A Year of Anti-Asian Violence

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S1: Hayzlett podcast listener, you can help us make a better slate by answering our survey. It’s only going to take a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom survey. And if you’re a sleepless member, we’d especially love for you to chime in. Tell us how to make Slate plus indespensible go to sleep dotcom survey. Over the last few weeks, these grainy security videos out of Oakland, California, have been getting a lot of attention there silent, which somehow makes them more ominous there, sped up a little the way these kinds of videos can be.

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S2: We have some new video tonight of an elderly man who was pushed to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown by a suspect.

S1: They show sudden brutal attacks on elderly Asian people in the city’s Chinatown who the perpetrators seem to come out of nowhere.

S2: It’s just the latest in a string of attacks against Asian-Americans across the Bay Area AAPI.

S1: I’m wondering how you keep track of all these attacks. Do you have a Google alert or.

S3: No, I think I would you just kind of collapse and hermit if I had a Google alert for every time an Asian-American person was attacked, I think that would be too much for me.

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S1: Kim Tran lives in Oakland. She’s Vietnamese. She’s also a researcher and an anti oppression consultant. So she’s been following what’s been happening in her hometown pretty closely. But she says it’s not just her hometown. If you look around, you’ll find all kinds of stories, like the one about the Asian family who is out at a restaurant for July 4th when they were suddenly targeted for a racist rant by a tech CEO. Then there was the one about the Asian man attacked while collecting cans in San Francisco. And then there was the 89 year old Chinese woman who was set on fire a few months ago in Brooklyn.

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S3: The New York Police Department has found a nineteen hundred percent increase in anti Asian violence over the course of a year.

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S1: Do you feel like when you’re out and about?

S3: Yeah. So about a year ago I was walking my dog, which I do choices every day and have done for the last five years. And I noticed that specifically young white people, a couple of young white women would kind of close their jackets and move very rapidly away from me like this very obvious and strong aversion to my presence. And that’s brand new. That is a brand new experience for me and. It’s it’s really jarring and it’s. Unfortunately, I think becoming a lot more frequent for people in my life as well,

S1: the uneasiness so many Asian Americans are feeling, many trace it back to the spread of the coronavirus and the way then President Trump talked about covid as the human flu or the China virus. But Kim says the agitation that seems to be manifesting right now, it’s been hiding in plain sight for years.

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S3: I think when we’re looking at a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, anti Asian violence, what we’re seeing is actually really familiar tropes of anti Asian rhetoric at a national level. Right. I think, unfortunately, while a lot of folks thought what Donald Trump was doing was new, it’s not.

S1: Today on the show, the origins of a stunning rise in anti-immigrant violence in communities from coast to coast. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. Back in the spring, when the coronavirus was first beginning to spread and I was listening to President Trump talk about it, I remember him calling it the China virus, and I sort of thought to myself, like, oh, it’s a racist. But I wonder if you heard that same language and thought something a little bit deeper than that. Like, I don’t know how you heard it, but maybe a little bit different than how I heard it. Yeah.

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S3: One that kind of language began. The the number one thing in my head was here it comes again. And it’s a really easy trap. And Asian-Americans are really a easy place to go with the kind of blame that we have when something that is in many ways manufactured our response to this was manufactured. Our failure to respond to this, rather, was manufactured.

S1: You mean it was a choice?

S3: Yeah. Like we could have easily had a better response to the virus and we didn’t. How convenient to blame it on one particular community instead of looking at the ways in which we failed at a really high level.

S1: Hmm. When was the first attack on an Asian American in the spring that stood out to you and you thought, oh, this could be a trend? Like I feel like I’m seeing something bigger than one crime here.

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S3: In March of twenty twenty, there was a family in a Sam’s Club in Texas and they were Burmese and they were stabbed. So as a two year old and a six year old and their parent and it was specifically racially motivated. Right. There was a Border Patrol agent nearby who said, you know, when I broke it up, I thought the thing I was breaking up was like a fight over something in the store. But actually upon a deeper dive, what they found was that this person was attacking this family based on what they look like, based on the kind of coronavirus language that was happening around. And that person was also a person of color. They were flat next. And that’s the moment I started to really get worried.

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S1: Why?

S3: Because it’s one thing for me to walk down the street and see a white woman clutch her her pearls and her jacket closer to her and be like worried that I’m I’m spreading disease and pestilence. There’s a very specific line that gets crossed when we start seeing bloodshed and violence. That’s the part where it gets really scary.

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S1: How did the year play out for you, like after learning about what happened at Sam’s Club? Did you? Just start collecting more stories, hearing more stories as the year went on, how did how did it go?

S3: Really, the thing that’s been different for me is the way that I engage with my family. How so? Yeah. So my mom is almost 70. She’s in one of these places where the kind of anti Asian violence has been concentrated, especially over the Lunar New Year. There is a woman who was attacked coming out of an ATM in downtown San Jose. And I found out a couple of weeks ago that a family friend had actually been the victim of a.. Asian violence. And so one of my one of the big shifts has been really a tremendous amount of concern for a lot of the elders and my family. And I found out recently that my mom has just stopped going to ATMs. Huh. And it was very quiet. Like there wasn’t a moment when she told me, hey, a family friend was victimized, I’m going to stop going to ATMs. She just kind of stops. And I think that’s something that I’m I’m thinking about a lot right now. Like, there are these little things that we do slightly differently because we’re worried about this in our lives and our everyday lives. Like, do you walk your dog and at what time? When you go to the store, you make sure that you kind of smile if you can, or wave at folks.

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S1: Be non-threatening.

S3: Yeah, yeah. Be non-threatening and try to you know, Andrew Yang wrote this really questionable article in The Washington Post when this kind of kicked off and he said be basically be more American. I think Asian-Americans are always asking themselves, how can I be more American to be more palatable to folks? And there are certain ways that that’s just impossible. Right. Like a Chinatown is a really good example as an ethnic enclave, as a place that low income Chinatowns and Little Saigon’s are really good examples of ways in which we can’t be more American because we live at higher rates of poverty, because we speak different languages than English. So we’re trying to kind of mediate those effects all the time.

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S1: The important thing to understand about these attacks, according to Kim, is that they’re not anything new. Animus against Asian-Americans is as old as this country. But with this latest round of attacks, there’s this one specific historical example of anti-immigrant violence that I’ve heard cited again and again the case of Vincent Chin. He was murdered back in 1982. He was killed in Detroit, where in the 80s auto workers were facing competition from Japanese manufacturers and also losing their jobs to them. When Chin, a Chinese American, went to a local club for his bachelor party, he ran into two of these auto workers, white men who assumed that Chin was Japanese. And that night they beat him to death

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S2: and did what outraged the Asian community. Both escaped a 15 year prison term. Instead, they were placed on three years probation and given a three thousand dollar fine because neither had a previous criminal record and both had what the judge called stable working backgrounds.

S1: The light sentences those men received sparked national outrage. It also fueled a movement for Pann Asian-American rights.

S3: I think there is a way that folks were saying almost that these two white men, Ronald Evans and Michael Netz, were justified in what they did and they certainly weren’t punished. So I think that’s that’s also one of the things that we have to hang on to in the case.

S1: And part of what they said was about your taking our jobs. Yeah, right. Yeah.

S3: That Japanese auto manufacturers were taking jobs out of the American Midwest. And that’s something we I mean, that’s something that we see pretty frequently. There are these really common myths around people, communities of color coming into America and taking jobs. And it’s not something that’s just Asian-American. It also happens with Latin folks around, you know, low wage jobs.

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S1: So looking at that story now, which it doesn’t it doesn’t really have a good resolution, like when I was looking into the Vincent Chin story, when the perpetrators were not and not really punished. The story got national attention and all sorts of things were done. But then in the end. Nothing really changed. There were fines imposed, but I believe at least one of the men didn’t pay them. So it just sort of. Things went on, which is horrible. But I wonder when you think about that story now. How how do you think it relates to what you’re seeing now, because it’s like there’s a similar stew of emotions going on, right?

S3: Yeah, I actually don’t know that we can ever resolve things like when folks get murdered out of racial animus or when people of color are brutalized by police, I kind of put these under the same umbrella. So 10 years later, you have Rodney King, right, in Los Angeles. And that wasn’t resolved either to an extent where I think anyone felt any kind of retribution or that any kind of justice had been served. And the reason we’re not going to we’re not going to ever experience kind of the national sense of closure or restitution or resolution that we want or need is because we haven’t actually gotten to the root causes of what’s happening. When we say that someone’s politically radical, it means that they grasp things at the root and the treatment of communities of color. Asian-Americans being one in the United States is a really good example of how we don’t grasp things at the root. You can’t actually blame people of color for economic instability. There are a number of studies that debunk that, but it is really easy to do so and it feels really good.

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S1: Kim looks at this past year of violence against members of her community, and she thinks we’re still not quite grasping the problems at their roots today, decades after that attack on Vincent Chin. We’ve got videos that seem to show how assaults against Asian-Americans are playing out, but videos can’t show intent. And these acts of violence get a lot more complicated when you start thinking about the motivations of the perpetrators.

S3: This is a twofold problem, and I think a lot of folks are looking at it. As you know, this is just about a.. Asian racial sentiment. It’s both. Chinatown is a place of economic precarity. So in at least in Oakland, Chinatown, 30 percent of all folks live below the poverty line. So these videos are out of context. We have no idea what’s happening for the purpose for the person who’s, like, pushing down an elderly Asian person in Chinatown. But I think that oftentimes you can suspect that that person is also not in a good economic situation. There’s been a recent uptick in what’s happening around anti Asian violence in Chinatown around Lunar New Year, because people know that you have money right now.

S1: You mentioned the red envelope.

S3: Yeah, like the woman in San Jose that was assaulted had just pulled a thousand dollars out of an ATM. And if you don’t give folks a stimulus package, if you don’t give folks aid and you end up as someone who lives nearby, knows that this is a community that celebrates lunar new year and will be out of ATMs grabbing crisp bills. That’s an opportunity. So what we don’t know that there is intent, what we do know is that there are multiple levels of vulnerability that people are experiencing, and that’s kind of where we have to think about the root of the issue.

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S1: So what does that mean to you as someone who’s sort of looking at these at these crimes as racially motivated potentially, but then knowing that sort of when you get into the specifics, it might be messier. Tell me more about what that means to you.

S3: Yeah, I as someone who is thinking about Asian America quite often and is not only thinking about Asian America, but thinking about what pushing back against white supremacy actually looks like, I locate this as a root issue. The antagonism and violence that we’re seeing against Asian-Americans is indicative of a greater thing. And that is the fact that we just plain and simply, neither systemically nor kind of interpersonally have a lot of mechanisms in place to help people and communities of color thrive. Right. There has been no relief package. There has been no substantive federal economic response to the kinds of displacement and unemployment and despair that a lot of communities of color are experiencing. So I look at this as, of course, if people are pushed to the brink of subsistence of survival, we’re going to find ways to, you know, get money, get a red envelope from an elder in a Chinatown or a little Saigon somewhere.

S1: Hmm. So you’re saying the reason why Asian-Americans may be experiencing a rise in crime is because the people around them, other communities who are oppressed, aren’t getting the things they need?

S3: Absolutely. So it’s a failure of, you know, understanding how how something like economic precarity actually works and affects all communities. But it’s also a greater institutional failure to to care for each other on a structural level. I think if we look at something like what happened to Vincent Chin and what we found was a community that’s really hurting because the jobs are leaving Detroit. And the narrative is that, you know, auto manufacturers are fleeing to Japan. And so the sentiment kind of coincided with that moment.

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S1: When we come back, what would it mean for Washington to truly take violence against Asian-Americans seriously? Do you think the wave of violence that we’re seeing now is getting the right amount of attention from mainstream media?

S3: No short answer? No. And I think it’s because there’s this twofold thing that happens, which is we don’t cover race in America. Well, we cover race in America as a binary. Like it’s just what’s happening with between black and white people. Race is relational. We don’t have race happening in America in a vacuum. There’s also the racialization process for Asian-Americans, for Latin folks or indigenous folks. So all of these things happen at the same time. And there are a number of reasons why I think we’re not talking about what happens for Asian-Americans, because we do, one, a poor job of casting the net wide. And two, because I think there’s an investment in America that Asian-Americans are a model minority.

S1: They’re white adjacent.

S3: Yeah. Honorary whiteness. Right. We’re not quite to the kind of socio cultural place that white folks hold were not where black Americans are. We’re kind of in this weird, distant place. And so we do a really poor job of actually talking about what race is in relationship to various different communities of color. We kind of focus just on these two polls to our own detriment. What would it

S1: look like to do it better?

S3: You know, I think we have to do a better job, quite honestly, of talking about not just race, but also class. Asian-Americans have the greatest economic wealth disparity gap of any racial group. So within Asian America, you’ll have me. I’m a Vietnamese woman. I’m a queer person, and my pay gap is very close to that of a black woman’s, to a white man’s. And I’m making about sixty three cents to the dollar for every dollar that a white man makes. And you’ll have South Asian women who are outearning white men like a dollar twenty. We have to do a better job of actually talking about those differences. We’re doing a lot of flattening right now of this is what it’s like to be Asian-American. Well, there are a lot of us were huge racial group. And I think if we did a better job in talking about the kind of nuances of race in America for different communities, even within their racial groups, we could have a much more kind of substantive conversation about what it means to actually resist racism.

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S1: Hmm, when you mentioned how many of the crimes over the last year that have been perpetrated against Asians by other people of color, does that make it harder to talk about what’s happening?

S3: Yeah, I think we want this to be much easier than it is. I think we want to say that this one group perpetrates harm against this other group. Let’s be done with it. We can lock them up. It’s really not that simple, right? White supremacy and racism are kind of like a toxic stew in which we all live. And people are going to soak up those ideas. We’re going to soak up and reflect and refract those ideas, regardless of what bodies we live in, regardless of who we are. And that’s the reality, that’s the unfortunate reality, it doesn’t break down again cleanly into black and white.

S1: We’re a year into this coronavirus now and sort of the beginning of this year of a rising tide of violence against people of Asian descent. And of course, President Biden is in office now and he just released this executive order condemning anti Asian discrimination. Yeah. Which is really just the beginning of whatever happens, but in some ways I wonder if you worry that like for other people, this is the end. You know, this is. We addressed this, we’re moving on.

S3: Yeah, I mean, I can’t tell you the ways in which an executive order is going to mean very little very quickly. We need to roll out support in Chinatowns. We need to roll out affordable housing in California. We need. Health care, we need mental health resources like it’s it kind of falls short, it sounds a little bit like a platitude to say we condemn antiabortion violence. Cool, that’s great. Now, what does that look like on a structural level? That’s actually what we need.

S1: Kim, Tranh, thank you so much for joining me.

S3: Thanks so much for having me.

S1: Kim Tran is an author and a consultant. Her next book is called The End of Allai Ship A New Era of Solidarity. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Elana Schwartz, Daniel Hewitt, Davis Land and Mary Wilson, Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. Help us make this show better every day of the week. And I’m Mary Harris. I’m going to catch you back in this feed tomorrow.