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Anti-Asian Racism & Violence

Ever since the first Asians arrived in America, there has been anti-Asian racism. This includes prejudice and acts of discrimination. For more than 200 years, Asian Americans have been denied equal rights, subjected to harassment and hostility, had their rights revoked and imprisoned for no justifiable reason, physically attacked, and murdered.


Ethnic Competition Leads to Violence

As the section on Asian American history discussed, numerous acts of discrimination against Chinese immigrants culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the first and so far only time in American history, an entire ethnic group was singled out and forbidden to step foot on American soil. Although this was not the first such anti-Asian incident, it symbolizes the legacy of racism directed against our community.

It was followed by numerous denials of justice against Chinese and Japanese immigrants seeking to claim equal treatment to land ownership, citizenship, and other rights in state and federal court in the early 1900s. Many times, Asians were not even allowed to testify in court. Perhaps the most infamous episode of anti-Asian racism was the unjustified imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II -- done solely on the basis of their ethnic ancestry.

Magazine portrayal of a Chinese being lynched in the late 1800s © Corbis

One may think that as the Asian American population becomes larger and more integrated into the mainstream American social and political institutions that incidents of anti-Asian racism would occur less often. In fact, the opposite has been true. The last 20 years or so has seen Asian Americans become the fastest-growing targets for hate crimes and violence.

It seems that whenever there are problems in American society, political or economic, there always seems to be the need for a scapegoat -- someone or a group of people who is/are singled out, unjustifiably blamed, and targeted with severe hostility. Combined with the cultural stereotype of Asian Americans as quiet, weak, and powerless, more and more Asian Americans are victimized, solely on the basis of being an Asian American.


License to Commit Murder = $3,700

Perhaps the most graphic and shocking incident that illustrates this process was the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Vincent was beaten to death by two White men (Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz) who called him a "jap" (even though he was Chinese American) and blamed him and Japanese automakers for the current recession and the fact that they were about to lose their jobs. After a brief scuffle inside a local bar/night club, Vincent tried to run for his life until he was cornered nearby, held down by Nitz while Ebens repeatedly smashed his skull and bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat.

The equally tragic part of this murder were how Vincent's murderers were handled by the criminal justice system. First, instead of being put on trial for second degree murder (intentionally killing someone but without premeditation), the prosecutor instead negotiated a plea bargain for reduced charges of manslaughter (accidentally killing someone). Second, the judge in the case sentenced each man to only two years probation and a $3,700 fine -- absolutely no jail time at all.

The judge defended these sentences by stating that his job was to fit the punishment not just to the crime, but also to the perpetrators. In this case, as he argued, both Ebens and Nitz had no prior criminal record and were both employed at the time of the incident. Therefore, the judge reasoned that neither man represented a threat to society. However, others had a different interpretation of the light sentences. They argued that what the judge was basically saying was that as long as you have no prior criminal record and have a job, you could buy a license to commit murder for $3,700.

Vincent Chin's mother Lily Chin distraught after her son's killers are freed © Corbis

This verdict and sentence outraged the entire Asian American community in the Detroit area and all around the country. Soon, several organizations formed a multi-racial coalition to demand justice for the murder of Vincent Chin. They persuaded the U.S. Justice Department to charge the two men with violating Vincent Chin's civil rights. They organized rallies and protests, circulated petitions, and kept the issue in the media spotlight. As one Asian American pointed out, "You can kill a dog and get 30 days in jail, 90 days for a traffic ticket."

In a second trial, the Justice Department convicted Ebens (the one who actually swung the bat) of violating Vincent's civil rights and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Nitz (the one who held Vincent down) was acquitted. However, these verdicts were thrown out on appeal due to a technicality and a new trial was ordered by a federal appeals court. However, because of "overwhelming publicity" about the case, the new trial was moved all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio.

At this retrial, whose jury consisted almost entirely of White blue-collar men, both men were acquitted of all charges. Mrs. Chin did manage to win a civil suit against Ebens and Nitz for $1.5 million but received very little of that money, since Ebens stopped making payments in 1989. Mrs. Chin eventually became so distraught over these incidents of injustice that she left the U.S. and moved back to China. To this day, neither man has served any jail time for murdering Vincent Chin and only recently has Ebens expressed regret for his actions.

As many scholars argue, the events surrounding Vincent Chin's murder and the acquittal of his killer sadly represents another example of how Asian Americans are seen as not being "real" Americans and therefore worthy of the same rights and privileges that so many other Americans take for granted. Further, the lenient treatment that his killers received echoes similar incidents in the late 1800s in which Chinese miners were not allowed to testify against Whites who attacked them or murdered their friends. In other words, Vincent's murder was another example of how the life of an Asian American is systematically devalued in relation to that of a "real" American.


The Formation of Solidarity

Although justice was not served in this case, Vincent's murder galvanized the entire Asian American community like no other incident before it. It resulted in the formation of numerous Asian American community organizations and coalitions whose purpose was to monitor how Asian Americans were treated and to mobilize any and all resources available to fight for justice. Asian Americans saw firsthand how anti-Asian prejudice and hostility operated, both at the personal physical level and at the institutional level.

Since then, groups (such as those listed in the left column) have documented numerous incidents of hate crimes committed against Asian Americans. NAPALC's 1999 Audit of Violence Against Asian Pacific Americans points out that there was a 13% increase of reported anti-Asian incidents between 1998 and 1999. It found that South Asians were the most targeted among Asian Americans and that vandalism was the most common form of anti-Asian discrimination. This is reinforced by recent anti-Asian vandalism at Stanford University that included such threats as "rape all oriental bitches," "kill all gooks," and "I'm a real white american."

Similar incidents and anti-Asian threats have also occurred and continue to occur at college campuses all around the country. What makes the situation worse are the apathetic, half-hearted, and even insensitive responses on the part of the authorities, in this case university officials. Even in rare instances when they admit that racial tensions are a problem on their campus, university leaders are slow to respond appropriately. Administrators consistently fight efforts to mandate classes on multiculturalism for all students even though research shows that these classes promote increased understanding and respect among students.

Secondly, they resist students' efforts to promote or even establish Asian American and other racial/ethnic studies programs. This is despite the fact that at almost all major universities around the country, it's common for Asian American students to comprise 15%, 25%, or even 50% of their students (i.e., U.C. Irvine). Students at Wellesley College, regarded as one of the elite women's colleges in the country, recently planned to go on a hunger strike to demand that their administration fulfill its earlier promises of strengthening its Asian Americans studies program. At the last minute, Wellesley officials gave into the students' demands.

Incidents of anti-Asian intimidation and physical attacks are sickening by themselves. They are often made worse when the authorities in charge don't take the appropriate actions to address them.


The Definition of Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Dr. Wen Ho Lee © Associated Press

The recent case of Wen Ho Lee further symbolizes not just how authorities can be not just insensitive to Asian Americans but also outright hostile to us as well. Dr. Lee was working as a research scientist at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory on military missile systems. In the midst of national hysteria about nuclear secrets being passed onto China in 1999, Dr. Lee was arrested and charged with 59 counts of mishandling classified information.

His arrest was one thing. But again, the most outrageous part of the story was how he was subsequently treated by the "criminal justice" system. Dr. Lee was denied bail, kept in solitary confinement, and forced to wear leg shackles and chains for nine months. Keep in mind that he was never charge with espionage -- just mishandling classified documents. All the while, the U.S. Justice Department struggled to build a case against him.

Finally, in September 2000, just two days before they were forced to produce documents to support their case against him, the government dropped all but one of those 59 charges against him. This was also after everyone learned that an FBI agent provided false testimony about Dr. Lee in the initial investigation. Dr. Lee was finally released after pleading guilty to one count of mishandling computer data. At his release hearing, the presiding judge in the case took the unprecedented step of apologizing to Dr. Lee:

I sincerely apologize to you, Doctor Lee, for the unfair manner in which you were held in custody by the executive branch. They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.

The world-renowned New York Times also issued an official apology to its readers regarding its coverage of Dr. Lee's situation. The Times admitted that they did not do the proper research and factfinding when they first investigated the story and that they were wrong in presuming Dr. Lee was guilty and wrong for helping to convict him in the court of media sensationalism and public opinion. Finally, in August 2001, the Justice Department released a report that criticized the Energy Department for providing inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading information to the FBI and the FBI for failing to investigate and verify that information in its case against Wen Ho Lee.

Dr. Lee's case is yet another example of government-sanctioned scapegoating and racial profiling -- singling out someone to take the blame for some overexagerated problem just because of his/her race or ethnicity. Sadly, it is a continuation of a pattern of anti-Asian racism that continues to target our community, based again on the two predominant stereotypes against us -- that we're all the same and that we're all foreigners and therefore, not American.



Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Anti-Asian Racism & Violence" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/racism.shtml> ().


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