Standing with Our AAPI Communities and Recognizing America’s Long History of Anti-Asian Racism

The Legal Intelligencer

The Philadelphia Diversity Law Group stands in solidarity and in allyship with our Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) colleagues and communities. We denounce anti-Asian racism and violence. We denounce racism, bigotry, violence and harassment of any kind. We recognize and understand the impact and toll anti-Asian racism and violence have taken on our AAPI colleagues and on all our colleagues who are concerned for their families and loved ones. We also feel compelled to use our bully pulpit to inform the broader legal community about anti-Asian racism and the historical context that underlies its perpetuation.

It was the tragic events of March 16 in the Greater Atlanta area—where eight people were shot and killed, six of whom were women of Asian descent—that have at last focused the national spotlight on the increasing reports of violence against members of the AAPI community. The national coalition aimed at addressing anti-Asian discrimination amid the pandemic, Stop AAPI Hate, issued a report that collected nearly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian verbal harassment, physical assault and civil rights violations between March 2020 and February 2021. Pennsylvania ranked as the fifth-highest state for reports of anti-Asian discrimination. The rise in incidents can be attributed to anti-Asian sentiment that has been stoked after the labeling of the pandemic virus as the “Chinese virus,” the “China virus” and the “kung flu.” The violence against AAPIs is continuing coast-to-coast with increasingly brutal attacks on elderly AAPIs captured on video.

While the AAPI community and our allies have been desperately calling attention to the anti-Asian racism that has been on the rise for the last year, it seems it took a mass shooting to finally heighten public consciousness and press coverage about it.

The AAPI community has been demanding attention about our nation’s long history of bigotry, legalized discrimination and violence against people of Asian descent. In solidarity with the AAPI community, the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group also calls for people to be informed about the stereotypes and myths that have been adopted into the narrative about people of Asian descent. To understand the trauma, angst, and pain current events have exacerbated for our AAPI colleagues and communities is to recognize the interplay of history, politics and false narratives. To understand the full impact of the tragic events of March 16, which killed six women of Asian descent, it is necessary to further call attention to the intersectional experience of AAPI women.

Anti-Asian racism in this country dates back to the mid-1800s, with the migration of Chinese workers during the Gold Rush. First, they took on work in the gold mines, but then they became agricultural and factory workers and, as the numbers of Chinese laborers increased, so did anti-Chinese sentiment. Efforts were employed to promote ethnic intimidation and to restrict Chinese immigration. Ultimately, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, the first law in American history to place broad restrictions on immigration.

While the Chinese Exclusion Act is oft-cited, it is significant to note that, seven years earlier, the Page Act of 1875 was passed. The Page Act was the first restrictive federal immigration law in the United States, prohibiting the importation of women “for lewd and immoral purposes.” Enforced primarily against Chinese women, there was a presumption—at least strong suggestion—that Chinese female immigrants were being brought in as prostitutes. In President Ulysses S. Grant’s Seventh Annual Message to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 1875, he said: “… I invite the attention of Congress to another, though perhaps no less an evil— the importation of Chinese women, but few of whom are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations.” These are expressions of national policy specifically about Asian female sexuality.

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 establishing internment camps for people of Japanese descent ostensibly to prevent espionage on American shores. Of the approximately 112,000 people incarcerated in camps, the majority, nearly 70,000, were American citizens. Now considered one of the most atrocious violations of American civil rights in the 20th century, Japanese-American incarceration was spurred by irrational fear and racism toward the Japanese, even those who were American citizens.

On June 19, 1982, a Chinese-American man, Vincent Chin, was attacked and beaten to death with a baseball bat by two White autoworkers in Detroit, Michigan. The murder took place during a time of decline for U.S. car manufacturers and high unemployment of U.S. autoworkers, which were attributed to the rise of Japanese car imports. Chin was killed because Ronald Ebens, a foreman at a car manufacturer, and his stepson Michael Nitz, who had just lost his job at the car manufacturer, blamed Chin for the loss of autoworker jobs. Ebens and Nitz were found guilty of manslaughter, received a $3,000 fine and probation, and never served jail time. Chin was killed and scapegoated for the economic decline in Detroit. Being mistaken for Japanese, Chin also fell victim to the misperception of Asians as a monolithic group, never mind the Asian country of origin.

These are just a few examples demonstrating the point. Every AAPI community is impacted by anti-Asian racism.

During the 1960s, the myth of the “model minority” developed about AAPIs, which posits that AAPIs are the ideal immigrants of color considered to be acceptable in the United States. The model minority myth is a problematic depiction of AAPIs as a monolithic group of quiet, hard-working and well-behaved immigrants. This model minority is prosperous, well-educated and successful. This model minority is the exemplar of an entire group of people who are capable of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and overcoming discrimination to achieve the American dream.

Of course, the model minority myth is rife with vast generalizations, fails to recognize the host of disparities when data is actually parsed by ethnicity, and ignores the wide range of lived experiences of AAPIs. The model minority myth has been weaponized to drive a wedge among communities of color, by contrasting, falsely, problem-free AAPIs with so-called problematic communities of color. It is invoked as an excuse to ignore racism and to avoid responsibility for addressing it.

AAPIs also experience anti-Asian racism in being perceived as the “perpetual foreigner,” a stereotype that suggests we are the “other,” inherently foreign and never truly belonging. Confronted with some frequency by questions about “where are you really from” further instills the notion that AAPIs are never fully American.

It is important for us to call attention to stereotypes about the model minority and the perpetual foreigner because they have hidden anti-Asian racism for too long. They have hidden the unique racism and fears faced by the AAPI community. They have also hidden the common concerns faced by other communities of color and our need to coalesce over our similar challenges.

To that end, the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group will continue to endeavor to acknowledge and amplify our diverse voices. We will continue to condemn all forms of bigotry and racism. We are committed to interrupting bias and racism. We will partner with all our diverse communities in solidarity toward anti-racism. We ask you to join us in these efforts.

“Standing with Our AAPI Communities and Recognizing America’s Long History of Anti-Asian Racism,” by Sophia Lee was published in The Legal Intelligencer on April 2, 2021.

Reprinted with permission from the April 2, 2021, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2021 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.