In recent months, reports of anti-Asian attacks have left communities across the United States bereft. Already shaken by the economic and health-related effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Asian Americans have found themselves contending with the legacy of yellow peril and “perpetual foreigner” status as they face xenophobic violence. At the same time, the attacks have occasioned a remarkable rise in collective action to protect Asian American communities along with searching discussions on policing and justice.

The tenuous relationship between the Asian diaspora and inclusion has a long historical precedent, tracing through many generations and demographics included under the umbrella of Asian America. Asians have been “imported” to work on plantations and the transcontinental railroad, welcomed for “expertise in agriculture,” and invited as refugees — only to be excluded from owning land or becoming citizens, concentrated into enclaves and labor camps, and deported.

Post-1965 immigration policy has prioritized state-defined skilled immigrants and those with advanced degrees, leading to an influx of Asian immigrants into the professional classes. Yet Asian American income distribution is the “most unequal among America’s major racial and ethnic groups” — reflecting a stark contrast between the Asian American upper class and the poor and working class, not to mention the one out of seven Asian Americans who are estimated to be undocumented and may be hesitant to fill out surveys. On top of the economic and cultural divides of an identity that spans a continent, Asian Americans of all backgrounds remain underrepresented in politics and the media.

So while Asian labor, culture, and products are welcomed into the United States, the surge of xenophobia and anti-Asian attacks is a reminder that this welcome has limits. As Laila Lalami writes, “Conditional citizens are people who know what it is like for a country to embrace you with one arm, and push you away with the other.” Or, as the actor John Cho has said, Asian Americans have been reminded again that their “belonging is conditional.”

Terms like “China Virus” and the “Kung Flu” gained currency as many Americans honed in on a scapegoat for Covid-19. Hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have reportedly risen by 150% in 2020 compared to the year before, and Stop AAPI Hate recorded over 2,800 incidents of racism between March and December 2020. Accounts of Covid-related verbal and physical attacks have been widely reported on in the media and throughout communities.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

People walk through the streets of Flushing, Queens on March 04, 2021. Flushing has experienced an uptick of attacks that police are calling anti-Asian hate crimes. After a man was stabbed last Thursday in Chinatown, hundreds gathered over the weekend to protest the spate of recent attacks.

More attacks have been garnering attention among communities and in the media this past month. Coinciding with Lunar New Year, there have been dozens of attacks, some fatal, on Asian American elders in San Francisco, Oakland, New York City, and beyond. A statement from Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) described this violent time as “a boiling point” after “a painful year of simmering anti-Chinese rhetoric, xenophobia, right-wing extremism.” CCED connected these incidents to the prevailing violence of gentrification and policing, identifying them as “systems that endanger our loved ones, that tell the world their lives and dignity aren’t worth protecting.”

Many high-profile celebrities have spoken out against the violence, including actors Daniel Wu and Daniel Dae Kim, who offered $25,000 for information on the suspects of Bay Area attacks. This move has been criticized by others who oppose a persecution-centered approach and advocate for an anti-policing solution: “I’m hurting, and I want justice, too — but not from a white supremacist policing system that disproportionately targets and kills Black Americans.” writes Melissa Pandika for Mic. Jay Caspian Kang, writing on reactionary discourse surrounding the attacks, has expressed concern that “the climate of fear and the unsaid conversations could lead to vigilantism or a false accusation against a Black defendant.”

Asian Americans are targets for the police as well, suffering from police brutality, racial profiling, and deportation. Asian Americans For Equality wrote in a recent statement that “community-centered programs and mental health services as more effective and humane alternatives to law enforcement interventions for overcoming fear, harm, and structural barriers to creating safe, inclusive, and healthy communities,” highlighting the need for solidarity between Asian and Black Americans in the face of a shared struggle at the hands of the police.

Many community-based solutions have been brought up in order to protect Asian Americans. The Oakland Chinatown Commission is recruiting foot patrollers to join their Chinatown Ambassador Program and Compassion in Oakland pairs vulnerable citizens with volunteer chaperones. Similar initiatives exist in San Francisco (SF Peace Collective) and New York City (Chinatown Block Watch).

Grassroots initiatives have also been established to share material resources in the Asian American community. CCED has compiled a directory of Asian-owned businesses in LA’s Chinatown, The #EnoughIsEnough campaign raises money for donations to underserved New York City shelters, and Asians 4 Abolition has organized restocks for community fridges. The Asian American Resource Workshop has compiled a list of resources that includes mutual aid networks, workers’ rights information, disability justice, and more in the greater Boston area.

Cathy Park Hong wrote, “The most damaging legacy of the West has been its power to decide who our enemies are, turning us not only against our own people... but turning me against myself.” Indeed, American ideology has pinned the blame of Covid-19’s deadliness on the foreign and unfamiliar, and Asian Americans are paying the price. With the response of community-based action, and the critical discussion on abolition, however, there is hope that Asian Americans can work to heal and build a more equitable society.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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