The recent murderous attack against Asian-owned businesses in Georgia, the deaths of six women of Asian descent, and the dramatic increase in assaults on Asian Americans in communities across the country once again shine a harsh light on the historical breadth of bigotry in America.
According to the initiative Stop AAPI Hate, between March 2020 and February 2021, there were 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents in the United States, incidents that included being spat upon and verbally and physically attacked. The report noted that with the onset of the pandemic, Asian Americans have increasingly become targets of xenophobic attacks, much like Muslims after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Make no mistake: America’s earliest history is crowded with the subjugation of one nationality after another. The indigenous people whose land we stole, then settled; the Africans we bought to support an economic system that depended upon their enslavement; the demonization of Asians who fled wars and famine and on whose backs we built our railroads and revolutionized the fishing industry: all have been and continue to be human collateral in the development of a country that prides itself on the high ideals of freedom, liberty and equality.
Midway through my undergraduate history-degree-seeking career, I had an opportunity to take a few courses in Asian American history. At the time, I was living at the edge of Monterey Bay, a section of California with a long and storied history of Asian migration. The classes were an eye-opener.
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 drew thousands of Chinese emigres to the U.S. fleeing their own country that was wracked by war and famine. By the 1850s, nearly 25,000 Chinese immigrants were making their way in the West. They helped build the transcontinental railroad, contributed to the growth of agriculture and commercialized abalone and calamari fishing along Monterey Bay.
Xenophobia, however, was on the rise. Chinese men were demonized as lazy and listless opium smokers; Chinese women as exotic and promiscuous. To protect Americans from these influences, Congress passed the Page Exclusion Act of 1875, the first restrictive piece of immigration legislation that prohibited recruitment to the United States of unfree laborers, and women for “immoral purposes,” but was enforced primarily against Chinese. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that ended Chinese immigration for a decade and prohibited them from becoming naturalized citizens.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 authorized the evacuation of “all persons deemed to be a national threat.” This included 112,000 persons of Japanese descent, many American citizens, and their subsequent detention at internment camps further inland.
Bigotry of all forms has woven itself into the fabric of Old Glory. Violence aimed at people of color remains a basic tenet of the American zeitgeist and continues unabated. No matter what laws are passed, who is in the White House, or how loudly we tout our freedoms, the relentless acts of violence against America’s own citizens based solely on the color of their skin, their national origins or religious beliefs, must stop.
Years ago in graduate school, I had the amazing good fortune of taking a class from Professor Raymond Arsenault, an impressive historian of America’s South and author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The class focused on the racial injustices highlighted by Jim Crow South, and the Civil Rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King. Once, after a particularly spirited discussion, I asked Dr. Arsenault if he thought the country would ever recover from the country’s Civil War. He could not say.
The hard truth is this: It’s probably time the bandages came off exposing the festering racism that has been held in the hearts of too many Americans, a hatred that has, apparently, been given nascent approval to exist.
Addiction counselors and mental health professionals tell us consistently that the only way one ever recovers from self-destructive behavior is by admitting they have a problem. And boy-howdy, does America have a problem.
According to a February 2021 report by Statista, 55% of Americans feel white nationalist groups pose a serious threat to the U.S. This is 2021, and we’re still dealing with issues of equality that Americans died for 160 years ago. History is filled with civilizations that have held so much promise of bettering the human condition, but missed the opportunity because they stumbled on ignorance. Pettiness, jealousy, a sense of entitlement have doomed even the most powerful.
What do we need to do to facilitate the change so desperately needed in our country?
The time is ripe for a national discussion on some form of truth and reconciliation hearings, the kind that enabled South Africa to heal and aided Canada in giving voice to its indigenous population. I’m not at all sure how we make that happen, but I do believe, like many others, that unless we face our biased and intolerant past, we have little hope of healing our country’s wounds.