Up until the start of the Coronavirus outbreak, the predominant stereotype surrounding Asian Americans was that of the model minority. This narrative emerged after World War II as the economic success of many Asian Americans led them to be viewed as the “ideal immigrant of color”. This being said, there is a long history in the United States of exclusionary white-only immigration policies as racist stereotypes of Asians as unclean and uncivilized were promulgated. These xenophobic ideas have had both legislative and cultural consequences throughout history and have been exacerbated in the past year due to Coronavirus.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion act became the first and only piece of major legislation to suspend immigration explicitly on the basis of ethnicity, baning both skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers from entering the country. Amendments to the act went further to prevent Chinese immigrants who had left the country from returning. According to U.S. Census data, in 1880 there were 105,465 Chinese people living in the U.S.; by 1920, that number had dropped to 61,649. Following the removal of the Chinese exclusion act, the Angel Island Immigration Station was established in San Francisco Bay, a facility in which Chinese immigrants would be detained for up to several years while the government decided on whether or not to admit them.
The U.S. government’s history with anti-Asian policies is not just limited to Chinese people. As the Chinese Exclusion Act cut off North American employers’ access to cheap labor, they turned to India. Offering wages of $2 a day for strong men, huge numbers of Indian Men entered the American workforce. Although they are now subjected to the model minority stereotype, this was not always the case. When they first started immigrating into the United States, white nationalists warned of the so-called “tide of turbans.” Indian immigrants were not able to get citizenship, as decided in a Supreme Court case in 1923, when the citizenship of a WWI vet Bhagat Singh Thind was revoked because, as one lawyer argued, he would not be considered white by “the common man.” Attitudes towards Indian Americans began to change during the Second World War when certain discriminatory policies against people from Asian countries were removed to counter Axis propaganda, which was targeted at the United State’s deep history of racism. In 1943, naturalization rights were granted to Chinese immigrants, and in 1946 they were extended to include immigrants from India and the Philippines. Japanese Americans were the exception to these rollbacks; they were treated with suspicion after the attack on Pearl Harbor and were eventually detained in internment camps.
Racism against Asian Americans is also pervasive in American culture. From yellow faced and stereotyped Asian characters in Hollywood to the appropriation of traditional clothing for fashion trends, xenophobia is rife in the communities we live in. This racism is not often recognized in the same regard as discrimination against other racial groups. This is due in large part to the model minority myth: a stereotype of rigid, two-parented, and educationally driven Asian-American families that were able to overcome racism through their own hard work. First perpetuated widely after the Japanese internment camps in WWII, the model minority myth has been used as a tactic to both shame other racial groups for not attaining that ideal and to minimize the role of systemic racism in these inequities, while also pitting minority groups against each other. This ideal also groups together an estimated 22.6 million people under one assumption of supposed beliefs, family structure, and income. Although Asian Americans are on average more likely to fall above the average income, there are vast disparities between these groups; in 2017, groups such as Hmong, Bhutanese, and Burmese fell far below the average poverty line. It also serves to create generalizations about the beliefs and religious affiliations of Asian Americans, who represent hundreds of different ethnic groups and practice hundreds of religions.
Despite the model minority stereotype, Asian Americans have seen an explosion in hate crimes and targeted attacks since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Within two weeks of its launch last March, the Stop AAPI Hate Tracker had received over 700 reports. By February of this year, that number had risen to 3,795 reports, with incidents including being spit on at the grocery store, screamed at while jogging, and being called slurs while waiting in line. There were also many attacks which included physical violence. One such attack occurred last February when a 16-year-old in Los Angeles was beaten by a classmate who blamed the boy for the first COVID positive in the city. These sentiments were encouraged by our former president’s remarks about the origins of this virus; repeatedly deeming it the “Kung Flu” or “Chinavirus”, and blaming its spread on the Chinese government.
As a result of this and other racist rhetoric regarding the origins of the pandemic, many Asian-American communities – even those that are not Chinese – have been lumped together in recent xenophobic attacks. An Asian-run preschool in California was smeared with feces on the Lunar New Year. This past July, two men set an 89-year-old woman on fire near her home in New York City.
Last week, we saw yet another xenophobic attack in Georgia, where 8 people were shot: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ai Yue, Delaina Ashley Yuan, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng (6 of them Asian women). Although the shooter claims he was “not racially motivated” and was instead driven by a “sexual addiction,” his explanation for firing on 3 Atlanta spas and the Asian woman who worked there was that there was “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” This justification speaks to a larger culture of fetishization and stereotyping of Asian women, particularly those who are Korean. This attack serves to demonstrate the ways in which sexism and xenophobia can intersect.
Rather than glossing over the racist motives of the shooter by stating he had “a really bad day,” or failing to charge men who lit an 89-year-old woman on fire with a hate crime, our government needs to do a better job of protecting Asian Americans. Government officials need to ensure that perpetrators are being held accountable for their actions, whether in civil life or in the courtroom.