As we approach the one-year mark of the coronavirus, America faces a new and just as dangerous virus. The indestructible virus of American racism and hatred has once again manifested itself in American society. This time, its target is Asian Americans through the proliferation of hate crimes and violence against this particular community. In a time of frustration and anger resulting from the coronavirus paired with America’s significant history of racist violence, the recent plight of Asian Americans is ultimately figuring out how to navigate the amplified hostility and discrimination they now face.
I use the word “amplified” because Asian Americans are no strangers to the racist and hatred tactics of American society. However, historically, when compared to other minority groups, the consensus is that Asian Americans “did not have it as bad,” which is why we do not often associate Asian Americans as victims of racism. This widely accepted view is wrong and is a result of the ignorance and denial of the long history of racism and discrimination that Asian Americans faced in America.
The roots of discrimination against Asian Americans date back to the 1850s when Chinese workers escaped economic and political turmoil in China and immigrated to California in hopes of profiting from the California Gold Rush. The influx of Chinese laborers intimidated American workers, who saw these new immigrants as competition in the labor market. This frustration catalyzed a new racist culture in society in which people degraded Chinese immigrants by perceiving them as dirty and unfit to live in America. The concept of the “yellow peril” and other stereotypes quickly gained momentum and created the foundation for one of the most ambitious and targeted demonstrations of hatred towards Asian Americans: the Chinese Exclusion Act. With the clear intent of keeping Chinese migrants out of America, this law, passed in 1882, blocked all Chinese immigration into the country. While other minority groups faced racism and discrimination once they arrived in the country, such as rising anti-Irish sentiments in the mid-1800s, this act was the most extreme manifestation of racism and nativism in American society and politics.
The treatment of Asian-Americans has historically been through clear-cut actions, motivated by hatred and fear of this minority group, such as Japanese Americans’ internment during World War II. Instead of using direct violent acts against Asian Americans, America used the law as its tool to propagate its racist ideals. This unique reaction is different from many other historical manifestations of racism, such as the Ku Klux Klan’s violent actions against African Americans. By using the law rather than actions, America trapped Asian Americans in a conflicting position. Compared to other minority groups, it created the illusion that Asian Americans did not experience the complete brute of racism and discrimination due to the lack of accounted violence against them. This growing ignorance and acceptance that Asian Americans were not victims of racism, like African Americans, ultimately diminished their historical racist treatment and experiences by America. The result of this belittlement of fifty years of historical racism is that no one decided to tackle these racist idealogies and feelings, allowing them to continue to foster and grow over the years until they finally exploded over 100 years later in today’s society.
Before this explosion came a time of growth and recovery, which created the illusion of a better time for Asian Americans. As America recovered from World War II and repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, life started to change for Asian Americans. Now, immigration was once again allowed, and sometimes even encouraged, from countries such as China and India. On the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, Asian Americans were now considered the “model minority” in America. This phenomenon proclaims that Asian Americans are the best minority group when compared to other groups such as African Americans because Asian Americans tend to be extremely hard-working, healthy, law-abiding, and educated people. While this new development in societal belief may seem like a good thing, it ultimately had a dangerous effect of fueling the growing hatred towards Asian Americans. The idea of the “model minority” was eventually used as justification to diminish the racist feelings towards Asian Americans. Even though they treated Asian Americans as dirty inferiors in the 19th century, American society turned to the “model minority” phenomenon as evidence to prove how well Asian Americans lived and prospered in America. They said that since Asian Americans are so successful in America, then clearly they cannot complain about their social status or fight for their civil rights.
As a result, while other minority groups feel empowered in America to speak up against injustices and wrongdoings against them, Asian Americans feel silenced. American society has diminished its treatment of Asian Americans and instead tells them that they should be grateful for the opportunities available to them as the “model minority” group.
The inability of American society to acknowledge their discriminatory treatment of Asian Americans has paved the way for the violence and hate crimes seen today. First, Americans were not happy with the presence of Chinese migrants because they perceived them as dirty-lowlifes who were labor competition. But, through the late 20th century and into the 21st century, the latest trend was that Americans did not like Asian Americans because of how well they prospered. Synonymous with the “model minority” concepts, Asian Americans through this time period became extremely successful, attending top universities and becoming high-earning and high-ranked professionals in all fields. Once again, many Americans were unhappy with the Asian Americans dominating the labor market. Now, in the 21st century, rather than it being blue-collar low-paying jobs like mining, people are upset over the fact that Asian Americans are competing for jobs in fields like engineering, medicine, and informational technology. The irony of how American society managed to dislike Asian Americans when they regard them as both inferior and superior, emphasizes that the hatred has nothing to do with the prospect of jobs or other excuses. Instead, it is merely the result of racist beliefs embedded deep in America’s core beliefs.
This growing discontent and anger at the Asian American population gave way to a new wave of subtle racism in the 21st century. In the workplace, Asian Americans face discrimination, just like other minority groups. The only difference is that society does not hear about it since these encounters do not get publicized as much as they would for another minority group. Similarly, in regards to college admissions to top schools like the Ivy Leagues, Harvard’s affirmative action case reveals that many Asian Americans characterize themselves as victims of subtle and systemic racism. The outcome of the case stated that Harvard did not discriminate, supporting the false but prevalent narrative that American society is not discriminatory towards Asian Americans.
However, today, we know that that is simply not true. Following the coronavirus, hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise. Cases like the 84-year-old San Francisco man who was murdered on his morning walk mirror many of the violent crimes that African Americans were once the victim of during the 20th century. The increasing occurrence of these incidents has encouraged the creation of groups such as STOP AAPI Hate, who are working to stop these blatantly racist attacks. It is evident that a short-term cause of this racist attitude is people’s frustration and anger over the coronavirus and the groundless accusations that all Asian Americans are responsible. This growing sentiment that painted Asian Americans as enemies who inspired the carnage and heartbreak associated with the coronavirus was fueled by President Trump’s constant remarks of the virus as the “China Virus.”
This anger demonstrated through the hate crimes today has been building since the time the first Chinese migrant came into the United States. Throughout our history, these racist feelings of hatred have been growing and growing but were repressed, until now. In a time of turmoil and uncertainty, Americans now need someone to blame. They need someone to direct all their anger towards. In this case, with so much repressed hatred towards Asian Americans already existing, they were the perfect people to blame. The feelings of racism and hatred, which have been fostering for so many years before, ultimately exploded in today’s society in the form of hate crimes. By operating under the guise of the coronavirus and using it as an excuse, American society is now, once again, manifesting its racist beliefs and feelings against Asian Americans.
The question now is whether or not Asian Americans will ever be able to recover from these extreme and publicized acts of racism and discrimination. Going forward, will they join other minority groups, specifically African Americans, in their quest and fight for racial justice? Or, will American society once again manage to diminish and subdue its racist actions against Asian Americans, leaving them powerless in their struggle to raise awareness and enact change? As the country recovers from the coronavirus, this new and more dangerous virus of racism and hatred poses a bigger threat to American equality and freedom. Ultimately, as a society, we must work just as hard to tackle and end this virus to secure a future where minorities in America feel welcome and safe.
Samica Goel is a high school senior, passionate about national politics and international relations. She plans to study economics and business in college and attend law school. In her spare time, Samica is an avid dancer and enjoys traveling.