Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press



In response to escalating xenophobia and bigotry against Asian Americans at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center was formed on March 19, 2020 to track and respond to incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning, and child bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A year later, the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, violence, and hate crimes has not relented; as of February 28, 2021, Stop AAPI Hate has reported nearly 3,800 incidents against Asian Americans, 500 of which have occurred in 2021 alone. The recent shootings in Atlanta, which killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, further ignited outrage and sparked rallies across the country condemning the attacks and calling for an end to anti-Asian violence.

Cambridge editors Rachel Blaifeder (RB), Cecelia Cancellaro (CC), and Matt Gallaway (MG) spoke to several of our authors and editors about anti-Asian racism and violence.

(RB and CC): We spoke to sociologist Ching Kwan Lee and historians Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang, Sidney Xu Lu, and Naoko Wake about the long history of racism against Asian-Americans in the US and asked them to offer their insights as scholars with interests in sociology, ethnography, migration, gender, race, and history.

(RB) Ching Kwan Lee: “The recent wave of racially motivated hate crimes against Asians has many sources, one of which is the American political elite. Donald Trump, calling COVID-19 the Chinese virus, is not the only President fanning the racist rhetoric of cultural demonization by conflating ‘the Chinese government’ with the ‘Chinese’ people, and policy failure with cultural trait. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan blamed the Japanese for the collapse of the US auto-industry, fanning anti-Japanese hatred and indirectly causing the tragic death of at least one Asian American, Vincent Chin. Further back in history, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order in 1942 after the Pearl Harbour attack to incarcerate tens of thousands of Japanese Americans under suspicion as enemies to inland internment camps, separating families and destroying lives.” (Lee is editor of the Cambridge Elements in Global China series).

Cover of "The Great Exodus from China" by Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang

(RB) Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang: “It’s been more than seventy years since the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States. Yet racist and xenophobic attitude still persist at the grassroots. The recent rise in the random attacks against Asians since the COVID-19 outbreak, and perhaps since Trump’s trade war with China, are a clear indication of this ugly and disheartening reality. There’s a conflation of all Chinese with the dictatorial regime in Beijing or worse still, a conflation of all Asian Americans or Asian foreign nationals with the same regime. Today, our immigration policy, based supposedly on merit and humanitarianism, remains racist, exclusionary, and governed by the lingering specter of settler colonialism and white supremacy. How much do we really understand the people that we welcome as new members of our society? Not much, I would argue. Ignorance begets fear and suspicion which then foster prejudice and racism. Many of the recent Chinese immigrants are actually America’s staunchest allies in the fight against dictatorship and neocolonialism. They are not ‘the enemies within,’ if we would also spend the time and effort to understand their diverse histories and origins instead of just preaching to them our precious ‘American values’.” (Yang is the author of The Great Exodus from China: Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Modern Taiwan).

Cover of "The Marking of Japanese Settler Colonialism" by Sidney Xu Lu

(RB) Sidney Xu Lu: “It is perhaps common to recognize that anti-Asian violence and hate crimes in the United States today are not new phenomena brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, they have been common in the long history of racism against Asian immigrants in the country that involve discrimination, exclusion, criminalization, and scapegoating, among others. However, my book, The Making of Japanese Settler Colonialism: Malthusianism and Trans-Pacific Migration, 1868-1961, argues anti-Asian racism in the United State should not be merely understood as a domestic problem. Instead, it should also be seen as a social injustice that has international and global consequences. Racism against Asian immigrants in the U.S. not only stimulated the Japanese empire to expand in Asia and Latin America, but also enabled imperial Japan to justify its own colonial expansion as liberation for people of color from the tyranny of white supremacy.”

Cover of "American Survivors" by Naoko Wake

(CC) Naoko Wake, author of the forthcoming American Survivors: Transpacific Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has spent years studying US survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. One survivor, Tadachi Kohara, a Japanese American survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing in 1945, who was born in San Fernando, California in 1929 and returned to America from Japan in 1950, recalls being struck by a revelation in the early 1950s: “White people believed that we survivors had a bad disease.” Worse yet, the disease was deemed contagious, something that Kohara believed was evidenced by a peculiar way in which white people acted: “On a bus, they escaped from a seat next to a Japanese.”

During this pandemic year, Wake has thought of Japanese American and Korean American survivors in a new light, as the longstanding exclusion of Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans (APIDA) from U.S. society has been shaping so much of what the APIDA community experiences. “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” have become American lingo. The recent killing of eight women, including six Asian women in the Atlanta area, has only exacerbated the APIDA community’s fear, anger and isolation. She has expressed these ideas eloquently in her recent op-ed in The Hill.

(MG): I asked law professors Nancy Kim and Felix Chang if there’s anything we should highlight about violence against Asian-Americans from a legal standpoint, specifically what the law does (or should do) to address the problem, and how we should think about the law as a tool (or impediment) in this context.  

Cover of "Consentability" by Nancy S. Kim

Nancy Kim: What can the law do to address the violence against Asian Americans? The murders in Atlanta, the random attacks on the elderly, the numerous times in the past few months that an Asian American has been called derogatory names, spat upon, kicked—many of these acts are already classified as crimes. But there is something unique about them, other than the race of the victims. They are all acts that degrade.  The police have had a hard time categorizing many of the reported acts as “hate crimes,” because the evidence of racial animus—although felt and known by Asians as race-based hate—does not fit what the law requires. The law requires that acts by the aggressors fit into certain categories; it does not consider how those acts harm the human dignity of the victims. Instead, our legal system uses consent as a way to protect and preserve human dignity. But consent is the language of autonomy, of individualism, and so does a poor job of protecting human dignity in many cases.  Much has been made of what makes Asians in America different, how we are comprised of many different cultures and languages and regions, how we are not a monolith. However Asian cultures do share some similarities. Respect for elders is one. The desire to provide for one’s family is another. Preserving one’s reputation or “saving face” is a third. The recent attacks against Asians are not just heinous physical attacks — they are attacks on what Asian cultures value most. When a gunman explains that he killed because he has a sexual addiction, he has not only murdered his victims, he has reduced them to symbols of his desire, harmed their reputations, and poisoned their families’ memories.  When someone pushes an older man or woman, they not only cause bruises and broken bones, they are also showing disrespect for the elderly, disdain for the victim’s revered family status. These are attacks not just against the person of the victims, but against their dignity. The law punishes acts of physical violence, but it doesn’t yet have a way to punish acts that leave lasting marks on one’s soul. Laws to combat hate against Asians must also treat the cause. As the pandemic has made clear, our lives are intertwined.  We need to increase funding for education to reduce ignorance and for social services to address homelessness and mental illness. If we are to consider ourselves to be a civilized society, we need laws that recognize, protect and preserve human dignity. (Kim is the author of Consentability: Consent and Its Limits.)

Cover of Roma Rights and Civil Rights

Felix Chang: Socioeconomic factors often push Asian Americans to interact with black and brown communities in close quarters and highly charged situations. Think, for instance, of convenience stores, green grocers, and ethnic beauty suppliers run by Asian Americans. The law and legal institutions mediate those interactions, frequently driving these groups apart rather than fostering interracial solidarities. If our communities view interracial and interethnic relations as zero-sum, white supremacy stands to gain. (Chang is the co-author, with Sunnie T. Rucker-Chang, of Roma Rights and Civil Rights: A Transatlantic Comparison.) 

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Cambridge Now is a series of blog posts exploring connections between scholarly research and ongoing calls for social justice.

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