much, Erika Lee and Helen Zia, for speaking with me and joining us.

DR. LEE: Thank you.

MS. ZIA: Thank you.

MS. LEE: And thank you all for joining Washington Post Live.

Tomorrow at 12:30 p.m., tune in for my colleague Robin Givhan's conversation with fashion designer and philanthropist Diane von Furstenberg.

I am Michelle Ye Hee Lee, and thank you for joining Washington Post Live.

[End recorded session.]