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A Year of Tragedy

What’s driving the violence against Asian Americans?

Illustration by Mahina Martinson

By Tsiwen Law

AFEW WEEKS AGO, A YOUNG MAN WAS CAPTURED ON VIDEO knocking down three elderly Asians in Oakland, California’s Chinatown. Those attacks came on the heels of an 84-year-old Thai gentleman getting knocked down and killed during his daily walk in San Francisco, and a Filipino elder being slashed in the face while on a New York City Subway. In its statement about Anti-Asian violence, the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs announced;

“Unfortunately, even here in Philadelphia, there have been verbal and physical attacks, as well as other displays of racism, directed at Asian Americans. In 2020, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR) received 28 reports of acts of hate against members of the AAPI community — 19 were confirmed as incidents of hate or bias, representing 34 percent of the 56 total hate or bias incidents confirmed by the agency.”

Even after past President Donald Trump, with his repeated references to the “China virus,” has left office, the stigma of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners remains. Two erroneous assumptions flow from being stereotyped as “perpetual foreigners.” First, that we are not entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution or federal civil rights laws, and second, that we are responsible for the acts or omissions of Asian countries to which our ethnicity is assigned.

The first assumption is unfounded, and Asians have had to serve time behind bars to vindicate those rights. As the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), all persons are protected by the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Whether Asian Americans are citizens or not, we are persons entitled to constitutional protections. In U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), the Supreme Court recognized that persons of Chinese descent born in the U.S. acquired citizenship under the birthright citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment.

The second assumption derives from the discredited stereotype that we are citizens of Asian countries, regardless of our Asian ethnicity. In Korematsu v. U.S. (1944), the Supreme Court ascribed dual citizenship to 120,000 Japanese Americans as justification for their evacuation into internment camps. Implicit here is that Asians are all the same, regardless of the country to which our ethnicity is ascribed. We saw this with the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, who was blamed for high unemployment in Detroit resulting from the importation of Toyota, Honda, and Nissan cars. Mr. Chin was neither of Japanese descent nor employed by any Japanese manufacturer. His killers, Ron Ebens and Michael Nitz, never served any jail time for their acts. Now we see Vietnamese, Cambodians, Filipinos, and other non-Chinese Asians being killed or attacked for the “Wuhan Flu” or the “China Virus.”

Perpetrators of violence and murder against Asians who go unpunished have longstanding precedent in the California Supreme Court. Justice Hugh Murray’s opinion in People v. George Hall (1854) held that Chinese witnesses could not testify against George Hall for the murder of Ling Sing because the Chinese were “Indians.” Under California’s Criminal Procedure Act of April 16th, 1850; “No Black or Mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.”

Even though Chinese persons were not mentioned in the Act, Chief Justice Murray went beyond the text of the law to include Chinese witnesses: “…the name of Indian, from the time of Columbus to the present day, has been used to designate, not alone the North American Indians, but the whole of the Mongolian race…” George Hall walked free despite three Chinese witnesses to his crime.

Only 17 years later, following a white mob riot in Los Angeles Chinatown, America witnessed the largest mass lynching in U.S. history. The white mob lynched 17 Chinese persons and knifed another two to death. Eight members of the mob were convicted and sentenced to two to six years in prison. Upon appeal, the California Supreme Court reversed the convictions and set all eight men free. The perpetual foreigner myth has reinforced the belief that people who commit violence against Asian Americans will not be held to account by the law.

The origin of this perpetual foreigner history is the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that African American slaves had no rights that the white man was bound to respect, even if they had been freed. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited eligibility to citizenship to “free, white persons.” Justice Roger Taney interpreted that to mean “that citizenship at that time was perfectly understood to be confined to the white race.” After the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment, African Americans acquired the right to citizenship by birth and the amendment of the 1790 Naturalization Act to include persons of “African nativity and descent.” Mexican Americans acquired the right to citizenship through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo after the Mexican-American War. Asians inherited the “free white person” bar to naturalization until 1952 with the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act. Asian American history is intimately tied to Dred Scott’s experience of fighting white supremacy. What is seldom raised is that Chinese persons served in the Union Army during the Civil War to defeat the Confederacy and end slavery.

It is not a question of which racial group suffered more or where you fall on the color chart. According to Justice Murray in People v. Hall, the Chinese belonged to “the more degraded tribes of the (Indo-Mongolian) species.”

The question is what have you done to raise awareness about the history behind the racist events we experience today and to change the laws and conditions that have enabled hate crimes. Baked into the tariff war started by the previous administration, the anti-China rhetoric — whether for election campaigns or for the ostracism of Chinese American scientists — continues to fuel the foreigner stereotype and encourage more violence. The absence of Asian American and Ethnic Studies in our schools directly contributes to what outwardly appears as random violence against Asian Americans. If Asian American lives matter, then our history in the United States belongs in the school books.

About the Author

Tsiwen Law was a member of the Asian American Political Alliance which first proposed the term Asian American in 1968. The Alliance participated in the three month long Third World Liberation Front Strike at University of California, Berkeley in 1969. He began teaching Asian American Studies at Cal in the fall of 1969. He has since taught Asian American studies at Michigan, Penn, Temple, and now at Villanova Law School. He remains engaged in the full time practice of real estate law and civil litigation in Pennsylvania. He received his Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan and his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

About the Illustrator

Mahina Martinson (she/her) is a fourth-year student majoring in Global Studies within the International Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Raised traveling between California and Hawai’i, she is extremely connected to her Japanese/Hawaiian roots. Passionate about indigenous and AAPI issues, Mahina is currently writing her senior thesis on the controversy over the TMT’s construction on Hawai’i, speaking to the wider legacies of U.S. colonial violence. Mahina has been involved in numerous community-based art projects, worked at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, and served as an artist at the Bruin Review. Mahina was OCA National’s Spring 2021 Communications Intern.

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