The recent murders of eight people in Atlanta, the majority of whom were Asian Americans, were a tragic crest in a wave of anti-Asian violence that has swept across the United States.
Although we may attribute this violence to contemporary xenophobic and sinophobic rhetoric in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of those lives rests within a much deeper, far more treacherous past.
People of Asian descent have resided in North America since the 16th century, yet mainstream society has long cast them as perpetual foreigners. As history shows, this was by design. Catalyzed by political instability and economic precarity in Asia, mass immgiration began as early as the 1840s.
With dreams of security and prosperity, these working-class immigrants confronted a harsh land where a combustible mix of racism and class anxiety produced violence and exclusion. These nativist actions privileged native-born whites and deflected attention away from the inequalities of the economic system of the day.
Chinese laborers, for example, became a convenient scapegoat for whites dissatisfied with poor wages and job insecurity. As a result, deadly anti-Chinese riots erupted in locations from Los Angeles to Denver and culminated in the first immigration law to target a group based on ethnicity or nationality: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Barred from citizenship like the Chinese before them, the Issei later transformed hardscrabble and inhospitable soil into verdant agricultural land. Yet, to stem that economic mobility, and bolstered by persistent stereotypes of Asians as “others,” states across the Pacific coast enacted Alien Land Laws that curtailed property ownership by Issei and Nisei alike.
Needless to say, the golden door of immgiration swung closed for emigrants from Japan in 1907 and 1924. In more recent memory, economic anxieties, produced by Japan’s ascendent economy, inflamed brute hatred against Asian Americans in the 1980s, and resulted in the murder of a Chinese American man, Vincent Chin, days before his wedding. His family still awaits justice.
Furthermore, in moments of national crisis, Asian Americans have faced the slings and arrows of racialized hatred. During World War II, the American public conflated the actions of imperial Japan with Japanese Americans and, due to unvarnished racial animus, wartime hysteria, and a lack of principled leadership, the government mandated the liquidation of Japanese American communities across the Pacific Coast.
As the annals of our own institutional history reveal, this forced removal and mass incarceration directed additional scrutiny and outright violence against Buddhists and their temples. Decades later, following 9/11, the same xenophobic venom that shaped the Japanese American community for generations targeted Muslim Americans and anyone perceived as such. Sadly, the recent killings at an Indianapolis FedEx facility that left nine people dead, including four Sikh Americans, evokes that misdirected anger.
Lastly, gender is inseparable from the Atlanta murders, and points to the unique history of racialized misogyny that Asian women have historically faced. The fact that the perpetrator set his sights on a massage parlor, a space that often blurs the lines between the formal and informal economy or affective labor and sex work, and that he attributed his violence to “sexual addiction” is no ahistorical quirk.
Rather, due to the legacies of imperial conquest, war, and migration, Asian American women have been exotified as subservient sexual fantasies bereft of their own individuality. The Page Act (1875) played on racialized respectability politics to ban Chinese women owing to fears that they were prostitutes. Beyond these shores, robbing Asian women of their agency was a byproduct of war.
As feminist scholars point out, wherever the military goes, an illicit sex trade is soon to follow. And, the 20th century, from the opening salvo of the Philippine American War that began in 1898 through subsequent wars and occupations in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, has been one of conflict between the United States and Asia.
But what do we do with this genealogy of racial infamy? For each example above there are countless other stories of Asian Americans coming together to rebuild communities and institutions, their lives and dignity. We need only look at how, from the crucible of war, the BCA emerged and built the robust postwar sangha that now sustains multigenerational Buddhists and newcomers alike.
What is also evident are the manifold ways other communities have decried the injustices Asian Americans have faced. These range from African American figures like the iconic artist Paul Robeson or the attorney Hugh MacBeth who defended the wartime rights and property of Japanese Americans, to Rev. Julius Goldwater who ministered to incarcerated Buddhists, to the Black communities who defended Vietnamese refugees from the mayhem wrought by the Ku Klux Klan in the Gulf Coast some four decades later.
When we look back on this history we can gain a better understanding of the Great Compassion that we call Amida Buddha, noting that even in times of incredible pain we receive the virtues of all life.
In doing so, we can act in this moment not out of vengeance but, with a renewed motivation to work in solidarity with one another and especially those with less privileges than we enjoy. We can acknowledge this past, but, mindful of all that we receive, aspire to be a part of the Great Compassion to enact a better present and future.
Dr. Jean-Paul deGuzman of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Department is a member of the Social Justice Committee of the Young Buddhist Editorial. DeGuzman is a Minister’s Assistant at the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and is a member of the BCA’s Archives-Historic Preservation Committee.