From Vincent Chin to the “China Virus”: Connecting Anti-Asian Racism and Community Responses in Past and Present
Over the past two years, many Asian Americans have described the surge in anti-Asian racist attacks during the Covid-19 pandemic as an awakening—a critical moment when they discovered for the first time and through direct experience that racism has a real impact on their lives. “The pandemic has initiated Asian Americans like me into the experience of feeling personally endangered by racism,” wrote Regina Kim in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. For many Asian Americans, especially those who are recent immigrants, the realization that Asian Americans might be discriminated against and assaulted on the basis of race is a painful realization.
But the truth is that Asian Americans have been awake and aware of this problem well before the Covid-19 pandemic. The recent surge in acts of anti-Asian violence and harassment are part of a long history of anti-Asian racism in the United States. From the lynching and exclusionary immigration laws targeting Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century to the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the twentieth, Asian and Asian American people have been scapegoated and vulnerable to racist attacks and discriminatory treatment during times of economic, geopolitical, and public health crisis.
In particular, the anti-Asian hostility of 2020 and 2021 bears many similarities to the rise in anti-Asian sentiment that occurred four decades earlier in the 1980s. During both periods, a convergence of forces—tensions between the United States and Asian nations, global competition and local economic troubles, and nativist opposition to immigrants and refugees—gave new life to the old idea that Asian people constituted a “yellow peril” that threatened the security, prosperity, and health of the American nation. Both periods also saw robust responses to anti-Asian racism, which ranged from grassroots community activism at the local level to organized political action at the national level.
Asian American responses to anti-Asian racism in the 1980s and 2020s were sometimes directly connected. In Michigan, for example, the events of the 1980s set the stage for how activists four decades later understood and organized against anti-Asian attacks during the Covid-19 pandemic. The 1982 murder of Vincent Chin and the subsequent effort by community leaders to bring the killers to justice reshaped the local landscape for Asian American activism by fostering collaborative relationships, initiating new community organizations, and raising public awareness of the racism faced by Asian Americans. These efforts informed how, nearly forty years later, Asian Americans in Michigan mobilized to work with community and government institutions to ensure the safety of Asian Americans as they faced an onslaught of anti-Asian attacks during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fifteen years after the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act, which ended the discriminatory national origins quotas that had limited migration from Asia, the Asian American population in the United States had grown substantially. Between 1970 and 1980, the Asian American population in the United States increased from 1.5 million to 3.7 million people. The geographic distribution of the Asian American population was also changing. While the Asian American population earlier in the twentieth century had resided primarily along the Pacific coast and in Hawaii, Asian Americans in the 1980s were increasingly present in all corners of America. Job opportunities had drawn professional Asian immigrants with sought-after skills to cities and towns where there had previously been few Asian Americans. At the same time, American refugee resettlement policies had intentionally dispersed Southeast Asian refugees across the country.
Although the liberalization of American immigration policies reflected a greater openness to the presence of Asian people in the United States, anti-Asian hostility remained. It owed in part to long-standing stereotypes, often reproduced in popular media, that held that Asian Americans are foreigners who are deceitful and dangerous—in other words, a “yellow peril” that threatens America. But there were also historical developments specific to the 1970s and 1980s that contributed to anti-Asian sentiment during this period. For one, there was widespread opposition to new immigrants and refugees, especially the approximately one million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos who arrived in the last quarter of the twentieth century. One national Gallup poll conducted in May 1975, just one month after the fall of Saigon, found that only 36 per cent of Americans surveyed favored the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees; 54 per cent of Americans surveyed opposed it. Even a full decade after the end of the Vietnam War, a plurality of Americans believed that the United States had accepted too many Southeast Asian refugees. Underlying this anti-refugee sentiment was lingering anger and resentment related to the Vietnam War. As Clare Booth Luce argued, American opposition to Southeast Asian refugees was “rooted in a suppressed sense of guilt, shame and frustration over the Communist victory in the Vietnam war.”
Anti-Asian sentiment in the 1970s and 1980s also arose in the context of increased global economic competition with Japan. Japan enjoyed a booming economy and emerged as an exporting powerhouse that threatened American economic preeminence. Americans expressed concern about Japan’s rising dominance in producing and selling automobiles and electronics and about trade relations between the two nations. At the same time, Americans were beset by domestic economic troubles, including a recession in the early 1980s and the ongoing decline of certain industries, such as the auto industry. Anxieties abounded that the United States was losing ground to Japan, as illustrated by the words of Walter Mondale during the 1984 presidential primaries. “We've been running up the white flag, when we should be running up the American flag,” he said. “…What do we want our kids to do? Sweep up around the Japanese computers?”
Against this backdrop, Asian Americans experienced widespread acts of anti-Asian harassment, vandalism, discrimination, and violence. In St. Paul, Minnesota, the employee of a local refugee resettlement agency recalled how a Hmong family was “harassed weekly” by a neighboring couple, who kicked and threw eggs at the family’s car, ran over their garbage can, threw bottles at them, and shattered the glass on their back door. At one point, the couple stuffed underwear into the family’s mailbox, yelled insults at them, and threatened them while appearing to hold a gun. In Indiana, a union booted Southeast Asian workers from its membership, reportedly because they worked too hard. Along the Gulf Coast, the Ku Klux Klan harassed Vietnamese fishermen and the white people who sympathized with them. In Philadelphia, Hmong Americans experienced so much violence and intimidation that hundreds of Hmong families left the city en masse. And in New York City, a Chinese American woman was pushed into the path of an oncoming subway train by a person who said he had a “phobia about Asians.” In 1986 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights included some of these incidents and many more in a comprehensive national report that confirmed that violence, vandalism, harassment, and intimidation against Asian Americans was a national problem.
The most significant of these incidents was the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man in Detroit. As the report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights explained, “[t]he white men charged with his death had reviled Chin with racial obscenities and, believing him to be Japanese, allegedly blamed him for layoffs in the automobile industry.” A witness alleged that one of the two men charged for Chin’s death had yelled, “because of you [Chin]…we’re out of work,” before they later bludgeoned Chin with a baseball bat in a parking lot. Initially charged with second degree murder, they later pled guilty to manslaughter and were both sentenced to three years of probation and fined $3,780.
Asian Americans were incensed by what they considered to be a light sentence for a serious crime and an indication that Asian Americans do not receive equal treatment under the law in the United States. Helen Zia, a journalist and activist who was then based in Detroit, recalled how the news of the sentencing shocked the Asian American community in Michigan but also compelled them to connect with one another. As she wrote,
"The reaction within the Detroit area’s small, scattered Asian American population was immediate and visceral. Suddenly people who had endured a lifetime of degrading treatment were wondering if their capacity to suffer in silence might no longer be a virtue, when even in death, after such a brutal, uncontested killing, they could be so disrespected. Disconnected, informal networks of Asian Americans frantically worked the phones, trying to find some way to vent their frustrations and perhaps correct the injustice."
Zia and other community leaders in the Detroit area—shocked by the unfairness of the Chin case and emboldened by the call for justice issued by Lily Chin, Vincent Chin’s mother—recognized the needs of the moment: taking action to bring the community together, organize a forceful response, and raise awareness of the case in order to rectify a moral wrong.
The death of Vincent Chin, the lenient treatment of the men who killed him, and the robust community activism that arose as a result was a turning point in Asian American history in Michigan in two main ways. First, the effort to plan a coordinated response united Asian American community groups and facilitated the creation of new, intentionally pan-ethnic Asian organizations. Until that point, Detroit’s Asian American community had comprised many smaller, loosely connected organizations, such as cultural groups, professional societies, and churches. Out of the organizing around the Vincent Chin case came a new umbrella organization—American Citizens for Justice (ACJ)—that not only gathered a broad coalition of people but also centered their work together on an ambitious vision of justice. In Zia’s words, ACJ was “the first explicitly Asian American grass-roots community advocacy effort with a national scope.” ACJ received support from other Asian American community organizations from across the country. Just as important, ACJ worked with and secured the support of other civil rights organizations and community groups in the Detroit area, such as the umbrella group Detroit-Area Black Organizations, the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and community groups representing Latinos, Arab Americans, and Italian Americans.
In addition, the brutal killing of Vincent Chin shed light on a long overlooked problem: the fact that Asian Americans experience racism in America. Until that point, Americans had primarily understood race and racism through the lens of a black-white racial binary, which leaves little space for consideration of Asian American experiences. According to Zia, such binary thinking gave “the suggestion, a nagging doubt, that Asian Americans had no legitimate place in discussion of racism because we hadn’t really suffered any.” But Vincent Chin’s death made clear that people of Asian descent do, in fact, experience bias, discrimination, and violence on the basis of race. His killing prompted a national reckoning about the reality of anti-Asian racism in the United States, a shift that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recognized in the preface to its 1986 report, where it noted that “[n]ational attention to the issue of racially motivated violence against U.S. citizens and residents of Asian descent has increased significantly since the death of Vincent Chin.” The problem of anti-Asian racism and violence had, of course, existed well before 1982. However, Vincent Chin’s death prompted more people to talk about anti-Asian racism, mobilized more activists to organize community responses, and compelled more government efforts to acknowledge and address the problems facing Asian Americans.
In many ways, Asian Americans in 2020 found themselves in circumstances that resembled those of forty years earlier. For one, the United States continued to change due to the growing presence of Asian Americans. Half a century after the passage of the Hart-Celler Act, the Asian American population had grown from 3.7 million people in 1980 to 22.9 million people in 2019. By 2020 Asian Americans had not only grown in population but in power, and were the fastest-growing racial group of eligible voters. Asian Americans were more present in positions of political, economic, and cultural influence. 2020, for example, saw several people of Asian descent run for U.S. president, with one—Kamala Harris—eventually elected as vice president.
Yet despite these advances, 2020 continued to see of many of the same “yellow peril” ideas that depicted Asian people as a threat and harmed Asian Americans in earlier eras. As in the 1980s, anti-Asian racism in the twenty-first century reflected important developments in American political, economic, and cultural life. For one, the 2010s saw the emergence of hostile xenophobic and nativist politics. President Donald Trump won the presidency in part because of his appeal to those Americans who opposed the continued arrival of immigrants and refugees. When he was in office, President Trump fulfilled his campaign promises: his administration reduced the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. to historic lows, took a hard stance against asylum-seeking migrants on the southern border, and proposed draconian measures to reduce the number of immigrants in general.
Geopolitical tensions in the Pacific world was another important context that made 2020 similar to the 1980s, although the Asian nations that the United States saw as a threat were different. While the growing economic might of Japan and the ongoing conflicts in Southeast Asia were the focus of attention in the 1970s and 1980s, the biggest concern in the twenty-first century was China. Rising tensions between the United States and China engaged a wide variety of issues, including trade, human rights concerns, and national security. Politicians on both the left and right regularly identified China as the foremost threat to American global preeminence, and President Trump, in a discussion about trade and military superiority, described China as “a threat to the world” in 2019.
In the United States, these circumstances put Chinese Americans—and Asian Americans more generally—in a vulnerable position. As in the 1970s and 1980s, 2020 saw a precipitous surge in acts of anti-Asian racism and violence. Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition of Asian American community organizations and researchers, recorded around 3,800 self-reported incidents of anti-Asian hate in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism noted a 145 percent increase between 2019 and 2020 in anti-Asian hate crimes in the sixteen largest cities in the United States.
News reports revealed that Asian Americans were beaten, knifed, spat upon, verbally harassed, shunned, discriminated against, and scapegoated for the coronavirus in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Midland, Texas, for example, a Burmese American family was stabbed at a local Sam’s Club by a man who saw the family as a “threat” and accused them of being “from the country who started spreading that disease around.” In San Fernando Valley, California, A 16-year-old high schooler was attacked by bullies who accused him of having the coronavirus; the victim was forced to go to the emergency room. In Yakima, Washington, a Chinese and Japanese buffet restaurant was vandalized with graffiti that included an ethnic slur and a message that read “take the corona back you [expletive].” One year later, two high profile acts of anti-Asian violence occurred: in March 2021, a gunman in Atlanta killed eight women, six of whom were Asian American, and in April 2021, a shooter in Indianapolis killed nine people, four of whom were Asian American.
Racial bias was suspected in both the shooting in Indianapolis and Atlanta, and the two events gave rise to massive protests, widespread social media activism around the hashtag #StopAsianHate, and renewed national attention to the problem of anti-Asian racism and violence. In many ways, the activism around anti-Asian racism and violence in 2020 and 2021 built upon the Black Lives Matter movement and the effort to seek justice for the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020.
Importantly, the responses to anti-Asian racism in 2020 and 2021 were also directly connected to the activism of the 1980s. The movement to seek justice for Vincent Chin in the 1980s had set up the relationships, organizations, strategies, and frameworks that informed how Asian Americans in Michigan responded to Covid-related hate four decades later. For example, in a May 2020 panel discussion sponsored by Detroit Public Television and APIA Vote Michigan, Helen Zia and other local Asian American community organizers—some of whom had been leaders in ACJ and the movement to seek justice for Vincent Chin’s death—drew parallels between how Asian Americans were being blamed for the coronavirus and how Asian Americans had once been blamed for the downturn of American automobile industry. “Scapegoating Asian immigrants and Asian Americans did nothing to save the U.S. auto industry then,” Zia wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. “And it won’t provide the scientific advances and government leadership necessary to slow the spread of covid-19 now.”
The work of Zia and other activists shows that recent acts of anti-Asian racism and violence are part of a longer history of anti-Asian hostility, which has intensified during times of geopolitical, economic, and public health crisis. Moreover, anti-racism activism undertaken by Asian Americans in the twenty-first century has built on the foundation created by earlier generations of community organizers who advocated for change. As the case of Michigan organizing shows, contemporary responses to anti-Asian racism during the Covid-19 pandemic reflect the fact that while some circumstances are new and some people are newly awakened, there is also a critical continuity between the struggles of the past and the present. The same commitments—and even sometimes the same individuals—remain central to Asian American justice work, and individuals and institutions are drawing on the hard-earned wisdom and experience they gained through decades of struggle in their efforts to respond to the needs of the current moment.
Regina Kim, “I’m Asian American. the Pandemic Showed Me Why Black People Feel So Unsafe,” Washington Post, July 17, 2020.
United States Commission on Civil Rights, “Recent Activities Against Citizens and Residents of Asian Descent” (1986)
Douglas Kneeland, “Wide Hostility Found to Vietnamese Influx,” New York Times, May 2, 1975. A June 1975 Harris poll found slightly more generous numbers—37 percent supported resettlement of Vietnamese refugees, while only 49 percent opposed. Another poll, August 1977, found the split at 31 percent – 57 percent.
Los Angeles Times Poll #1985-096: Poverty in America, Los Angeles Times, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 1985.
Clare Booth Luce, “Refugees and Guilt,” New York Times, May 11, 1975.
James Reston, “Washington; Mondale’s Tough Line,” New York Times, Oct. 13, 1982.
 Box 21-24, 51-52, Case Files, International Institute of Minnesota Records, IHRC3257, Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota. See also Paul Levy, “Asian Refugees Find Life a Rough Ride in St. Cloud,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 12, 1982.
Dennis Williams, “The Newest Americans,” Newsweek, Sept. 10, 1979.
Paul Taylor, “Vietnamese Shrimpers Alter Texas Gulf Towns,” Washington Post, December 26, 1984. See also Stephanie Hinnershitz, A Different Shade of Justice: Asian American Civil Rights in the South (2017), 158–94.
Ellen Hume, “Ten Years After—Vietnam's Legacy: Indochinese Refugees,” Wall Street Journal, March 21, 1985; Terry E. Johnson, “Immigrants: New Victims,” Newsweek, May 12, 1986.
 United States Commission on Civil Rights, “Recent Activities Against Citizens and Residents of Asian Descent,” 40.
United States Commission on Civil Rights, iii.
Quoted in United States Commission on Civil Rights, 43.
United States Commission on Civil Rights, 43.
Helen Zia, “Detroit Blues: ‘Because of You Motherfuckers,’” in Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader, ed. Jean Wu and Thomas Chen (2010), 39.
Zia, "Detroit Blues," 43–45.
United States Commission on Civil Rights, “Recent Activities Against Citizens and Residents of Asian Descent,” iv.
 US Census Bureau, “Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: May 2021,” Census.gov, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2021/asian-american-pacific-islander.html.
Abby Budiman, “Asian Americans Are the Fastest-Growing Racial or Ethnic Group in the U.S. Electorate,” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/05/07/asian-americans-are-the-fastest-growing-racial-or-ethnic-group-in-the-u-s-electorate/.
Alan Rappeport, “Trump Calls China a ‘Threat to the World’ as Trade Talks Approach,” New York Times, September 20, 2019.
 Melissa Borja and Jacob Gibson, “Anti-Asian Racism in 2020,” Virulent Hate Project, May 2021.
Russell Jeung et al., “Stop AAPI Hate National Report,” Stop AAPI Hate, March 16, 2021.
Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, “Fact Sheet: Anti-Asian Prejudice March 2021,” March 2021.
“Midland Man Pleads Guilty to Hate-Crime Attack on Asian Family,” NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth, Feb. 25, 2022.
Christina Capatides, “Bullies Attack Asian American Teen at School, Accusing Him of Having Coronavirus,” CBS News, February 14, 2020.
Pat Muir, “Yakima Restaurant Vandalized, Spray-Painted with Racist Slur,” Yakima Herald-Republic, March 31, 2021.
Helen Zia, “Targeting Asians and Asian Americans Will Make It Harder to Stop Covid-19,” Washington Post, April 2, 2020.