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The tangled roots of the alarming rise in bigotry again...

Maverick Citizen


The tangled roots of the alarming rise in bigotry against Asian-Americans

Vilma Kari was on her way to church when a man yelled, 'You don’t belong here' and kicked her in the chest. (Photo: Supplied)

There has been an alarming upswing in anti-Asian-American violence in the US. Its tangled roots can be attributed to numerous factors, including the rise of white nationalism, anxiety over the rise of China and the historical attitude of the state.

One recent Sunday morning in New York City, a 65-year-old Filipina immigrant, Vilma Kari, was on her way to church when a man yelled, “You don’t belong here” and kicked her in the chest. With her lying on the ground, he then stomped on her repeatedly. Surveillance cameras inside a nearby building captured the attack, while also showing that two doormen standing inside the lobby simply closed the doors and ignored the incident. They were subsequently fired.

The pattern of this and other attacks reveals a troubling dynamic at work in the world’s largest multiracial experiment in democracy: many view Asians as intrinsically foreign.

Former president Donald Trump relentlessly exploited this strain of bigotry. While generally downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic, he repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as the “ Chinese virus”. 

On 18 March 2020 he said “it’s not racist at all” to refer to Covid as the Chinese flu, “because it comes from China… I want to be accurate”. By 22 June, he was calling the virus “Kung flu” and again denied the term was racist. 

Trump also encouraged speculation that the virus was created in a Chinese laboratory (the view that Covid is a form of Chinese bioweapon has become a staple of conspiracy theorists).

These were ham-fisted attempts to divert responsibility from the administration’s lackadaisical response to the pandemic. That they worked, or almost worked, points to the effectiveness of right-wing media in deflecting criticism of Trump. But both Trump and the likes of Fox News and OAN merely built on the deep roots of anti-Asian sentiments in the US.

Throughout the 19th century, immigration to the US was largely unregulated. European immigrants to the US simply got off a boat and began to work – in some states, immigrants could also vote right away. However, a 1790 federal law mandated that only white immigrants could become citizens – something that provided the basis for state laws that blocked Asian immigrants from voting or even owning property.

California was an early leader in anti-Chinese sentiment. From the 1840s onwards, thousands of Chinese immigrants found work in mining and on the railroads. An 1862 federal law allowed California to levy taxes on Chinese in order to discourage employers from hiring them.

A central slogan of the state’s 1877 Workingmen’s Party was, “The Chinese must go!” 

Federal legislation barred immigration by Chinese women (1875) and banned all Chinese immigrants (1882). The laws succeeded in cutting Chinese immigration by three quarters until the 1960s, when immigration law took on its current shape.

Japanese immigrants were exempted from these laws, in large part because Japan was a stronger nation and put diplomatic pressure on the US to accept its citizens. But by 1907, the US prevailed upon Japan to agree to strict limits on unskilled workers. Throughout the early 20th century, many Japanese workers had bought land and developed businesses. Of course, this did not protect them from mass incarceration in 1942. 

People were given days to sell property, and many of the administrators of president Theodore Roosevelt’s executive order got rich from buying land, homes and businesses for 10 cents on the dollar. (President Ronald Reagan later apologised for the events and a few million dollars were handed out as symbolic reparations).

The current round of anti-Asian violence is multiracial. The NYC attacker was black. Other attackers have been white and Hispanic. A curious feature of white racism (in the US, more politely termed “nationalism”) has been its ability to recruit “aspirant whites” who understand that white is shorthand for power and privilege, not biology. 

After all, Trump did increase his proportion of black voters (to 8%, from about 6% in 2016). Hispanic voters swung more to Trump (he won 36% of them in 2020, 4% more than he won in 2016). Trump also did somewhat better among some Asian-Americans, especially those with roots in Vietnam. President Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, observed that many use Trump as an excuse to embrace the worst aspects of themselves, which is a shrewd insight into her uncle’s fans.

In the main, the clearly partisan aspect of anti-Asian rhetoric has increased Asian-Americans’ identification with the Democratic Party. To a surprising degree, that party is increasingly becoming the party of minorities and anti-racist whites, while the Republicans embrace their “populist” identity. 

We would argue that the US is at an inflection point: the furious nature of the fight against multiracial democracy is because of its strength at both the cultural and political levels.

On 17 March 2020, Xiao Zhen Xie was brutally attacked by a homeless man on the streets of San Francisco. She fought back, sending the man to hospital. A GoFundMe page raised more than a million dollars for her medical treatment (she had black eyes and was traumatised). Stunned by the community’s response, she donated all the money to organisations combating bigotry against Asians.

Donald Trump’s trade tensions with China, and the perceived threat its technological prowess pose, has had a negative effect on how conservatives view Asian-Americans. Roosevelt signed the famous February 1942 executive order 9066 which authorised the internment of people of Japanese ancestry. That order proved popular with many Americans, but is now widely regarded as an act of racism and a failure.

There is a long history of bigotry against Asians in the US, which Trump and his followers draw upon. What is new is that there are more Asian-Americans, with more allies, in today’s society. DM

John Hinshaw is a professor of History, Politics and Global Affairs at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Dr David Monyae directs the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.


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  • The trend towards increased hispanic/latino support for Trumpism is reflected in the misguided aspiration of the Cruz,Rubio,Haley variety wanting to be ‘white’..not unlike the efforts in SA for the the EFF to single out Asians(especially the Indian variety) as the enemy! Trump/Malema- soulmates!

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