The History of Anti-Asian Violence In America

By Lynn Brown Mar 23, 2021

On Tuesday, March 16, a gunman walked into several massage parlors in the Atlanta area and killed eight people, six of them Asian American women. Though the shooter was apprehended and confessed to the murders, the police department’s hesitation to label the incident a hate crime has sparked heated debate. Some have posed that the shooting was an isolated incident brought on by recent COVID-19 related bias. While it’s true that racially motivated violence against this community has surged by 150% since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, the reality is that the United States has a long history of anti-Asian sentiment, which has often erupted in violence and marginalization.

In a discussion with NPR, Dale Minami, lawyer and former Asian American studies professor at U.C. Berkeley, spoke of the past week in terms of the long arc of history for this community.

“From the first immigration of Chinese to this country in the 1850s, to the present, you’ve seen an ebb and flow of such violence.”

Indeed, since the first big wave of immigrants from China and other Asian countries came to the West Coast in search of opportunity, the country has seen a parallel wave of anti-Asian sentiment. The proliferation of racist tropes and unsubstantiated fears about immigrants supposedly “stealing jobs” or “bringing disease” inevitably escalates to a rise in racially motivated violence. Historically, this violence has often also led to laws and policies that paradoxically have only furthered the marginalization of the Asian American population.     

For example, the first major wave of Chinese immigration in the 1850s was swiftly followed by a rise in racial tension and People v Hall, a legal ruling, which stated that people of Asian descent were not allowed to testify against a white person in court. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which ultimately halted almost all immigration from China for 61 years and denied citizenship to people of Chinese descent already living in the US, was passed on the heels of the lynching of 17 Chinese men in Los Angeles. Immediately after the passing of the bill, Chinese immigrants across the country, particularly those working on the railroads and in the gold mines of the western US, routinely found themselves the victims of racially motivated violence. In 1885, white minors took exception to the number of Chinese workers in the town of Rock Springs, Wyoming and embarked on a campaign of terror that ultimately culminated in the murder of at least twenty-eight people and the destruction of nearly eighty homes. Two years later, another such massacre, this one in a place called Hells Canyon, along the Snake river in Oregon, would claim the lives of another thirty four people.

The unsubstantiated fear of Asian immigrants as carriers of plague is also not a new phenomenon. In 1900, Chinese immigrants were blamed for an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the city of San Francisco that historians now believe actually originated from sailors on a ship that had come from Australia. Nevertheless, the city’s Chinatown was locked down by armed police who had orders that only white citizens could enter or exit the neighborhood. Trapped in increasingly unsanitary conditions and cut off from medical attention because of racism, as well as the enforced quarantine, many Chinatown residents fell ill and died of the disease between 1900 and 1904.   

The internment of Japanese citizens during WWII is perhaps one of the more well known incidents of government persecution of Asian Americans in American history.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that around 120,000 people of Japanese descent, about two thirds of which were American citizens, be forcibly rounded up and confined to concentration camps across the country. Whole families, including very young children were forced to live in deplorable conditions with no knowledge of when, or if they would be allowed to leave. Medical assistance, when available at all, was scarce and many fell ill. The emotional toll the incarceration took on the families, though, is incalculable. 

“The psychological trauma for Japanese Americans has really not been looked into as much,” said Marge Taniwaki, an activist and producer of the KGNU radio show, La Lucha Sigue (The Struggle Continues). 

Taniwaki’s family was forcibly relocated to the Manzanar camp in Death Valley, California when she was just seven months old. “We basically swallowed everything [and] we never healed from the incarceration,” said Taniwaki.

Though Marge was born in Los Angeles, and her mother, an American citizen from San Francisco, her family never returned to the West Coast. The family was forced to move inland as part of their release, settling in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver, after spending the first four years of Taniwaki’s life in a camp. Upon being released, the family was given $25 and a bus ticket.

When discussing the recent murders in Atlanta, Marge stresses the importance of knowing history, lest it continue to repeat itself.

“What happened in Georgia is simply a continuation of the issue…the same kind of white supremacy has happened ever since colonists landed on the shores of this particular continent.”