CW: Gun violence, racial violence
I was chillingly unsurprised when I first heard about the Atlanta shootings. When I initially came home during the COVID-19 pandemic, I distinctly remember feeling a deep-seated sense of discomfort while running outside on the backroads of central Pennsylvania. I have always been acutely aware of my Asian American identity in my predominantly white hometown, but I had never felt so intensely afraid of what my neighbors might say or do to me.
I dismissed myself as paranoid. At the time, I didn’t realize how my racial paranoia fit into “the new reality of race in America,” especially when race breaches mainstream media discourse. However, in retrospect, I knew from 21 years of living in America that discrimination is a sign of much greater violence — rooted in the past, indicative of the present and an omen for the future.
The rise in anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic is no exception or surprise: On March 16, 2020, Donald Trump tweeted the phrase “Chinese virus” for the first time. On March 16, 2021, the Atlanta spa shootings left nine shot and eight dead, including six Asian women.
It is tragically poetic that the Atlanta shootings happened one year after Trump’s tweet, but the focus on this short-term connection fails to link these incidents to the larger pattern of historical oppression. It makes perfect sense that Trump continued to double down on his use of “Chinese virus” in a laughable attempt to smear China as it surpasses the crumbling facade of U.S. dominance.
What is not laughable is how Trump’s racist rhetoric has fueled a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, with almost 4,000 reported anti-Asian hate incidents in the 11 months following the pandemic and more than 2,000 additional hate incidents since March 2021. As microaggression scholar Derald Wing Sue states, “The destruction of a people is preceded by the defamation of one’s character,” which further supports, entrenches and justifies oppression.
The construction of the model minority myth in the past 50 years created an environment that is dismissive of the historical and present discrimination that Asian Americans face. This myth also puts up an insidious smokescreen that masks the diversity and huge disparities that exist within the community, such as the wealth gap.
Even the term Asian American is an umbrella term that lumps together people of many different backgrounds; it’s often used exclusively, erasing South and Southeast Asians from the picture. We must hold the simultaneous truths that we can benefit from the model minority myth and experience racist violence.
Our place in this country has always been contingent on what is politically necessary to uphold white supremacy. After slavery as the United States had known it was stifled in 1863, many Asian bodies were lured to the United States under the false promise of economic opportunity to satisfy racial capitalism’s need for a cheap labor force. Later, when the country’s whiteness started feeling threatened by the rising numbers of Asian immigrants, we saw a recurring theme of exclusion for each wave of Chinese (Page Act and Chinese Exclusion Act), Japanese (Gentlemen’s Agreement), Sikh (Asiatic Barred Zone Act) and Filipino (Tydings-McDuffie Act) immigrants, to name a few.
As we know, white people did more than pass legislation when they were threatened: They lynched, burned down communities and drove people out of town. In times of national crisis like World War II, the Korean War and now the COVID-19 pandemic, people of Asian heritage become the country’s enemy.
Not only are Asian Americans harmed by Trump’s repeated discriminatory rhetoric, but “Chinese virus” seeks to avoid the responsibility for his catastrophic handling of the pandemic. Unfortunately, this tactic succeeded in deflecting the blame from Trump with many of his supporters while creating a dangerous climate for Asian Americans. However, this doesn’t change how Trump’s inaction contributed to over half of a million coronavirus deaths in America.
The focus on Trump’s individual wrongdoings deflects attention from examining the larger oppressive systems that were exposed to the public by the pandemic — an inadequate healthcare system, food and housing insecurity and an inhumane justice system that must be reimagined. I’m frustrated with this cycle where only major events can bring existing social problems to mainstream attention. Racism targets people of color, but all people are caught in its crossfire.
Until we incorporate historical contexts into our theory and action, incidents like the Atlanta shootings will continue to fit into this larger framework of oppression while being falsely presented as so-called isolated incidents. We must grapple with how particular issues deeply connect and intertwine with histories of oppression and resistance in order to understand the present and pursue a better future. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating the same unhelpful tendences to dismiss incidents as individual events that don’t require action, or worse, to slap a reformist Band-Aid that maintains oppression while appearing to do “good.”
The Atlanta shootings are the visible tip of the iceberg. If we want to transform the world towards collective liberation, we have to understand the nasty, harrowing history of oppression that sits underneath the surface of the water. Take a look, and tell me what you find.
Chris Meng PO ’23 is from Lewisburg, PA. He would like to appreciate all the people who helped contribute to this piece, and he asks to check out the victims’ GoFundMes and see the resource list compiled by the Asian American Resource Center, the 7C Asian American Advisory Board and Center for Asian Pacific American Students.