The long history and present surge of anti-Asian violence

From Donald Trump’s calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” to the recent wave of violent attacks in the Bay Area, the past year has seen a sharp increase in racist attacks on Asians and Asian Americans.

The causes and consequences of this racism were at the center of a Berkeley Conversations panel discussion, “The Long History and Present Surge of Anti-Asian Violence,” presented on April 1, as part of the Matrix on Point series.

“This panel is not just about the recent, horrific attacks on Asians, but it seeks to situate this violence in both the history and the present of this nation’s life,” said Raka Ray, dean of the UC Berkeley Division of Social Sciences, who moderated the event. “It also points to the need for a more integrated and interconnected history of race in America.”

Ray explained that the event was organized in response “to the Asian and Asian-American students who asked us to do something that showed that they and their histories of being in this country mattered.”

Michael Lu, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, introduced the panel and spoke to the importance of creating a forum for open discussion about anti-Asian violence.

“Many of us in the (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community have been feeling invisible for much of our lives,” Lu said. “Invisible, because our history isn’t taught in the schools. Our stories aren’t told in the media. Our contributions often go unrecognized. Our struggles, our pains often go unnoticed. I’m really glad we’re having this discussion tonight, right here at the Berkeley campus, where the Asian-American movement started more than 50 years ago, to lift that veil of invisibility, to tell our stories, to make our voices heard.”

Russell Jeung, professor of Asian-American Studies at San Francisco State University, presented data gathered through Stop AAPI Hate, a website he helped launch in March 2020 following a rise in anti-Asian sentiment at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I knew that unless we documented the racism that we were experiencing, policymakers and the media wouldn’t pay attention,” he explained.

Leung said that nearly 3800 hate incidents were reported through the site between March 2020 and February 2021, including verbal harassment, civil rights violations, coughing and spitting attacks, physical assaults and other forms of violence.

“We asked those who had experienced racism, what is their number one stressor? They said racism,” Jeung said. “Asian Americans are now under such a state of siege, and have experienced racism that has been so damaging, that they’re more concerned about other Americans and their hate than they are about a pandemic that’s killed half a million (Americans). That’s how widespread and how dangerous this racism is.”

Kimberly Hoang, associate professor of Sociology and director of Global Studies at the University of Chicago, called attention to how the media portrayed last month’s mass shootings in Atlanta, when eight people were killed, including six Asian women.

“We must move away from the media’s approach to narrating the story, and the ways that opportunists have seized this moment,” Hoang said. “(We should) remember that at the heart of these shootings is an intelligent public starved for depth in understanding a group of women who were immigrant entrepreneurs, low-wage workers employed past their retirement age, single mothers and real people whose lives and families are forever broken as a result of these devastating events.”

Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of Ethnic Studies and an associate dean in the UC Berkeley College of Letters & Science’s Division of Undergraduate Studies, discussed the 150-year history of anti-Asian racism in the United States.

“It is part of the history of racial violence in the United States. Yet it is not well known. It is marginalized, if not erased and overshadowed by popular mythical images of Asian Americans as a monolithic model minority,” Choy said.

“We have to confront this long history of anti-Asian violence in order to understand how tenacious it has been and how tenacious it continues to be, and to figure out what each and every one of us can do to prevent and mitigate hate and harm,” Choy said. “I take heart that we, as Asian Americans, have many allies across racial and ethnic lines, because our fates are interlinked. At stake is the health and well-being of our nation and world. We have no choice but to work together to stop Asian hate.”

The event was sponsored by the UC Berkeley Social Sciences Division initiative “Toward a Racially Just Social Science,” and by Social Science Matrix, APASD, AAPISC, the Sociology Department, the School of Public Health, Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies, the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and Stop AAPI Hate.

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