The “COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act” is confined to the COVID-19 pandemic while hatred of Asians predates the pandemic and has been a long-standing problem
On May 20, with the full support of both the Houses of the US Congress, President Joe Biden brought into being a law named “COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act” to address crimes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, with particular emphasis on the increase in violence against Asian Americans.
On that occasion, Biden described racism as the “ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued” the US. The Afro-Asian-origin Vice President Kamala Harris appealed to Asian Americans to “turn pain and outrage into political power” pointing out that discrimination and hate are not linked only to the economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic but has been a long standing and deep seated problem in the US.
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Grace Meng and Sen. Mazie Hirono, aims to make the reporting of hate crimes easier at the local and state levels by boosting public outreach on-line in multiple languages. It also directs the Department of Justice to designate a point person to expedite the review of hate crimes related to COVID-19. It authorizes grants to state and local governments to conduct crime-reduction programs to prevent and respond to hate crimes.
Indeed, the country-wide economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred crime, including crimes against Asian Americans. The Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics show that the murder rate surged by 25% in 2020, up from 16,000 the previous year. The organization “Stop Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate” documented 6,603 hate incidents from March 2020 to March 2021. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, Asian hate crimes had surged 146% in 26 of the largest jurisdictions in the United States in 2020. Former President Donald Trump’s frequent use of racist phrases such as “kung flu” to describe COVID-19 which originated in China, had encouraged anti-Asian sentiments among Whites.
But the anti-Asian sentiment is not just a COVID-19 creation. It is ingrained in the American mind going back to the 19 th.Century with the arrival of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Filipino labor to construct America. Therefore, by limiting the law to COVID-related crimes, Biden is only scratching the surface of the problem. The law would become ineffective in the post-pandemic era. Further, the law only takes into account only “hate crimes” and not “hate incidents”. The latter are far more numerous, insidious and hurting.
To mention only a few cases of “hate crime” reported in the media, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant in San Francisco died in February after being violently shoved to the ground during his morning walk. An 89-year-old Chinese woman was slapped and set on fire by two people in Brooklyn, New York. Two Asian American women were stabbed at a San Francisco bus stop. Eyewitness reports said the assailant “casually walked away in broad daylight”. An Asian man walking with his 1-year-old child in a stroller in San Francisco was punched in the head and back multiple times. An Asian American woman in New York City was struck in the head with a hammer by an unidentified assailant who demanded that she remove her mask.
Asian American restaurant employees in New York City told the New York Times they now always go home early for fear of violence and harassment. According to the BBC, there are thousands of cases of being spat on and verbally abused. “Go back to [expletive] China” is often uttered.
An NBC report says that women were 68% of the victims of hate. It quotes Russell Jeung, Professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University to say that Asian women are attacked because they are believed to be subservient and meek. Verbal abuse is the commonest form of racism. More than a third of incidents occurred at businesses, the primary site of discrimination, while a quarter took place in public streets. In late 2020, the UN issued a report that detailed “an alarming level” of racially motivated violence and other hate incidents against Asian Americans.
Rooted in the Past
Discrimination against Asians was State policy till as recently as 1965. There was the Congressional Exclusionary Act of 1882 which restricted immigration based on race. Then there was the Japanese American Internment during WW II. More than a century ago, the San Francisco School Board established a segregated Chinese Primary School system for Chinese children, including those who were American-born. By the turn of the 20 th, Century, after Japanese immigrants had settled in the wake of Chinese exclusion, the School Board applied the Chinese segregation policy to Japanese students also.
Beginning in the 1850s, when young single men were recruited as contract laborers from Southern China, Asian immigrants had played a vital role in the development of the US, working as miners, railroad builders, farmers, factory workers, and fishermen. By 1870, the Chinese represented 20% of California’s labor force.
However, with the Depression of 1876, amidst cries of “They’re taking away our jobs!,” anti-Chinese legislation and violence raged in the US West Coast. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to prevent immigration and naturalization. The law remained in for the next 60 years. The “Chinese Must Go” movement was so strong that Chinese immigration to the United States declined from 39,500 in 1882 to only 10 in 1887.
By 1885 (following Chinese Exclusion Act) large numbers of young Japanese laborers, together with smaller numbers of Koreans and Indians, began arriving on the West Coast to replace the Chinese as cheap labor. But in 1907, Japanese immigration was restricted by a “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the United States and Japan. Small numbers of Korean immigrants came to United States following the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War and Japan’s occupation of Korea. But they were badly treated in the US.
Recruited initially by Canadian-Pacific railroad companies, a few thousand Sikh immigrants from Punjab in India immigrated to Canada and later to the Pacific Northwest and California, to become farm laborers. Denounced by White workers as “Hindu invaders” (though they were Sikhs and not Hindus) the “Tide of the Turbans” was stemmed in 1917 when Congress declared that India was part of the “Pacific-Barred Zone of excluded Asian countries.” The Sikhs and other Indians were not eligible for US citizenship. A few among them approached the courts saying that they are Aryans or Caucasians. But this did not take them anywhere.
By 1924, with the exception of Filipino “nationals,” all Asian immigrants, were outside the legal system, denied citizenship and prevented from marrying Caucasians or even owning land. Filipinos were excused because, in 1898, the US had annexed Philippines. However, US racism caught up with the Filipinos after the Depression of 1929. The Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1935 limited the annual immigration quota for Filipinos.
US immigration laws remained discriminatory toward Asians until 1965 when, in response to the civil rights movement, non-restrictive annual quotas of 20,000 immigrants per country, were established. For the first time in US history, large numbers of Asians were able to enter the country with families. In addition, due to the US eagerness to improve its technology to match the Soviets during the Cold War, foreign engineers and scientists including Asians were encouraged to immigrate.
But the current preponderance of Asians in well paid jobs and competition from Asians in the lower rungs of jobs during an economic downturn, have triggered White envy and anger. Hate has been extended from the Blacks to the Asians.