Then and Now: The US’ history of anti-Asian racism has contributed to this horrific culture of hate

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Lucy Lee, of Marietta, Ga., holds an American flag while rallying outside of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta during a unity “Stop Asian Hate” rally Saturday afternoon, March 20, 2021. The hate crimes committed in the Atlanta area last Tuesday are not merely the result of growing racism due to COVID-19, or the actions of modern politicians; this hatred has been ingrained in American society since its inception. Photo courtesy of Ben Gray / AP Photo.

Before I begin this article, I’d like to state my support for the Asian and Asian American communities in this tough time. I cannot pretend to understand the pain you all must be going through right now, but I truly hope that the future holds a brighter, more understanding and safe society for all of us. 

In order to realize that future, it’s important to understand how we got here. The hate crimes committed in the Atlanta area last Tuesday are not merely the result of growing racism due to COVID-19, or the actions of modern politicians; this hatred has been ingrained in American society since its inception.  

People of Asian descent have lived in North America since around the beginning of the 17th century, with Filipino sailors landing in what would become northern California aboard Spanish galleons. As for history in the U.S. once it became a country, it is widely believed that the first big surge of immigration from Asia came during the California Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. Unfortunately, this time period also includes the first documentation of blatant racism toward these people. In the People v. Hall, a White man who had been convicted for murdering a Chinese man in the mines appealed the verdict on the ground that the witnesses in his case had been Asian, which he thought was unfair. The California supreme court agreed, not even seeming to care that according to Hall’s own racist logic, a White witness would be biased toward him. This added Asian people to the list of groups that were legally not allowed to testify against White people in California, which at the time was a list encompassing anyone “Black, Mulatto … or Indian.” This racist law existed in the state until 1873, a full five years after the ratification of the 14th amendment. 

Let’s talk about the 14th amendment for a second. It’s first section reads “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Depriving people the right to testify in court is a direct contradiction to that amendment, and yet California did not care. 

The name of 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act speaks for itself. Racist lawmakers clearly knew that the 14th amendment’s protection of all people’s right to citizenship wouldn’t apply to people not yet in the country, so they prohibited the immigration of people from Asia for 10 years … which was then extended to 20 via the Geary Act … and then ended up lasting until 1943. That’s a grand total of 51 years of strict immigration regulation, and what replaced it, an oppressive quota system, was not much better. Also, this repealing came only one year after President Roosevelt instituted the Japanese internment system, so the racism definitely did not end here. 

The bottom line here is that what happens in the past contributes to a culture of hate that continues into the present and future. We live in a country where laws have been and are made that blatantly exclude and discriminate against entire groups of people, and we all let this happen. We can no longer allow any of this to happen, to anyone. Schools need to teach each generation of kids that the country they belong to has a long history of not wanting everyone to belong, and we all need to have uncomfortable conversations with ourselves about what we do in our lives that we might not even realize is hurting others. Again, I offer my sincere condolences to all the families affected by the Acworth shootings, and to everyone who has been made to feel less safe because of them. I know that many organizations are currently accepting donations, and if you have the means to, I urge you to donate what you can, so that we can empower people to make change and bring justice to a world that desperately needs to begin unraveling the ugly knot of racism that has been made tighter and tighter over centuries. 

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