Violence against Asian Americans is Part of a Troubling PatternRoundup
tags: racism, violence, Asian American History
Stephanie Hinnershitz is a historian who currently serves as a research advisor for Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Her views do not represent those of her employer.
Across the country, a spate of brutal attacks have targeted Asian Americans. Bawi Cung, narrowly avoided death in a Texas Sam’s Club after a man stabbed him and his two children last March, and 61-year-old Noel Quintana, a Filipino American, survived multiple wounds from a man wielding a box cutter in New York City last month.
Asian Americans activists have called attention to the fact that these are not isolated incidents. Amanda Nguyen recently posted on Instagram a brief, powerful video linking Asian American victims of violence after the mainstream media failed to do so. Bay Area anti-racist organizer Kim Tran explained that “a common sense of racial scapegoating” characterizes these attacks, prompting community groups to take the lead in developing safety programs that are not dependent upon increased policing. By showing how such violence is part of a pattern, activists show that Asian Americans are in danger and in need of recognition, legislation and assistance in challenging racism and discrimination. This is something Asian Americans have always taken the lead on, in the absence of federal attention to the problem.
In the second half of the 19th century, Chinese migrants fled political and social unrest at home and sought employment in the U.S. From mining in the West to planting and harvesting sugar cane and cotton in the South on former plantations, Chinese workers met the labor needs of an expanding nation after the Civil War. The Burlingame Treaty, an 1868 trade agreement with China, guaranteed formal protections of Chinese migrants by the United States. But it wasn’t long before a White supremacist movement against the Chinese took root, seeking to expel and exclude Chinese laborers.
At the national level, politicians argued about the place of Chinese immigrants in the country. Democrats charged that Chinese immigrants posed a dire threat to the White, American working man, and thought the Republican Party was so devoted to maintaining diplomatic ties with China that it overlooked these threats. Republicans, in turn, argued that the Democrats and their virulent West Coast constituents inflamed racial tensions by passing anti-Chinese state and local laws that made it nearly impossible for the federal government to maintain trade relations with China.
In 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled that Chinese, along with Native Americans and African Americans, could not testify in court against Whites as the Chinese were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior.” The Court’s decision didn’t legalize attacks on Chinese people. But it did galvanize vigilantes to enforce city codes that unfairly taxed Chinese businesses in San Francisco. It also inspired community-drafted “public enemy lists” in Rancho Chico that forbade White lawyers from defending Chinese clients, families from hiring Chinese servants and anyone from teaching Chinese migrants to read or write English.
In 1871, Los Angeles police sanctioned an anti-Chinese mob to terrorize the city’s Chinatown, resulting in the lynching of 18 Chinese men. The next year, a group of Chinese merchants attempted to sue the city in a civil case for their loss of over $7,000 in property damages. Their suit failed, but they created a historical record and model that others would use to document incidents of violence.
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