Marx21 member and Maryland coordinator of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Virginia Rodino, discusses the rise in anti-Asian violence in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, contextualizing the tragedy by reaching back into America’s long history of anti-Asian racism.
The recent horrific racist murders at three Atlanta spas where eight people lost their lives is a grim reminder of both the rise of racism that we saw during the Trump era, and of the growth among a number of racist and far-right groups and all out fascists like the Proud Boys. This is sure to continue in the post-Trump era, making it very important that the left take up anti-racism and prioritize building anti-fascist united fronts.
The Atlanta shooting in March was a racist hate crime fueled by a longstanding sexist and racist American history. This history and the overall rise in recent racist attacks, and the resurgent far-right, are a toxic and very dangerous mix that will only be contained if the racists and the fascists are isolated and massively opposed by broad and united movements against racism and fascism.
One was a former elementary school teacher, another a former dancer. One was a single mom. At least two were grandmothers. At least four were US citizens. Several had limited English ability, making it difficult to find jobs, and a couple of the victims were divorced, leaving them in a precarious financial situation. These are the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings, the majority of whom were members of vulnerable Asian immigrant communities.
Although since the late 1980s the median household income of Asian Americans has matched or exceeded that of their White counterparts, some of the most vulnerable members of AAPI communities (Asian American and Pacific Islander) are working-class and single mothers who face limited job prospects and meager safety nets.
The surge in racist violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic, under Trump, is something well-documented and well-publicized. In the past year, there have been 3,800 reported incidents of anti-Asian violence, roughly 503 of which took place during 2021 alone, according to the group Stop AAPI Hate. Women make up the vast majority of those attacked. They were working in an industry that made them vulnerable to abuse, violence and stigmatization even within their own communities — an industry that often employs mothers and grandmothers, well into their later years of life.
Because they are limited by language barriers, age, and gender, these middle-aged women usually take low-paying jobs in the service sector shunned by most non-immigrant workers. There is a lower barrier to entry into illicit massage business work, in comparison to other jobs available to undocumented workers. Employers often do not require documentation or work authorization or previous experience. Many of the women have young children and minimal childcare support, so they search for work in the evenings or after hours, when the children are asleep.
All of these existing pressures have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has caused layoffs of many restaurant and nail salon workers, eliminated childcare safety nets, and forced even more people into underground economies — again disproportionately negatively impacting women of color.
This means we cannot omit anti-sex-worker bias from the analysis about these recent attacks on the Asian community. Removing the anti-sex-work component removes the crux of what this specific kind of racism is about: the fetishization of Asian women’s bodies, the objectification of their bodies, and the assumption that Asian women are obviously going to be providing sexual services at massage parlors. The conflation of massage parlors and sex workers without any nuance is very specific to anti-Asian racism against Asian women.
Even if they were providing non-sexual massages, the murders are inseparable from questions of sex work. The women are de facto being seen as sex workers and being scapegoated as such. The Atlanta killer told police that the spas he opened fire on represented a “temptation he wanted to eliminate”, suggesting that he at least believed that they did. This is the way racism, sexism and anti-sex-work sentiment work together to produce anti-Asian violence: no matter what — this crime was ultimately one against sex workers,
Because even if not victims of human and sex trafficking, the Atlanta victims worked for an exploitative industry. When the state comes in to regulate and police the industry, this often takes the form of raids which only further victimize and traumatize the women. One advocate described witnessing women all being pushed into the street first thing in the morning, shivering in their nightclothes. Another time, two Asian women at a parlor raid were held in the back of a police car, handcuffed, while one sobbed and began to have problems breathing. Treatment of this kind and then subsequent arrests of women were common despite the fact that these women more often than not experience some form of violence themselves, almost exclusively at the hands of a White man at a massage business. And the women do not report the violence to the police as most interactions they had directly with police — or interactions they knew of — resulted in their arrest, and sometimes permanent confiscation of their IDs, cellphone and electronics, credit cards and cash. They are told lies by a trafficker or exploitative employer. They think reporting it would cost them deportation or loss of legal status; they didn’t speak English, and they didn’t know whom to trust, or where to go.
The solution is not to have more funding for the police to protect massage parlor workers or to start an anti-Asian taskforce to guard Chinatown. The solution is to divest from policing altogether and to reinvest in these labor issues, to help women pay their rent, and to get them the Covid support they need right now that they’re not getting.
The Atlanta killings are also an example of violence in the workplace. The barriers to entry that immigrant workers face lead to vulnerabilities in unprotected, unregulated and secreted work. The systems that maintain this industry also make it nearly impossible for women to escape it.
Long history of anti-Asian racism
AAPI hate did not start with the murders in Atlanta. In the 19th century, European nations, desperate to exploit the riches of Asia, forced open Japan and China. They began a trade of opium for silk, tea and silver, and when China attempted to end it by making the narcotic illegal, foreign powers began two successive Opium Wars. China’s loss of both those wars opened it further to European and American business interests — which revived a centuries-old trope that the Chinese are weak and afflicted.
War caused massive waves of migration, and stereotypes of impurity and contamination followed the migrants to America, where they were forced into racially segregated settlements that sometimes grew into Chinatowns, Japantowns and Filipino Towns. As the number of migrants grew, the backlash did as well.
The impetus was often economic, but it was driven by a sense of racial entitlement. Whites claimed that Chinese were getting the best veins in the coal mines, staking the best gold panning spots, tilling fertile land that was meant for them. At rallies, demonstrators denounced “the Chinese plague,” conflating disease with displacement. Years of brutality ensued. In 1886 alone, mobs burned down at least a dozen Chinatowns in California to the ground.
The Central Pacific railroad started its construction in Sacramento, CA on the backs of up to 20,000 Chinese immigrants — almost 90% of the railroad’s entire labor force. Chinese laborers were not the first choice of the railroad financiers, but after failed attempts to attract white laborers (many of whom would only stay for short periods of time due to the high-risk nature of the work), they turned to Chinese immigrants to do the deadly work required.
Anti-Chinese sentiment was overwhelming during this time. Chinese immigrants, who had largely come to California around the Gold Rush, were viewed as outsiders, foreigners who were desperate for work, and physically and emotionally weak. This racism was so pervasive that the State of California and local governments passed anti-Chinese laws to deny Chinese workers their civil rights.
Without any other viable option, Chinese immigrants joined the transcontinental railroad construction effort. Their accomplishments while working on the railroad are nothing short of impressive. Chinese laborers performed work by hand that is typically performed by big machinery in the present day. They dug tunnels and constructed retaining walls, and even planted explosives when necessary, risking their lives in hopes that they were pulled up in time.
Despite the fact they performed the most dangerous tasks, they were paid 30% less than their white co-laborers without board. In considering Chinese laborers’ life-threatening tasks alongside grueling weather, it is no wonder that there are estimates of over 1,000 Chinese laborers dying while working on the railroad. In the face of all these challenges and risks, the laborers pressed on and delivered.
However, there was only so much abuse that the laborers could withstand. In June 1867, the Chinese laborers showed their strength by organizing and protesting for their rights. They stopped working, demanding better pay and better working conditions. For eight days, they held their ground. It was one of the largest workers’ rights strikes of the era.
In response to this show of worker power, among the battery of laws passed to restrict Asian Americans’ civil rights, including access to education, cultural practices and business activities, were laws meant to enforce White male purity. California passed an anti-miscegenation law banning marriage between Whites and a “negro, mulatto, or Mongolian.” Such laws culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first time any US federal law sought to exclude an ethnic group.
After the completion of the transcontinental railroad, some Chinese laborers continued to work on railroads across the country while many tried to find other jobs. But in the decades after the completion of the railroad, racism and racial hostility heightened across the country. The Chinese were targets of violence and blamed for stealing jobs from white Americans. This hostility culminated to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred all immigration from China into the U.S. and prevented Chinese workers from working on government projects. The ban effectively lasted until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 when all quotas on immigration were lifted.
The most direct predecessor of the Exclusion Act was the 1875 Page Act. It had been written narrowly to ban sex workers from “China, Japan or any Oriental country.” Still, President Ulysses S. Grant made clear how he and many others saw Asian women: “But few of whom,” he said, “are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations.”
As states moved in the late 1800s to protect the entitlements of White men and Grant demonized the actual bodies of Asian women, mob attacks on Asian Americans increased. Jean Pfaelzer’s book “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans” documents hundreds of forgotten riots, purges and lynchings in the 1880s that left thousands dead, wounded or displaced.
If they weren’t being driven out, they were being quarantined. On March 6, 1900, a report of a possible bubonic plague-caused death of a Chinese American surfaced in San Francisco. The next day, city officials shut down Chinatown. Police roped off the neighborhood and escorted out all the remaining Whites. Health officials voted to encircle the area with barbed wire. At one point, leaders seriously discussed burning down these same 16 square blocks to which they had long confined the Chinese. Neither came to pass, but authorities did build a high wall around Chinatown’s radius.
As successive waves of Asian immigrants and refugees arrived, often fleeing American wars, they too faced violence. In 1930, Whites rioted against Filipino American bachelors who frequented taxi-dance halls to dance with White women in Watsonville, Calif. In 1941, with war again as the backdrop, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rounded Japanese Americans up into concentration camps.
After the Korean war, the slur “gook” was merely recycled to use on the Vietnamese. The quick succession of World War II, Korea, Vietnam also meant that many top brass served in multiple wars in Asia. The need for anti-Asian xenophobia to train US soldiers going to Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos. US soldiers were taught that the Vietnamese were not people but “only gooks.”
While decrying the sex slavery World War II Japan instituted on its Korean subjects — kidnapping and forcing young girls to serve in military brothels euphemistically known as “comfort stations” — the US military ended up repurposing this system and even some of the same women for US soldiers during the Korean war.
Korea’s war ended in an armistice agreement in 1953, and yet in 1965, 85% of GIs surveyed reported having “been with” or “been out with” a prostitute.
These cultural attitudes and stereotypes about Asian women don’t end when a soldier returns home. They become incorporated into American culture such that, like with the nexus of military life and prostitution, and while the origins of these stereotypes become forgotten and obscured, the stereotypes of hypsersexualized Asian women are unforgettable. Rapes and sexual violence of Asian women by US soldiers was so typical and unpunished, it took a kidnapping and gang rape of a 12-year-old by three US Marines in Okinawa in 1994 to finally stir any interest from the US media.
Through this history we see how Asian women and girls were seen as sexual objects, and Asian men were emasculated and blamed for capitalism’s busts.
In 1982 in Detroit, a young Chinese American draftsman named Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two White autoworkers outside of a strip club where he had gone to celebrate his bachelor party. Before they set upon him with a baseball bat, they had baited him by calling him ethnic slurs for both Japanese and Chinese — demonstrating the same confusion of pandemic-era attackers who have lashed out at Asian Americans of all ethnicities while thinking them Chinese — and told him he was the reason they were out of work. A judge sentenced them to probation, saying, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” This is reminiscent of the Georgia sheriff police spokesperson who said sympathetically of the Atlanta killer, “He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”
The massacres against Asian Americans has never ended. In 1989, a gunman opened fire on a Stockton, CA, elementary schoolyard full of Cambodian and Vietnamese American children. He killed five and wounded 32 more. In 2012, another gunman murdered six Sikh Americans at a temple in Oak Creek, WI.
So when Asian Americans objected to Trump and others’ use of “the Chinese virus,” it was because many of us feared these words would yield a body count. We were told that we were overreacting. But now a year of anti-Asian rage has come to this: children slashed in department stores, elderly set on fire, punched in the face or pushed to their deaths, and women, attacked at twice the rate of men, chased, beaten, spit upon, as if we are not people, but pollutants — infections, contagions, stains on whiteness.
The same twisted view of Asian Americans that Grant had echoes in Cherokee County, GA, Sheriff Jay Baker’s stunningly sympathetic read of Long’s defense that he was trying to “eliminate” a “temptation.” What stands out in Baker’s news conference is who his sympathies went to — not the then-unnamed victims, most of whom were working-class Asian American women, but to Long, who had had “a bad day.”
Solidarity in struggle
The work we are doing in our immigrant rights coalitions, and building solidarity with the movement for Black lives, the joint struggle against white supremacy, is the way to defeat AAPI hate in this country and elsewhere. The critique of US imperialism by the AAPI community is built on the centuries-long struggle for black liberation — and the Black-Asian solidarity that is often erased from our history books.
Grace Lee Boggs, a daughter of Chinese immigrants who died in 2015 at the age of 100, advocated for tenants’ and workers’ rights, and was one of the only non-Black, female leaders in the Black Power Movement.
Yuri Kochiyama was born and raised in California. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her father, just out of surgery, was arrested and detained in a hospital. He died shortly thereafter. In 1943, under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Kochiyama and her family were sent to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas, for two years. Her activism started in Harlem in the early 1960s, where she participated in the Asian American, Black, and Third World movements for civil and human rights, ethnic studies, and against the war in Vietnam. She sought to build a more political Asian American movement that would link itself to the struggle for Black liberation, noting that “Racism has placed all ethnic peoples in similar positions of oppression poverty and marginalization.” In 1963, she met Malcolm X and joined his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, to work for racial justice and human rights.
Muhammad Ali, refusing induction into the military in 1967 at the height of America’s war on Vietnam, said, “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America, and shoot them. For what? They never called me n*****. They never lynched me. They never put no dogs on me. They never robbed me of my nationality, or raped and killed my mother and father. … How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Unsurprisingly it benefits capitalism to pit communities of color against one another and not highlight the multi-racial solidarity that is possible and present in anti-racist movements. The model minority myth — based on the stereotype that Asian Americans are hard working, law-abiding individuals, and the false perception that such qualities have led to their success over other racial groups — has played a significant role in creating a wedge between Asian Americans and other communities of color, particularly African Americans. However, because of the brilliant mutli-racial, mutli-ethnic solidarity and class consciousness produced by the phenomenal movement for Black lives in the summer of 2020, anti-racists, progressives, youth and other social justice movements more quickly and seamlessly met at rallies, demonstrations, vigils and online events to stand together against AAPI hate after the Atlanta murders in March 2021.
It is this type of solidarity work that we in Marx21 are doing, along with growing an anti-fascist and anti-racist network in United Against Hate. This is the necessary response to the waves of violence against women, against Asians, against immigrants and against workers. As socialists we continue to knock down false narratives of division and difference, and build class consciousness among workers across race, ethnicity, gender and immigrant status.