Appalling surge of anti-Asian violence—with historic roots

If ferocity against law-abiding citizens doesn’t quality as anti-American terrorism, the term needs rethinking.

Image Credit: Ringo Chiu/Getty Images

All without one historic act of vengeance on whites.

More predictable acts of copycat violence have struck Asians minding their own business: the latest an 85 year old, San Francisco woman stabbed while waiting for a bus. With no end in sight, dozens of brutal attacks, from New York and Atlanta to the Bay Area, spread the Trump contagion, demonizing the Chinese for solely causing the “Kung Flu.” What other notable dumped such noxious propaganda on gullible fans lusting for vulnerable scapegoats? Yet even manipulated Trumpers who assaulted the Capitol had more justification, symbolic and literal. At least January’s insurrection tried to impede a Congressional vote Trumpers couldn’t abide. What does knifing elderly Asians have to do with China or the COVID plague?

Across western history, and especially against Chinese, such misdirected hate crimes replay serial reigns of terror. Violence erupted a year after the Gold Rush began when newly-arrived white miners harassed, robbed and murdered Chinese newcomers, ever forced to work discarded digs. There were no legitimate courts, and the Sierra far too vast, for indictment, let alone punishment of unrecorded crimes. Racist attacks persisted for over a century — until 60 years of federal exclusion, a multitude of educational, housing and employment discrimination, and travel/immigration barriers finally fell away.

In genocidal terms, by guns, germs or territorial conquest, native populations, residents here for over 10,000 years, were the first, conspicuous targets of Anglo-Saxon domination. Alongside Indian extermination came centuries of chattel slavery, which not only imprisoned kidnapped Africans but exploited offspring in a never-ending cycle, stopped only by civil war. Hardly innocent were other New World conquerors (from Spanish conquest onward) who routinely indentured overwhelmed locals given no choice. The collective, premature death toll remains beyond reckoning.

If we judge by official racist policies, WWII Japanese internment stands as the worst (least justified) U.S. violation of citizen rights. 120,000 loyal Japanese Americans were rounded up, incarcerated and stripped of wealth (despite thousands of their soldier sons battling Japan). Beside this tragic racial legacy, in duration, range, and intensity, Chinese and Asian immigrants have overcome unique burdens, pommeled by racism and injury, even physical expulsion of peaceable residents by mobs – simply for being or looking Chinese. Despite perennial Chinatown gangs, my research, while writing a book on an extraordinary Chinese-American, Look Tin Eli, found no examples of any counter-vengeance by Asians against whites.

Because they looked, ate and worshiped differently from Anglos, and the situation worsened by the severe 1870’s depression, opportunistic politicians and labor rabble-rousers played the outsider race card to the hilt. Chinese immigrants were vilified as barbarians, a “Yellow Peril” unfit for assimilation and thus naturalization. Even before the 1882 enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first U.S. immigration ban by race and nationality, nativist governments in San Francisco and California’s statehouse plagued the Chinese with unjust laws on work, hair style and living conditions. Exclusion laws, worsened over time, had culture-crushing impacts, only ending in 1943 when FDR desperately needed China’s military alliance to defeat Japan.

The ‘peril’ that built the first railroad

And yet in the 1860s, 12,000+ Chinese workers were imported to build our most important 19th century infrastructure, the Transcontinental Railroad. Decades of poverty, famines, floods and civil disorder had driven worldwide Chinese emigration—and the four railroad tycoons resolved their labor shortage by hiring Chinese at 2/3’s the white labor wage. Untrained Chinese farmers mastered dynamite, blasting tunnels through Sierra granite and losing 1000 lives.

Afterwards, survivors cleared swamps, built canals, ditches and infrastructure that hugely enhanced the West. Despite such positives, mobs of white workers assaulted Chinese and burned out homes, blaming them for “stealing” jobs whites often shunned. And yet, unswerving Chinese bachelors in the thousands (few married, with Asian women barred) kept sending money to poorer families in China.

Thus Trump’s flood of cruel bad jokes about the “Kung Flu” displaced one potent viral pandemic (blatantly mismanaged) with an eventual, predictable violence pandemic against Asians. Fury against domestic Chinese for spreading diseases replays the racist distortion linking Asians with disease, contagion and filth. Ironically, until Trump blustered to distract from his failures, the Chinese had graduated from “barbarians” to the “model minority.” Who doubts the causal linkage between Trump’s racist cudgels and surging anti-Asian violence today?

The violence of scapegoating

Treatment of the Chinese typified a circular, self-fulfilling prophesy: biased nativists set up endless obstacles to assimilation, fixing a minority as perpetually “foreign,” thus reinforcing the original bigotry. Even birthright citizenship in California was not awarded native-born Chinese until an 1884 breakthrough; it took another 14 years before the Supreme Court confirmed the crystal clear language of the 1868 14th Amendment: all native born have full citizenship rights.

Much of this was new to me until last year when I wrote a manuscript on California-born Look Tin Eli. It was his return to San Francisco from China at 14 years-old that triggered the 1884 CA precedent. Look then became a top business leader, orchestrating the restoration of San Francisco’s Chinatown, which then influenced dozens of imitations. Bottom line: the unholy history of how we treated (and treat) Asian immigrants puts the lie to any rhetoric about America as a welcoming, special “melting pot”—let alone, a nation of integrated immigrants.

All in all, Trump’s China bashing is as crudely offensive as it is routine over some 150 years, inflaming today’s know-nothings to misperceive newcomers as noxious enemies when of course they are what make America great. There’s always the chance that appalling violence against Asian grandmas will awaken, as does Black Lives Matter and police brutality, the infamy of senseless racial profiling or assaults on innocents who “look Chinese.” If ferocity against law-abiding citizens doesn’t quality as anti-American terrorism, the term needs rethinking. First step, elect more enlightened politicians who know something about history, tolerance and the unity of human nature.


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.