Historical and contemporary aspects of US anti-Asian racism

By Martin Woodley

The history of US anti-Asian racism

White supremacy is a system which was constructed as a means of consolidating ’whiteness’ as the defining unifying feature of the nation. As such, all people of colour were to one extent or another constituent of ’internal colonies’ brought about respectively by the pacification of the indigenese and the annexation of former territories of Mexico. There is of course the paradigm, and most important case of the African American community, oppressed after emancipation by Jim Crow laws and which is perpetuated today through residential segregation, discrimination, criminalisation, and a racist and oppressive justice system.

To this list, which is not exhaustive, America’s Asian heritage communities must be included. Originally Chinese migrated as cheap labour, driven by the economic catastrophe then taking place in China resulting from the Taiping rebellion. They were prized by industrial employers, particularly for the construction of the American Transcontinental railway beginning in the 1850s. They settled in numbers in California. Since they arrived as a source of cheap labour, white workers considered them to be unfair competition for jobs, as well as bringer of a strange, alien, i.e. not European, culture.

In 1854, the California Supreme Court reinforced racism against Asian immigrants in People v. Hall, ruling that people of Asian descent could not testify against a White person in court, virtually guaranteeing that Whites could escape punishment for anti-Asian violence. In this case, it was murder: George Hall shot and killed Chinese immigrant Ling Sing, and the testimony of witnesses was rejected because they were also Asian.1

Following the Mexican-American War of 1845, present day California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, the Western part of New Mexico, the west of Colorado and South West Wyoming were ceded to the US in 1848; by 1860 Texas had been annexed. After 1877 reconstruction had been driven into reverse and by 1896 Jim Crow laws had been established throughout the South. The First Nation Wars – the pacification of the indigenese – had been continuing uninterrupted since the original colonisation and were only finally concluded in 1924. Therefore, the context of the institutionalisation of anti-Asian racism was the general imposition of white supremacy over indigenous, African, Hispanic and Asian communities.

As soon as the civil rights amendments had been passed following the civil war, the country restarted its descent into hatred aimed at all people of colour, including Asian Americans. In 1871 more than 500 Whites attacked a small Chinese community in Los Angeles, lynching at least 17 Chinese males – eight of the rioters were convicted, but all had their convictions overturned.

The Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese exclusion act passed in 1882 after a protracted period of pressure from white workers. This act outlawed all Chinese immigration to the United States and denied citizenship to those already settled in the country. It was renewed in 1892 and extended indefinitely in 1902 – the Chinese population of the US declined until the act was repealed in 1943.

After the 1893 economic downturn, measures adopted in the severe depression included anti-Chinese riots that eventually spread throughout the West from which came racist violence and massacres. Most of the Chinese farm workers, which by 1890 comprised 75% of all Californian agricultural workers, were expelled, and migrated to the ’Chinatowns’ in the cities.

A few examples of the racism endured by the Asian American population suffice to illustrate what was involved:

  • In Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, long-standing aggression against Chinese miners exploded in September 1885, when 100 to 150 vigilantes surrounded and attacked Chinese mineworkers, killing 28 people and burning 79 homes. Hundreds fled to a nearby town, then were tricked into boarding a train they were told would take them to safety in San Francisco. Instead, it took them back to Rock Springs, where they were forced back into the mine. Federal troops stayed for 13 years to impose order.
  • In 1900, an outbreak of bubonic plague struck San Francisco. It is likely that the outbreak began with a ship from Australia, but since the first stateside victim was a Chinese immigrant, the whole community was blamed for it. Overnight, the city’s Chinatown was surrounded by police, preventing anyone but White residents from going in or out. Chinese residents were also subjected to home searches and property destruction by force.
  • By the 1940s, tens of thousands of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans had built lives in the United States. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and the United States entered World War II, the US government forced all of them into internment camps for the duration of the war over suspicions they might aid the enemy.

The rise of Asia and the contemporary context

It is clear that Asian Americans in common with all people of colour have to endure racism. Additional to not being white there is also the perception that they bring exotic and ’un-American’ cultural norms. However, there is an extra factor which applies exclusively to people of East Asian heritage that does not apply to any of the other non-white communities – that factor is the economic rise of Asia itself.

The murder of Vincent Chin

Beginning with Japan in the 1970s, and the Asian tiger economies in the 1980s, and now in a particularly telling fashion with the rise of China the perception that has been fostered is that the success of Asia is being achieved at the expense of America. A consequence of this way of seeing the relative ascent of Asia and decline of the US is the demonisation of Asians. This first became apparent in the case of the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982.

The 1970s were a time of economic and geopolitical instability; the defeat of the US and its ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam; the Iranian revolution, socialist revolutions in central America, etc. Most people viewed American economic fragility through the lens of Japanese ascent. Nothing symbolises this more than the introduction of Japanese automobiles into the US domestic market. This, combined with the oil price rises and the superior economy of Japanese vehicles drove a descent of the Detroit auto industry. In 1982 Detroit had 17% unemployment. The US market share of the big three Detroit car makers, Chrysler, Ford and GM declined from 95% in 1955 to 73% in 1980.2

In 1982, two auto workers, one a Chrysler plant supervisor, the other his recently laid off stepson attacked, beat and killed a young Chinese American Vincent Chin on account of the fact that he may have been Japanese. The two were given suspended sentences and $3,000 fines. The judge said ”these are not the kind of men you send to jail… You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal”. During the trial eye witnesses had not been subpoenaed. The attitude of the judge and the legal system can be said to have still reflected that exhibited by the California Supreme Court in the 1854 ruling People vs. Hall referred to above.

The Atlanta massacre of 2021

Following the judges decision the Asian American community engaged in a whole new process of coalition building. The Vincent Chin case represented the organised political awakening of the Asian American community, which was again displayed in the immediate reaction to the massacre in Atlanta on 16 March this year. The Asian American community came together out of the realisation that in 1982 you could be targeted if you looked Japanese; similarly today, as shown by the surge in anti-Asian hate crime beginning in 2020 and still continuing as well as the Atlanta shootings of 16 March, you can be targeted for just looking Chinese.

Despite the various attempts by law enforcement agencies to avoid characterising the Atlanta massacre as an anti-Asian hate crime, and instead to say that it was a question of sexual deviance, the motivation of the shooter is clear from his social media posts, and from the fact that his route between Young’s Asian Massage where Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun and Paul Andre Michels were killed – and his second destination took him past several adult businesses, yet he drove 27 miles to Gold Spa, where he killed three Asian women, and then crossed the street to Aromatherapy Spa, where he killed one more.

From his social media post (figure 1) he was expressing similar if not more extreme motivations as the attackers of Vincent Chin from 1982, except that then it was directed against the Japanese whereas now it is directed against the Chinese.

Figure 1: Social media post of Robert Aaron Long just prior to executing the anti-Asian massacre in Atlanta. https://twitter.com/SpiritofHo/status/1372168690674901002?s=20

The current context is the imminent surpassing of the US economy by the Chinese economy in terms of absolute size, together with the ascent of China as a technological power. The intensity of the anti-China sentiments is amplified by the drive towards a new cold war by successive US administrations, and the seeming national unity reflected in the bipartisan approach to China, which necessarily entails the demonisation of the Chinese on some level.

Figure 2 shows inequality between the global north and the global south in the left hand graph, and global north and China in the right hand graph.3 These show that from the beginning of the twenty-first century there has been a steady decline in the inequality between the GDP per capita between the global north and the global south, levelling off at around 10 by 2009. However, against China the decline has continued past 2009 when it was around 10 to arrive at around 6 by 2014. When the differential performance exhibited between the global north and China in particular in mitigating the effects of the global pandemic are taken into account the conclusion is clear – China will continue to close the inequality gap between itself and the US into the future.

Figure 2: GDP per capita of i) the global north divided by that of the global south (left); and GDP per capita of the global north divided by that of China (right); 1954 — 2014

Therefore, these trends show not only that China is outpacing the global north in economic development, but is providing an alternative example to the rest of the global south. This would be a catastrophe for US foreign policy if it were allowed to continue, and that is what is behind the present escalation of tensions. Naturally, in order to maintain domestic consent for the escalations the problems of the US population have to be attributed to China – in other words China’s advance is achieved at the expense of the American working class.

Just as the murderers of Vincent Chin were led to believe that Japan was directly responsible for their deteriorating situation, so Robert Aaron Long was led to believe that China is literally responsible for 500,000 American deaths, and is attempting to take over the world.

The Asian American community is currently the fastest growing in the US. As the Vincent Chin murder was the catalyst for the organised political awakening of the Asian American community, the Atlanta massacre has spurred its re-awakening.



  1. The long, ugly history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the US; Gillian Brockell; The Washington Post; March 18, 2021.
  2. From tail fins to hybrids: How Detroit lost its dominance of the US auto market; Thomas H. Klier; 2Q economic perspectives; Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago; May, 2009; https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/6309861.pdf.
  3. The Origins Of Western Hubris And The Destiny Of Northern Exceptionalism; Alan Freeman; December, 2019; https://www.slideshare.net/alanfreeman777/the-origins-of-western-hubris-and-the-destiny-ofnorthern-exceptionalism.