What This Wave of Anti-Asian Violence Reveals About AmericaRoundup
tags: racism, Asian American History, COVID-19
Ms. Cheng is a comparative race scholar, professor of English and American studies at Princeton, and author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief and Ornamentalism.
A 23-year-old Korean woman in New York was punched in the face last March and accused of having the coronavirus. More incidents followed as the virus spread, with Asian-Americans being spat on, beaten, slashed, even attacked with chemicals.
In response to pandemic-related violence like this, advocacy organizations came together to document cases of harassment and vitriol against Asian-Americans. Stop AAPI Hate received 2,800 reports in 2020, around 240 of which were physical assaults, and the AAPI Emergency Response Network has received over 3,000 reports since it started tracking Covid-specific hate incidents last year.
The violence has continued into the new year. In January, in San Francisco, an 84-year-old Thai man died after being assaulted on the street; across the Bay, in Oakland’s Chinatown, a 91-year-old man was shoved to the ground. Some of these cases have made it to national news, but most haven’t. The low profile of this wave of violence is a reminder of how racial violence goes unexamined when it doesn’t fit neatly into the standard narrative of race in America.
Racial violence in the United States is not simply Black and white, even if it looks that way. Instead, it can reveal layered victimizations and mediated enmity. The recent incidents of anti-Asian violence in the Bay Area, in particular, highlight this: Some Asian-Americans were outraged by the violence and demanded justice, but since the perpetrators in these cases were Black, many others felt deeply uncomfortable with contributing to the criminalization of African-Americans.
And here we come to the heart of the complexity of “speaking up” for Asian-Americans. Thanks to the “Model Minority” myth — popularized in 1966 by the sociologist William Petersen and later used as a direct counterpoint to the “welfare queen” stereotype applied to Black Americans — Asian-Americans have long been used by mainstream white culture to shame and drive a wedge against other minority groups.
They are always caught in a no-win position between whites and Black Americans. They are thought to be “white adjacent,” but of course they can never belong to the club. They are persistently racialized, yet they often don’t count in the American racial equation. The central, though often unspoken, question underlying all of this is: Are Asian-Americans injured, or injured enough, to deserve our national attention?
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