Steven Roberts: Standing up and speaking out

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 26, 2021

“Racism is real in America, and it has always been,” said Vice President Kamala Harris after a shooting in Atlanta left eight dead, six of them women of Asian descent.

“Xenophobia is real in America,” continued Harris, “and always has been. Sexism, too.”

Americans have long been of two minds about foreigners. We embrace and esteem newcomers from around the world, including Harris’ parents — a mother from India, a father from Jamaica — and my own grandparents. Yet an undercurrent of fear and resentment toward immigrants runs just below the surface of our national life.

Donald Trump fit squarely into that tradition when he announced his run for president by denouncing Mexicans as “rapists” and “drug dealers,” and when he used racist nicknames for the coronavirus in an effort to blame China for the pandemic.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI for short) have been “skyrocketing” in the last year, as President Biden noted, and Trump’s taunting tropes are partly to blame. But he didn’t create America’s Sinophobia — he exploited a vein of viciousness that has always been there.

The confessed killer in Atlanta is a blood brother to the vigilantes who lynched 19 Chinese men and boys in Los Angeles in 1871, and to the two auto workers who murdered Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, in Detroit in 1982. But here’s the difference: Asian Americans have now found their voice. They’ve acquired positions of influence and refused to stay silent in the face of hate and harassment. Harris is the most visible example, but hardly the only one. Sixteen members of Congress claim Asian ancestry, as do two senators — Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii — who are now threatening to block some Biden appointments if more AAPI nominees are not chosen.

Last November, 158 Asian Americans ran for state legislative seats. One of them, State Senator Michelle Au of Georgia, was among the AAPI leaders who met with Biden and Harris in Atlanta. She later told NPR, “I think often we feel minimized, and we feel that our problems are brushed to the side. So this is incredibly meaningful that they took the time for Asian Americans in the wake of this tragedy.”

Asian Americans are often saddled with the “model minority” label, and their median household income is the highest of any racial or ethnic group. (Note, though, that the catch-all term “Asian Americans” encompasses many different demographic groups, and that there are wide income disparities among them.) But the coronavirus, writes Chantal Cheung in the Northeastern Political Review, has “reawakened anti-Asian, specifically anti-Chinese, sentiment with deep roots in yellow peril ideology.”

Trump is a direct part of that tradition. During his campaign for president, he denounced Asian workers, saying, “jobs are being stolen … like candy from a baby.” The same false fear that led to Chin’s murder in 1982 — that foreigners were unfairly replacing American workers — led to the massacre of 28 Chinese miners in Wyoming almost a century earlier.

The coronavirus plays squarely into a second element of anti-Asian ideology: that Asians carry strange maladies that would infect and infest the West.

“In particular, Chinese prostitutes were targeted,” writes Cheung. “The Medico-Literary Journal of San Francisco ran an article in 1878 which stated: ‘If the future historian should ever be called upon to write the Conquest of America by the Chinese Government, his opening chapter will be an account of the first batch of Chinese courtesans and the stream of deadly disease that followed.’ ”

Sound familiar?

This history makes the rise of AAPI political power so much more critical. When Congress held a hearing on anti-Asian violence, and Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, insisted on his right to criticize China, there was Rep. Grace Meng, the first Asian American elected to Congress from New York, firing back at him. As the Washington Post reported:

“Your president, your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other countries that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull’s eye on the back of Asian Americans across the country, on our grandparents, on our kids,” Meng said as her voice began to rise and tears filled her eyes. “This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community to find solutions, and we will not let you take our voice away from us.”

The “hurt and pain” of discrimination is still real. But now Asian Americans are in a position to stand up and speak out against it.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email him at