I’ve been distraught over the past few months to see the rising incidence of violence towards Asian-Americans in what are clearly racially motivated assaults. These race-based attacks, whether in the form of verbal insults and harassment, or physical intimidation and violence up to and including murder, are targeted at Chinese-Americans and others of Asian descent. In speaking with friends and colleagues in the Asian-American community, many of them have confirmed that they personally have, or have friends and family who have, been the direct target of some form of race-based aggression in the past year. According to one study, Anti-Asian hate crimes in America’s 16 largest cities were up 149% in 2020 (NYC saw the worst increase), although according to FBI data, the total incidence rate remained below that of the mid-1990s.
For many of the younger generations of Asian-Americans, having grown up in a quieter, more inclusive time, this is their first direct experience of such a thing in America. The elderly, on the other hand, have felt it previously, and dread that the clock of history may be turning backwards. Indeed, there is now a palpable sense of fear in some Asian-American communities that something has fundamentally changed in this country and that they are in danger. Many feel this is the result of being scapegoated for COVID-19, and that the use of phrases such as the “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” by former President Trump and others in leadership positions poured fuel on the fire. Some have said that it is a result of the growing popular awareness of America’s adversarial and confrontational position with China and the CCP. Still others speak of a growing incivility, polarization and coarseness in our society made worse by the pandemic-inspired fear, lockdowns and resulting economic fallout.
We saw something similar happen after 9/11 in the form violence and other aggressions targeting men and women of Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian descent. In fact, America has a long and unfortunately dark history of race and ethnic based violence, often as a misplaced target of blame for some broader economic or societal ill. This was seen in the twentieth century in the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (while German-Americans received no such similar treatment), and state-sponsored segregation and violence against African-Americans during the civil rights movement. It was even worse in the nineteenth century, with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish pogroms in our major cities, and in similar treatment of Germans, Italians, Jews, Poles and others during various immigration waves. These waves upset the labor balance in large cities in the short-term yet ultimately reshaped our country for the better over the long-run. Chinese-Americans are well aware of this history, given the despicable treatment they received, and near slave-like conditions they endured, in the development of the railroads and other infrastructure in the American West.
At each point along the way in our history as a country, various interest groups, whether politicians and their political machines, media outlets, commercial enterprises or others, have stoked the fires of racial hatred and violence to further their own interests at the expense of American lives and our society as a whole. We are seeing this again today in the rise of identity politics, the creation, demonization and hatred of the “Other,” and the inflammatory incitement by the media to alienate and divide us by class, race, gender and politics. We also see it in the media’s rush to characterize as a hate crime any incident in which a minority happens to be the victim, without the need for supporting evidence of racially-biased motive. The media have massive financial incentives to keep us at each other’s throats (at least when they can’t keep our eyeballs locked on their content). These outlets, whether traditional or newer social medial platforms, learned long ago that division and discord sell much better than peace and unity. A pox upon both of their houses for what they are doing to divide our country by stirring up hatred towards our fellow Americans.
At the same time, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that our foreign enemies are effectively using these media to undermine our society. The Chinese Communist Party, Putin’s Russia, along with their allies of convenience in the Iranian and North Korean governments, are actively working through cyber intelligence and disinformation operations to amplify the discord and to stimulate division and violence between Americans. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. It’s been in the Communist playbook for decades, and was an important feature of Soviet cold-warfaring against the US during the civil rights movement. I wrote in Stormwall in September 2020 that:
the threat we face … is not from Chinese-Americans or the Chinese as an ethnic group. Any suggestion otherwise is a misleading lie intended to imply racial bigotry and throw us off of the scent of the real issue. The challenge we face is not with China as a nation or the Chinese as a people, but with the CCP [the Chinese Communist Party], which … is actively seeking to supplant the US in scientific, technological, military and economic leadership, and regularly using illegal and underhanded methods to do so.
We can expect that operatives from both China at other hostile countries such as Russia or Iran are using this moment to foment strife and increase the divisions amongst us. They are more than willing to amplify and stoke race-based hatred and violence, even affecting their own people, and indeed are willing to take any actions they can – so long as it’s without leaving footprints – that will undermine the social fabric of this country.
Anytime in our national history when our identity has become primarily about our ethnic group, our tribe, our religious sect, or the color of our skin, the result has been divisive and has often led to violence. What has made America great has been our ability to see ourselves first and foremost as Americans, and not primarily as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans etc. We haven’t always been able to do this, but when we have risen to the occasion something wonderful emerges. Unity, and the ideal of a great American melting pot in which all are created equal and with certain inalienable rights, is only possible if we can agree that we are Americans first. This can be done without loss of our diverse and varied patrimonies, i.e., those cultural, tribal and social identities that give us a sense of place, family and heritage within the greater American narrative.
Part of becoming a citizen of a modern nation-state, whether in the United States or elsewhere, has always required integrating one’s narrower identities into is something greater. When we have managed to live up to this ideal, we have won wars, overcome poverty and famines, rebuilt a Union when slavery had torn it apart, undertaken not just one but two industrial revolutions, and developed a continent into one of the greatest countries in – and envy of – the world. At the best of times, we have done so by working side-by-side and shoulder to shoulder – as Americans – in the armed services, in our corporations, and in our great national institutions.
Identity politics is a destructive force. There are a few better (or perhaps worse) recent examples than the 1994 Rwanda genocide. The roots of the genocide trace back to policies instituted by the Belgian colonial government in the 1930s. The Rwandan people were categorized into one of three ethnic groups based on tribal identity (although many shared ancestors from more than one tribe), and were thereafter required to carry identification cards prominently showing their tribal affiliation. (The ID cards were commonly used to target the victims for murder in 1994.) The colonial powers created sharp lines of division between the identities, including that the minority Tutsis were chosen to rule as an elite class, overseeing and subjugating the vast majority Hutu population. Following decolonization, the strict ethnic separation and class divisions were subsequently maintained and elaborated by local indigenous powers for economic gain and political power, with propaganda and hatred of the Other as a key feature. The results were horrendous. The country was torn apart, and somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis but also many moderate Hutus that refused to go along with the killings, were massacred in a matter of weeks. The slaughter resulted in 400,000 orphans, over two million refugees, and innumerable cases of rape and sexual violence.
Why retell this horror story? Because the seeds were planted decades before by apparently benign identity politics and the policies that emerged. We are seeing some of the same elements being advocated for and supported by many in leadership in our own country in the twenty-first century. We are on dangerous ground.
Race or other identity based violence is always and everywhere despicable. The good news is that the vast majority of Americans of all sorts and stripes feel the same, and eschew racially-based (or any) violence as a means to address perceived wrongs. As Americans, we must unite in opposition to what we’re seeing in this country.
Unfortunately, it is not just racially-based violence that is escalating. We have seen over the past year substantial increases in the murder rates in our largest cities. In many cases the violence affects innocent bystanders and often our children. Stronger measures need to be taken to address these issues. Some of the increase in urban violence has almost certainly resulted from policy implementations related to the harebrained idea, popular in some quarters, to “Defund the Police.” A reduced police presence clearly hurts small businesses and law-abiding citizens trying to build a better life for themselves and their children. It mostly benefits the gangs and violent criminals who step into the power vacuum, and who create mayhem in the process. Leaders of these often minority and impoverished communities are beginning to speak up and say the same. Let’s hope it’s not too late.