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When the movie Contagion came out in 2011, featuring a global pandemic arising in Hong Kong from a virus that jumped from bat, to pig, to Gwyneth Paltrow, I was in China conducting research for my book Last Boat Out of Shanghai. I watched the movie on the flight home to California from Hong Kong, hyperconscious of every cough and sneeze by fellow travelers. The film’s depiction of America’s descent into chaos and violence, as the social order disintegrated due to the pathogen, was so convincing that it drew praise from health experts and epidemiologists.
In March 2020, as the U.S. shut down due to COVID-19, I watched Contagion again. This time, I noticed that a big chunk of reality was missing: There were no scenes of people blaming or scapegoating Asians for the deadly virus. The film included no background shots of harassment or assaults against Chinese Americans, ethnic Chinese, or other Asians who might be guilty of “looking Chinese.”
When news of the novel coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China, I knew in my gut that Chinese Americans and Asian Americans would be blamed and targeted. It didn’t take long for my fears to be realized. Weeks before COVID-19 interrupted daily life for the rest of America, Chinatowns across the country reported business closures, harassment, and violence. On April 2, 2020, I wrote an essay for The Washington Post that warned: “This violence could become much worse as more people lose jobs — and lives.”
I was frequently asked how I knew that this would happen. But it was no mystery. Decades ago, I was living in Detroit when the collapse of America’s auto industry introduced another tsunami of anti-Asian hate in the country. It has been disheartening, to say the least, to watch this cycle repeat itself. But advancements forged by today’s generation of activists have left me hopeful that Asians, long an invisible part of the American fabric, can no longer be ignored.
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‘Those Little Yellow Men’
Then, as now, America was facing multiple crises. The post-World War II economic boom eventually stalled and, by the 1970s, the country was in a prolonged recession, with high unemployment and high inflation. Job prospects were grim in those years for recent college graduates like me. In 1979, an oil crisis caused by events in the Middle East led gas supplies across the U.S. to dry up. As a result, cost-conscious Americans stopped buying gas-guzzling domestic cars and the auto industry collapsed — a shock felt throughout the country’s manufacturing industry. The energy crisis, like the pandemic, threw millions of Americans out of work.
Politicians, CEOs, and union leaders pointed fingers at each other for the economic collapse until they landed on a common enemy: Japan. Fuel-efficient Japanese cars had recently become popular, eliciting a spasm of xenophobia and hatred from prominent Americans: John Dingell, the longtime congressman from Michigan, caustically referred to “those little yellow people” while Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca joked about dropping nuclear bombs on Japan. As it happened, fuel-efficient German cars were also selling well — and yet there was no similar outrage targeting Americans of German descent.
These events were not abstract for me: I myself was a laid-off autoworker in Detroit. As a Chinese American, I had to always be vigilant, because I knew that to non-Asians, we all looked alike. People who drove Japanese cars were shot at on the freeway. But our worst fears were realized in 1982, the third year of the economic crisis, when a young Chinese American named Vincent Chin was beaten to death on the night of his bachelor party. His 400 wedding guests went to his funeral instead.
In those days, Asians were essentially invisible in America. News stories about our communities did not exist. But Vincent’s story broke through when a judge sentenced his two white killers to probation and imposed a small fine, saying “these aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” I joined many others in Detroit rising up in outrage at a sentence that effectively sanctioned the killing of Asian Americans.
Until that point, different Asian ethnicities kept apart, not having coalesced as a united voice that could command attention. But Vincent’s killing and the outrageous sentence spurred the separate Asian communities in Detroit into action. Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, and Vietnamese descent, as well as other Asian ethnicities, came together, overcoming old grievances to fight for justice for Vincent Chin.
I was one of the organizers in that effort — and there was nothing easy about it. Wherever we went, we encountered deeply embedded misconceptions and stereotypes: that all Asians were foreigners, and never Americans; that Asians were submissive, hard-working “model minorities” who never experienced racism or societal difficulties. The Michigan chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild falsely asserted that Vincent and other Asian Americans were not protected by federal civil rights law because, they said, Asians weren’t in the U.S. when those laws were established in the 1860s.
Others questioned whether immigrants should be protected under civil rights law at all — or scoffed that Asian Americans were naive to expect justice. The civil rights director of the United Auto Workers said that if Vincent had been Japanese American, they wouldn’t have considered supporting our cause because his murder would have been understandable. Many Asian Americans were hesitant to speak out, fearful of reprisal. Members of the media who interviewed us often assumed that we were all “fresh off the boat” and could barely understand English. Many were completely ignorant of our long history with exclusion and ethnic cleansing.
To take on such challenges, Asian Americans came together in a new civil rights movement, joining Blacks, Jews, Arab Americans, Latinx groups, and people of many faiths and backgrounds. Our efforts inspired the creation of many new Asian American Pacific Islander advocacy groups and contributed to the movement for hate crimes protections, as well as the right of victims to speak at the sentencing of their assailants. In Michigan, this latter change was initially called the “Vincent Chin rule.”
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A Resurgence of Hate
These changes represented real progress, even if violent incidents against Asians in the U.S. continued. But over the past two years, the resurgence of xenophobic hate triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a potent reminder of how far we still have to go. The Stop AAPI Hate website documented more than 9,000 hate incidents from March 2020 through June 2021, including high-profile mass killings in Indianapolis and Atlanta. Two-thirds of the reported victims have been women, children, and elderly Asian Americans. Just as Vincent was killed in the third year of his era’s economic crisis, today’s attacks on Asian Americans persist even though the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed two years ago.
Twenty-four million people now identify as Asian American, comprising 7% of the U.S. population. For perspective, in the 1980s, the decade of Vincent’s murder, U.S. census data indicated that our numbers had surpassed 1% for the first time. But the invisibility of Asians still pervades the American psyche. After my 2020 Washington Post op-ed, many people asked me if it was true that Asian Americans really experienced prejudice and racial violence. Even then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, when asked on MSNBC for his thoughts about anti-Asian hate, talked instead about China and Xi Jinping.
This ignorance creates barriers for Asian Americans who experience and call out discrimination. For example, back in 1982 a witness heard Vincent’s killers say, “It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” Yet to many observers at the time, such statements showed no racial motivation because no racial slurs were used. In fact, as vulnerable people know too well, discrimination can occur without the articulation of identifiable slurs — or any vocalization at all.
Similarly, after the March 2021 mass shooting in Atlanta, local police initially asserted that no racism was involved because the killer told them so — overlooking his hunt through the metro area to find Asian-run spas. The police accepted the shooter’s explanation that he killed in order to cure his “sex addiction” — a justification rooted in racist and sexist stereotypes of Asian women.
Today’s antipathy toward Asian Americans is the byproduct of years of China-bashing — just as anti-Japan rhetoric contributed to Chin’s murder. In the 1990s, Asian Americans who donated to President Bill Clinton’s campaign were investigated by the FBI and publicly touted as likely conduits to China — regardless of their particular ethnicity. The aggressive and highly public quest for Chinese spies has led to false criminal charges against numerous innocent Chinese Americans, such as Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was locked up in solitary confinement for nine months until he was released with an apology. And as the U.S-China relationship worsened in the past decade, the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump launched the still-ongoing “China Initiative” that has only accelerated the pace of investigations, arrests, and prosecutions of Chinese Americans accused of dual loyalties.
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Dynamic, Forward Motion
In spite of these challenges, Asian American communities are in dynamic, forward motion. The AAPI population has grown considerably in recent decades — and AAPI voices are buttressed by a growing infrastructure of activists, leadership, and organizations more empowered to speak up to counter the invisibility and take on thorny issues.
Technological change, too, has shaped the new generation of activists. In the 1980s, there were no mobile phones or internet to inform and connect our diverse and separate communities. Today, AAPIs armed with smartphone cameras and social media are building solidarity to resist anti-COVID hate. AAPI community activists created StopAAPIHate.org and made the site accessible in several Asian languages, capturing data from thousands of incident reports in order to document and validate the existence of anti-Asian hate. In the early months of the pandemic, with restrictions on gatherings, AAPIs used Zoom to strategize how to respond to the following hypothetical scenarios: heightened anti-China rhetoric; intensified surveillance justified on national security grounds; and a mass shooting targeting Asian Americans. All three ultimately came to pass.
Social media and the internet have also highlighted how AAPIs are standing with Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities to fight systemic racism, especially in the face of police killings. AAPI activists are debating the role of the police in society and are questioning the need for hate crime laws in protecting Asian American communities, especially Chinatowns, from harassment and violence. When videos of fatal assaults by Black assailants against elderly Asian Americans went viral, AAPI scholars posted data showing that the overwhelming majority of anti-Asian hate assailants are actually white males, contradicting an often-stated belief.
Back in March 2020, I warned that anti-Asian hate is not going away. Nearly two years later, I believe it has the potential to get worse, depending on what happens with the virus, the global economy, and the status of U.S.-China relations. Building a society in which violent hatred does not exist remains an elusive dream. But a crucial difference between then and now is clear: Asian Americans are rising up, insisting on an end to invisibility. And in the future, when Contagion-like films consider the totality of the American experience during these difficult COVID years, I am hopeful there will be an Asian American storyline this time around, one that focuses on the struggle of a diverse group of people standing together for human dignity — and refusing to be ignored.