The American Historian

An Injury to One is An Injury to All

George J. Sánchez

On the evening of Thursday, February 25, 2021, the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles was vandalized by someone who toppled stone lanterns, threw a rock through a twelve-foot glass window entrance, and started a fire by lighting wooden ornaments. The beloved temple has its roots in Los Angeles dating back to 1904, while the current temple structure has anchored the Little Tokyo community since 1976. The police department reviewed security video of the incident and identified a white male in his mid-40s to 50s as the primary suspect. The vandalism is being investigated as a hate crime, one of a surging number of incidents of hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in southern California and across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020. The advocacy and tracking group “Stop AAPI Hate” has identified 245 incidents of hate against AAPIs in Los Angeles County alone from March 20 to October 28 last year.

Recent incidents have also turned increasingly physical and violent, with Asian American women and elderly particularly targeted. One study based on police statistics has found a 150 percent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020, with large jumps in U.S. urban areas, especially New York City, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, even while overall hate crimes dropped by 7 percent last year. In Oakland in early March 2021, a 75-year-old Asian American man died after being a victim of assault and battery on a routine morning walk, the fifteenth incident of anti-Asian violence around Chinatown in Oakland. Across the bay in San Francisco, an 84-year-old grandfather from Thailand, Vicha Ratanapakdee, died after being knocked to the ground by a 19-year-old man in a violent attack captured on video. In New York City, Asian restaurant owners struggled not only with pandemic conditions and anti-Asian graffiti on their establishments, but also had to release their employees from work early for fear of being attacked on public transportation in the city.

Most analysts blame former President Donald Trump for the increased attacks on the nation’s Asian American population. As Trump desperately tried to deflect blame for COVID deaths from his own administration’s ineptitude, he repeatedly called COVID the “Chinese virus” or “kung flu” to rounds of applause from Republican audiences. Indeed, the last use of those terms by Trump came just last month in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida. By wrongly making the Asian American Pacific Islander community in the United States the scapegoat for a disease that was ravaging the globe, Trump has directly encouraged the violence against the community by unhinged supporters with a “license to hate.” As Kurt Bardella, Korean American and former Republican, put it: “To people that look like me, you’re putting a target on our back. There is a reason why this widespread violence is happening, and it’s being incited by the Republican party.”

A large group of Asian American historians and other scholars, however, remind us that there is nothing new in anti-Asian hate being fueled to advance political agendas in the United States. According to my USC colleague Adrian De Leon writing for The Nation, almost from the moment significant numbers of Asians entered the United States in the nineteenth century, they were viewed as a threat to the nation and a “yellow peril” that was unclean and unfit for citizenship in America. In 1854, a California Supreme Court case called People v. Hall ruled that an Asian person could not testify against a white person in a criminal proceeding. According to Princeton professor Beth Lew-Williams, that meant that there was an “understanding that there would be no legal repercussions for violence against Chinese people” and that affected how white people interacted with Chinese. Many Chinese people were driven out of mining towns in the U.S. West during the gold rush, and by 1871 there was a “Chinese massacre” in Los Angeles that killed eighteen people. In 1885, twenty-eight Chinese coal miners were killed by a white mob in Rock Springs, Wyoming, as the terrorists burnt down the city’s Chinatown. Widespread perceptions in the nineteenth century held that Chinese immigrants were the source of diseases like smallpox, leprosy, malaria, and the bubonic plague, as did fears that they were taking away jobs from white workers.

These fears of disease, economic competition, and widespread violence all led the U.S. Congress to target Chinese immigrants with the first comprehensive immigration restriction laws in U.S. history: the 1875 Page Act and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Quickly, however, this anti-Chinese sentiment spread to other Asian groups. In the early twentieth century, American officials in the Philippines, a formal colony of the U.S. at the time, denigrated Filipinos for their “supposed unclean and uncivilized bodies,” according to De Leon. The “forever foreign” trope that was earlier used against Chinese in the United States would quickly be transferred to the growing Japanese American population. By 1942, almost all 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and live in camps during World War II because they were seen as disloyal and a threat to public safety, even though this was a violation of their constitutional rights. According to historian Erika Lee in America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States, this action was a result of decades of anti-Japanese sentiment, especially in California, which included a San Francisco School Board ban of Japanese students in 1906; 1907 white mobs attacking Japanese homes, businesses and restaurants; a 1913 Alien Land Law which barred Asian immigrants from leasing land for more than three years or ever purchasing land; and a 1920 racist senatorial campaign by candidate James D. Phelan centered around the slogan “Keep California White.”

More recently, similar themes of economic competition, “forever foreignness,” and public health paranoia have continued to dominate anti-Asian violence, even as the Asian American population of the United States has been diversified by over thirty different ethnic/national groups. In 1982, two white Detroit-area auto workers beat to death twenty-year-old Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, with a baseball bat, mistaking him for Japanese and blaming Japan for the loss of their auto jobs. In the 1990s, paranoia around Asian American scientists resulted in discrimination against Taiwanese American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, and the growth of Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11 led to a targeting of South Asians, especially Sikh Americans, for violent reprisals. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, various Asian Americans have been coughed on, spat at, harassed and attacked, with slurs “blaming” them for the spread of the coronavirus.

The cruel irony of the latest violent backlashes against Asian Americans is that many victims of the violence actually find themselves as essential workers and first responders in helping all Americans cope with the effects of the pandemic. Historian Catherine Ceniza Choy has documented the long history of migration waves of Filipino nurses that have come to the United States since the days of colonial rule in the early twentieth century in her book, Empire of Care. As Choy observes, “a number of them have worked in previous epidemics and pandemics in the United States, from AIDS to SARS to Ebola to Covid.” Yet it was still shocking when reports in November 2020 indicated that nearly one-third of the nurses who’ve died of coronavirus in the U.S. are Filipino, even though Filipino nurses make up just 4 percent of the nursing population nationwide. In U.S. hospitals, Filipino American nurses are more likely to be situated in the direct path of Covid-19 patients, in emergency rooms or intensive-care units. Rosary Castro-Olega, a Filipina American nurse born and raised in California, who came out retirement to help in local ICUs struggling with Covid patients became the first health care professional to die of Covid in California in March 2020. And along with nurses, Asian Americans are often overrepresented among other essential workers categories such as restaurant employees, transit drivers, and farm workers.

To truly understand the recent upsurge of anti-Asian hate crimes and violence requires a knowledge of the longstanding history of racial attacks against Asian Americans in the United States. But to do something about turning the tide against these attacks requires new perspectives that a young Asian American population, not satisfied with silence nor with easy policing answers, has been willing to explore. Organizations such as the Chinese Progressive Association and the National Asian American Pacific American Women’s Forum have built new multiracial coalitions to denounce the violence, while other Asian American activists have recruited actors and athletes to speak up to protect immigrant parents and grandparents. An increased social media presence, informed by recent work in Asian American history, through an intersectional approach to keeping communities safe provides the greatest hope for solving this growing problem today and in the future.


George J. Sánchez is Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity, and History at the University of Southern California, and Director of the USC Center for Diversity and Democracy.  He is the author of Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, and editor of Beyond Alliances: The Jewish Role in Reshaping the Racial Landscape of Southern California, Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina, and Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Cultures. His current book project is titled Laboratory of Democracy: Race, Immigration and Community in Boyle Heights, California.