Why are hate crimes against Asian Americans on the rise?

This wave of attacks has caused panic and confusion among Asian Americans and forces us to question: What is motivating these cruel and cowardly assaults? Are they purely an organic and spontaneous response to current events?

March 08, 2021 by Tina Ngo, Wai Lee Chin Feman, Bethie Wang

“Imperialism is the root cause of racism. It is the ideology which upholds colonial rule and exploitation. It is the ideology which breeds fascism, rightly condemned by the civilized people of the world” – Claudia Jones

Over the past year, we have seen an alarming surge in racist violence directed toward Asian Americans. A United Nations report identified more than 1,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans over an 8 week period from March to May 2020. These attacks have included denial of access to public spaces, verbal harassment, physical assault, vandalism, and in several cases even murder. Moreover, these incidents have targeted the elderly and most vulnerable. This wave of attacks has caused panic and confusion among Asian Americans and forces us to question: What is motivating these cruel and cowardly assaults? Are they purely an organic and spontaneous response to current events?

These attacks have continued well into 2021 with little action to stop them. Some Asian American activists hold the misguided belief that the violence is due to a lack of diverse media representation. Yet, media coverage on recent violence has focused on the most reactionary voices intent on driving a wedge between Black and Asian communities while ignoring the critical solidarity work being conducted by various Black and Asian groups across the country.

Hurt and traumatized by this onslaught of racist violence, activists have made vague and conflicting calls for more media representation, community vigilance and policy change — as well as more policing — as ways to resolve these attacks. However, we must realize that capitalist institutions such as the police and mainstream media do not offer a viable path towards ending these attacks; these institutions have actually been a major cause of the problem.

“…these attacks are a product of a vicious anti-China propaganda campaign driven by the Pentagon war machine”

Moreover, the dominant media narrative fails to account for the fact that these attacks are a product of a vicious anti-China propaganda campaign driven by the Pentagon war machine. This is interacting with already-existing racist indoctrination to inspire active, intense hatred towards Asian Americans of all nationalities. This Sinophobic campaign is promoted by U.S. politicians and their warmongering mass media.

Police brutality and state violence

Largely missing from this ongoing discussion is the role of the police and the capitalist state. The media has done an excellent job at depicting these violent acts as interpersonal and individual attacks. It conveniently erases police brutality and state violence as contributors to this rising aggression against the Asian American working class.

Asian Americans are no strangers to racial profiling and police brutality. Certainly not an unarmed Sureshbhai Patel, who had excessive force used on him because of a language barrier, or David Dao, a doctor who was dragged and beaten out of a flight by security officers. But it is not just police brutality, it is also police murder. The families of 19 year old Fong Lee and 20 year old Tommy Le continue to seek justice for their sons who were brutally murdered by police. In two separate incidents, 19 year old Christian Hall and 30 year old Angelo Quinto were experiencing mental health crises when both were murdered by these so called protective services.

Instead of defunding the police, President Joe Biden’s Memorandum Condemning and Combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance Against Asian Americans cleverly disguises a call to expand more powers to these agencies. The memorandum completely dismisses the fact that it is these agencies that prop up discrimination and harassment against the Asian American working class. It is a mirage that Asian Americans have a positive relationship with the police and the idea that we somehow will benefit from more policing is a dangerous lie.

Is it simply Trump’s fault?

And while President Biden’s Memorandum appears to decry recent racist violence, in reality his memo attempts to pin all of the blame on Trump and his administration. It is true that Trump poured gas on already-existing racist sentiments toward Asian Americans by referring to the COVID-19 virus as the “China Flu” and telling a wide range of other demagogic lies. The likening of COVID-19 to Chinese people endangers individual Asian Americans and places them in harm’s way, potentially targeted by those emboldened by Trump’s callous racism.

But both the Trump and the Biden administrations and their rhetoric are to blame for the recent increase in Sinophobic attitudes and actions. Biden’s continuation and even ramping up of hawkish rhetoric and a historic military buildup against China is a threat toward Chinese people, and by extension, Asian people as a whole. In fact, the Biden administration’s thinly-veiled anti-China rhetoric enables and embolden the precise racist violence the Memorandum ostensibly seeks to condemn.

It is imperative to recognize that this feel-good letter serves as a way for the administration to present a face of inclusion, representation, and diversity to hide behind and avoid criticism while its ulterior motive, to instigate a new Cold War with China, rages on unchecked.

Deep roots of anti-Asian racism

There is a long and infamous history of racism against Asian people in the United States. From as early as the 1840s, the U.S. capitalist class has exploited on a large scale cheap, “unskilled” labor extracted from various parts of Asia. The “coolie” system brought Chinese and other East Asian and South Asian laborers into the United States and exemplifies the symbiotic relationship of capitalism and racism.

The importation of cheap labor from various parts of Asia was the basis for anti-Chinese sentiment among white workers, who viewed Chinese laborers as competitors in the search for work. Eventually, this racist sentiment triggered the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred all Chinese people (and other Asians who were mistaken for Chinese by virtue of “looking Chinese”) from entering the United States.

Despite some individuals advocating on behalf of Chinese migration and against American nativism, including Frederick Douglass, the Chinese Exclusion Act would not be repealed until 1942. Even after its repeal, the Chinese Exclusion Act’s illustration of the inextricably linked nature of racism from capitalism serves as a blueprint for understanding how Sinophobia operates in the present day.

Sinophobia: International and interpersonal

There are two factors at play in the recent wave of hate crimes: first there is the long history of anti-Asian and anti-communist indoctrination in this country, and second there is the new wave of Sinophobia. Today’s propaganda does not fully control people’s racist attitudes; instead, these two factors exert mutual influence on each other. This new propaganda is interacting with the longstanding racism existing in society, intensifying the historic trend of bigotry against Asian Americans of all nationalities.

Despite being focused on China and the Chinese government, the recent wave of propaganda is inducing despicable crimes against Asian individuals. But how does this connection work?  Americans have been trained for centuries to think in terms of Yellow Peril. During the Cold War, the population was intensely indoctrinated with anticommunist propaganda. While the current coverage of China is not couched in the crude, explicitly white supremacist phrasing one might expect 50 or 100 years ago, this country’s long history of racist indoctrination is causing people to organically intensify and sharpen their anti-Asian racism. It is enough to say, “we got covid because it spread through wet markets”, and this will spread ideas about how Asian people pose a threat.

This is not a coincidence. The capitalist class knows that they need to indoctrinate the working class with racist ideology because it will be essential in the event of a conflict with China. They know that, in the event of a new war, the victims of U.S. imperialism need to be seen as not fully human. They want to train the population to ignore the voices who will inevitably object to that war. We need to understand the current wave of anti-China propaganda as not accidentally creating hatred towards Asian people, but as deliberately doing so.

There is recent precedent for hate crimes being inspired by racist propaganda that supports the United States’ imperialist ambitions. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the mainstream media spread Islamophobia around the clock through news, films, books and other mediums. This resulted in thousands of attacks. This Islamophobia played a key role in justifying the subsequent invasions and occupations of countries in the Middle East. Much like what is happening today, the attacks after 9/11 did not only hurt people who were actually Muslim — there were hate crimes against other people such as Sikhs and Hindus who, according to the racists, came from the same part of the world.

Looking at what the United States did after 9/11 is key to understanding the attacks that are happening today. The Islamophobic state response to the September 11 attacks was much more intense than the Sinophobia that we are seeing today, but it is an example of the same dynamic where bigotry is promoted in society to facilitate the goals of U.S. imperialism. The media environment today still exists to justify a potential conflict with China, and it still serves to dehumanize all Asian Americans in ways that are resulting in hate crimes.

The tragic case of Vincent Chin provides an instructive example of anti-Asian racism spreading beyond the initial targeted ethnicity.  During a period of anti-Japanese racism, Chin was mistaken for a Japanese auto worker and murdered in 1982 due to resentment over his perceived role in the destruction of the U.S. auto industry.

Imperialism is at the root of racism

To properly contextualize this problem, it is crucial to understand the evolving global conflict and the feedback loop between the looming conflict with China and the spread of racist ideas.

With regards to provoking a conflict with China, Biden is no better than Trump. Towards the end of Obama’s tenure, the United States began its “pivot to Asia”, and in this regard Biden is continuing Obama’s legacy. The Pivot to Asia was an explicit policy decision to wind down the “War on Terror” in the Middle East and to instead focus on “great power conflict” (between the United States and China). This conflict exists, at its core, because U.S. imperialism cannot tolerate the existence of another superpower and the restoration of a multipolar world, in which U.S. hegemony is challenged.

The recent wave of propaganda and Sinophobia has slowly evolved since the Pivot to Asia began. Over the past few years, we have seen many Chinese-American scientists become the victims of witch hunts, driven out of their posts (and out of the United States) because of the “national security threat” that they supposedly pose. The venomous anti-communist paper Epoch Times has built a media empire and is indoctrinating millions with its sloppy and hateful anti-China rhetoric.

Sinophobia has reached a point in the United States where cartoonish accusations are regularly leveled against China, and they face almost no criticism.  We regularly read absurd headlines, ranging from “debt trap diplomacy” to “Chinese supersoldiers are coming”.

The rising intensity in U.S. propaganda mirrors the rising intensity of the U.S.-China conflict.  China’s challenge to Washington and Wall Street’s control of the globe is intensifying. Through the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), China is investing approximately $1 trillion in infrastructure in Asia, Africa and Europe. This project will allow China to develop markets to its west, and it could help China “decouple” its economy from the United States. China is also playing a constructive role internationally in the production and distribution of the Coronavirus vaccine to countries struggling to acquire doses — a sharp contrast to the role played by the U.S. government.

It is worth pointing out that the wave of attacks on Asian people is happening all over the world in places that are on the side of the United States in its confrontation with China.  Attacks have recently taken place in the UK and in Australia. The attack in Australia is particularly noteworthy because the assailant made explicitly anti-communist statements during the attack, and because Australia’s trade conflict with China is becoming particularly intense. This helps us solidify our understanding of where these attacks come from — they are caused by propaganda which comes out of the new Cold War against China.

Multinational unity and the fight against racism 

As socialists, we understand that these hate crimes cannot be divorced from international politics. We understand that the media is complicit in these attacks, as a side effect of using Sinophobia to advance an imperialist agenda. To truly eliminate these attacks (and future ones), we must build a multinational working class movement and end the domination of a tiny handful of bankers, CEOs and Pentagon Generals over society. This is the only way to prevent a new, similar campaign against the next targeted group of people.

When reflecting on the ongoing wave of despicable hate crimes, it would be foolish to ignore the intense anti-Chinese propaganda that we are all exposed to. Suddenly, every day, we are hearing lies like “China made you sick” and “China is spying on us”. Suddenly, at the same time, we are also seeing a supposedly “spontaneous” wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans.

When the next Vietnamese, Filipino or Chinese person is murdered, we would be doing every Asian American a disservice by pretending the attack is not related to anti-China propaganda being pushed by the ruling class. If we are going to develop effective strategies for fighting the ongoing wave of hate crimes, we must understand the connection between the international and the interpersonal. We cannot fight against these attacks while ignoring their root cause.

This article was first published in Liberation News.