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Author Viet Thanh Nguyen on the ‘deep well’ of anti-Asian racism in the U.S.
The Atlanta-area shootings this week that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, has deepened fears amid an uptick of hate targeted at Asian American and Pacific Islander communities throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
The group Stop AAPI Hate has logged nearly 4,000 hate incidents since March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 was officially classified as a pandemic. Reactions to the shootings, especially from Asian Americans, pointed to the deep-seated anti-Asian racism in the U.S., and the long history of sexualization of Asian women.
The PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz spoke with “The Committed” author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who said Tuesday’s shootings are part of a wider pattern of anti-Asian violence.
Watch the discussion in the player above.
The March 16 shootings may have come as a surprise to those who may not know much about the treatment of Asian Americans in the U.S., Nguyen said, but for “those of us familiar with Asian American history know that Asians have been targeted for violence in this country as long as there have been Asian immigrants in this country.”
Nguyen cited the Chinese Massacre of 1871, when an estimated 17 Chinese men and boys were murdered in downtown Los Angeles, one of the worst lynchings in U.S. history.
“That was just one incident. It was not isolated,” he said, adding that there’s a long chain of this type of violence directed against Asian Americans that has taken place over at least the last 150 years.
Nguyen talked about his own experience as a refugee in America, how we’ve seen anti-Asian violence through history, and some of the ways he thinks people can help their communities.
We’ve seen many attacks against the Asian community.
In 1989, years before Columbine and other schools shootings made headlines, a gunman shot and killed five southeast Asian schoolchildren at an elementary school in Stockton, California. These children were targeted because they were Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War, Nguyen said.
“Asian Americans are often situated today, in contemporary discourse, as somehow being safe. We’re the ‘model minority.’ We are successful in college, et cetera, et cetera,” he said. “And people are not aware of the fact that there’s huge diversity in the Asian American population. There are a lot of poor Asian Americans, a lot of Asian Americans living in vulnerable economic situations, and they’re ripe for this kind of violence.”
Nguyen also said there’s violence beyond those kinds of circumstances, similar to the recent wave of documented anti-Asian incidents throughout the pandemic, that shows how anybody can be targeted.
“I think that’s an additional level of shock and visibility that we see — people like Asian American elders in Chinatown, in presumably safe environments, in their driveways in San Jose, being pushed, shoved, attacked, physically assaulted or at least verbally assaulted, is completely unacceptable, and the Asian American community, is absolutely right in being outraged about these things.”
Economic fallout in the U.S. and anti-Asian racism go hand in hand.
“These things have been taking place for a very long time,” Nguyen said, adding that many Asian Americans can “point to our own lives and point to our own history of encountering, at the very least, low-level anti-Asian racism.”
As an example, Nguyen said his parents, Vietnamese refugees, opened the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, California, in 1978, in pursuit of the American dream. He described how, as a 10-year-old, he was walking down the street and saw a sign in a window that read, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.”
“I didn’t understand it then, but I understand now to be a story that’s been repeated constantly throughout American history — “Another American driven out of business by [fill in the blank].”
Nguyen said Chinese immigrants were targeted in the 19th century because they were being positioned, by the media and politicians, as a threat to the white working class.
“That stimulation of anti-Asian feeling to distract attention away from economic fallout has always been a part of American history.”
In 1982, Vincent Chin was killed in Detroit by two white automakers who thought the Chinese American man was Japanese. The attackers blamed Chin for the Japanese economic competition taking place at the time, amid intense, heated rhetoric about a trade war with Japan, Nguyen said.
“We, as Asian Americans, have never been insulated from the entire anti-Asian feeling that the United States, every now and then, promotes towards Asian countries with which it builds competition,” he said.
Outside the domestic racism in the U.S., anti-Asian feeling, in general, throughout the nation is “stimulated by this kind of rhetoric,” he said, adding that the three successive administrations of former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and now Joe Biden, have taken a stance of China as an enemy and major competitor.
While that rhetoric has varied, “I can’t help but feel that there is blowback coming from that stance against Asian Americans as a whole.”
What’s said in the highest office in the land is connected to what we see unfolding on the streets.
Nguyen said we’re in a “really, obviously tense environment because of the pandemic.”
“People are economically stressed or psychologically stressed and so on,” he said, adding that under the Trump administration, it was “free game” to describe COVID-19 as the “China virus and kung flu,” which places the onus on China for the origin of the virus and connects to the “deep well” of anti-Asian feeling.
“Everybody who is Asian in this country has heard this before. Even if you haven’t been a direct target of anti-Asian physical violence, we have all been targeted by long-distance racism,” he said.
Nguyen said growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, watching movies about the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese were depicted as people to be mocked and — before they were killed — to be silenced. That anti-Asian feeling is present throughout American pop culture, like in comedies and political discourse and radio “shock jock” commentary.
“There’s nothing new. ‘Kung flu’ just puts its finger on that button and presses it over and over and over again,” he said. “I think that was the immediate trigger for what we’re experiencing now.”
That low-level anti-Asian racism has always been with us, Nguyen said. Now, it’s part of our foreign policy discussion about China, “and everybody’s hearing and absorbing that feeling, that phobia against the Chinese because, presumably, all Asians look the same to a lot of non-Asian people. All Asians are targeted as a result of that,” he said.
The response to anti-Asian racism could be better from local governments and state leaders and other officials.
“Certainly just speaking out is obviously very crucial,” Nguyen said.
The author pointed out how Asian Americans constitute about 5.6 percent of the American population, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. “That gives us slightly more visibility and more ability to speak out,” he said, along with Asian American celebrities and politicians who help amplify the cause.
Nguyen also said he was thankful when Biden issued a statement condemning Tuesday’s shootings, “but it’s the least an American president can do.”
While we look toward short-term solutions to anti-Asian violence, we must also acknowledge that we need long-term solutions as well, he added.
“The reason why we have a constant repetition, periodic eruptions of violence, is that we’ve never addressed the roots of anti-Asian violence in this country that we are talking about today,” he said.
For example, law enforcement in the Atlanta area have claimed the gunman said he didn’t target these women because they were Asian, Nguyen said. “But, of course, [the gunman] targeted these women because they were Asian, and Asian women end up in massage parlors to which not Asian men are attracted,” he said. “It’s a whole environment of targeting Asian women, first as sexual objects of desire and then as objects of racial fear and hatred completely interconnected.”
Americans also need to think about gun control, he said, and promoting better anti-racist education. Often our education system prioritizes other marginalized groups over Asian Americans, when it should be promoting anti-racist education that prioritizes all groups, including Asian Americans.
“Instead of just putting out rhetoric, city leaders, school leaders, political leaders need to make sure that we’re building an infrastructure that educates people about the history and the place of Asian Americans in this country and the longstanding existence of anti-Asian rhetoric and racism, and how to identify that and defeat that,” he added.
What should happen now with anti-racist education.
“Anti-racist education is not very strong in this country in general,” Nguyen said.
Some universities may have ethnic studies and anti-racist courses, but regarding the national discourse, “you can’t separate out what happens to Asian Americans, to what happens to Black people and to Indigenous people and so on and so forth.”
When marginalized communities bring up these issues, Nguyen said, there are many people “ready to say, ‘Hey, you’re just being woke, you’re being oversensitive. Intersectionality is just further racism.’ So when we bring up anti-racism, people are accusing us of being racist for talking about race. It’s ridiculous.”
“We, as a country, have not even made a down payment on anti-racist education yet,” he added.
Nguyen wondered how many people in the U.S., in the K through 12 curriculum, are being exposed to the histories of diverse people in the country and how many are focused on the negative history of this country in terms of the deep-seated roots of racism.