Culture & Society

Though Attacks On The Rise, Anti-Asian Violence Predates COVID-19

Professors from the College of Liberal Arts explain the history of anti-Asian racism in the United States dating back to the 19th century.
By Mia Mercer '23, Texas A&M University College of Liberal Arts May 3, 2021

a group of people protest outside, holding american flags and signs tht say "stop asian hate"
People participate in a protest to demand an end to anti-Asian violence on April 4, 2021 in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, anti-Asian hate crimes have increased 149 percent in American cities since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. Xenophobic attacks became a regular part of the news cycle after nine people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed by a gunman in an Atlanta massage parlor in March.

Although COVID-19 caused an increased number of attacks on Asian and Asian-American communities, anti-Asian violence and exclusion is a problem that dates back to the 19th century. The first race-based exclusion law in the U.S. was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years.

“It excluded Chinese skilled and unskilled labor as well as those working in mining industries. It also affected Chinese people who were already in the United States by restricting their re-entry into the U.S. So if they left, they were not allowed entry back in after the 1882 act was passed,” said Department of English associate professor Vanita Reddy, who is also chair of the department’s diversity committee. “It also denied Asian immigrants U.S. citizenship.”

While the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act reinforced American xenophobia, the effects of the  1875 Page Act continue to be seen today in crimes against Asian women, such as the Atlanta shooting.

“The Page Act actually prohibited the migration of all Chinese women to the U.S.,” Reddy said. “So even before the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, there was the Page Act, which specifically excluded immigrant women from China who were at the time labeled as lewd and immoral based on the assumption that all Chinese women were engaged in sex work or were prostitutes. In fact, the Page Act even uses the discourse of prostitution as a justification for excluding Chinese women entry into the U.S. So when the Georgia shooter confessed to having a ‘sex addiction,’ we must see this as linked to the way in which Asian women have been constructed as historically sexually available to white men even as they are rendered racially and sexually pathological.”

Race in America explains that “yellow peril” is the fear of Asians disrupting Western ideals and society, and though it dates back to the 19th century, this fear is still circulating today.

“Generally speaking, xenophobia tends to be aggravated in moments of national crisis,” said associate sociology professor Kazuko Suzuki . “We should never forget that the U.S. has a long-standing ideology of facing a ‘yellow peril.’ While it could be dormant during peaceful times, it can easily resurface whenever the country encounters national crises.”

As more anti-Asian crimes are reported, Reddy and Suzuki suggested recognizing the history of anti-Asian violence in America is an important step towards change.

“We cannot separate the anti-Asian violence happening now from its long history within the U.S. The passing of the first race-based exclusion law in the U.S. beginning in the 19th century contributed to this stereotype of Asian immigrants as being ‘perpetual aliens,'” Reddy said. “There is this ‘perpetual alien’ racialization that’s very particular to Asian Americans in this country, that they’ve never been seen as ‘real Americans.’ This can explain in part the rise in anti-Asian violence in the U.S. since Asian Americans are seen as always foreign.”

Although some argue the U.S. has come to terms with its long history of Asian and Asian-American discrimination since the 1875 Page Act and the 1882 Chinse Exclusion Act, both sources say that Asian and Asian-American violence and racism are still fueled by the jargon used by politicians and the media. For example, since the start of the pandemic, former President Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus as “The China Virus” and the “Kung Flu,” fueling anti-Asian sentiment throughout the country.

“As the number of COVID-19 cases increases, many Chinese people are being shunned and blamed for spreading this potentially deadly disease, which originated in Wuhan, China,” Suzuki said. “The New York Times also found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of race-based hate. In the U.S., where Asians are frequently aggregated under one umbrella without making clear ethnic distinctions among them, it is almost unavoidable that anti-China or anti-Chinese sentiments develop into anti-Asian sentiment.”

According to Reddy, anti-Asian violence is also intertwined historically with other types of racialized violence, which is why the Atlanta spa shooting provides an opportunity to think about movements like Black Lives Matter in relation to addressing anti-Asian violence as well.

“It’s important not to put too much pressure on our Asian and Asian-American colleagues to talk about something that they may or may not want to talk about. Listen to what they need, and center their pain,” Reddy said. “Don’t mispronounce their names or ask them to Anglicize their names for the sake of your convenience. Benevolent racism is just as much a problem, so commenting on or imputing value around peoples’ accents or ability to speak English is not a compliment; it’s racism.”

In addition to offering advice for us as individuals, Reddy also offered advice for the university and Aggie community at large.

“There are everyday ways we can work toward having a more robust Asian and Asian American racial consciousness on this campus. We really need to be careful of not using one label to talk about everyone,” Reddy said. “We need to disaggregate and understand the differences that exist within that category. So from an institutional standpoint, we need to understand that the category ‘Asian’ is constituted by multiple identities and circumstances. That’s important because those of us who are Asian or Asian American may not have the same kinds of access to resources or encounters with anti-Asian racism as some of our colleagues, since Asian Americans are stratified by class, nationality and citizenship status, among other categories of differences.”

Both professors also pointed out the importance of dismantling the “model minority myth” about Asians and Asian Americans, in which they are viewed as high-income earners and achievers. They also suggest that because there is a great deal of cultural, linguistic and religious differences among people of Asian descent, universities should implement a curriculum dedicated to Asian American studies in order to learn about each without dehumanizing, demonizing or pathologizing others.

“While it may take longer, I’d like to believe in the power of education,” Suzuki said. “Hate crimes often arise out of perceived threats and stereotypes. We have to cultivate a spirit of tolerance and valorization of diversity. A lack of education and lack of true appreciation of diversity in certain institutions are problematic, and this certainly needs to be addressed.”

This article by Mia Mercer originally appeared on the College of Liberal Arts website.

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