The President's Column: AAPI Hate Crimes Diminish Us AllJuly 19, 2021
Racist hatred is part of American history. We’ll never stop fighting against it.
May was Asian-American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. And I want to give a big shout-out of gratitude to our 1199SEIU AAPI Caucus for celebrating the diversity and richness of Asian culture and for raising the consciousness of the rest of us.
Unfortunately, May was also a month when we saw an increase in hate crimes against our AAPI sisters and brothers. Former President Donald Trump was a major contributor to this hatred with his anti-Chinese campaign, meant to distract from his own failures to protect our country from COVID-19. Having spent years insulting and denigrating African Americans, Africans, Hispanics, and predominantly Muslim countries, the disgraced and disgraceful Trump didn’t leave out AAPI peoples from his racist repertoire.
But attacks against Asians and Pacific Islanders hardly began with Trump. Our country has a long history of such hate crimes, including those by the U.S. government itself.
Like the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, the extermination of 90 percent of this country’s indigenous peoples, and the forced annexation of half of Mexico to create our western states, crimes against Asians and Pacific Islanders are as American as apple pie.
Not least of these were the colonial occupations and ecological attacks against Indigenous people of the Pacific Islands, the decade long genocidal conquest of the Philippines; the atomic bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima; and protracted wars against civilian populations in Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which took a combined six million lives.
When gold was discovered in the California Sierras in the mid-nineteenth century, it was largely Chinese immigrants who worked the mines, providing the wealth that built what is today the country’s largest state with the world’s seventh-largest economy. When, later in the century, the chiefs of American industry wanted to build a transcontinental railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Chinese laborers made up 90 percent of the workforce.
But with the completion of the railroad in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration to the United States. That law remained in effect until World War II. Then, even as it lifted the ban on Chinese, the U.S. government set up concentration camps for Japanese Americans, rounding up 120,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent and sending them to 10 camps in remote locales from Utah to Arkansas to Wyoming.
Anyone who was at least 1/16 Japanese was detained, including 17,000 children under the age of one, as well as several thousand elderly and disabled people. The move also allowed a massive land grab by agribusiness and real estate investors who swept in to confiscate the vacated Japanese American-owned properties.
The stated intention of this mass incarceration was to prevent espionage on American shores.
Yet, there was no similar round-up of German Americans or Italian Americans, even when pro-Nazi Friends of New Germany and the German American Bund organized mass rallies in Madison Square Garden and marched through the streets of Yorkville on Manhattan’s East Side—many wearing swastika armbands. What conclusion are we to draw from our country’s dropping the only two atomic bombs ever used in warfare on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but not on Berlin or Munich? Nor should we forget the way Hollywood has continued to perpetrate harmful Asian stereotypes for years. Of course, these impacted the way Americans, especially white Americans, have looked upon Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
How many people in our country even know that we have a Vice President who is not only the first African American and woman to hold the office, but also the first of South Asian descent to serve in the capacity? Perhaps one in 10 persons? Perhaps not even.
The same culture that glorifies Confederate statues, while accepting the cigar-store Indian and the lazy Mexican trope, has kept the people of our country in bondage to their own ignorance. Sixty percent of humanity—that is three of every five persons in the world—lives in Asia and the Pacific Islands. In the United States, AAPI people are some seven percent of our population and the fastest growing segment. When folks don’t recognize our common humanity—and when, in the case of AAPI people, we don’t recognize our common citizenship—it leads to hate crimes. And let us be clear: These crimes diminish the humanity of the criminal perpetrators, not the victims.
Hate crimes are not just an Asian American issue—they are an issue for all of us, and we will continue to work together to eradicate all forms of violence and expressions of white supremacy. I am confident that you, my 1199SEIU sisters and brothers, understand this. Now we need to share that understanding with our families, our neighbors, friends, and those we worship with and work alongside.