Anti-Asian racism is nothing new

Published 5:30 pm Friday, April 2, 2021

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By Kenya Smith

I was heartbroken to see what happened in Atlanta on March 16. A gunman shot up two day spas, killing eight people, including six Asian women. While many of us are shocked by this tragedy, we must understand that anti-Asian discrimination is not new.

Anti-Asian discrimination in the United States started in the 1850s when Chinese immigrants arrived to work in mining and on the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many accused Chinese immigrants were coming to “steal white people’s jobs.” As a result, laws were made to marginalize the Chinese community, such as a decision by the California Supreme Court in the People v. Hall case that centered around a Chinese immigrant, Ling Sing, who was fatally shot by George Hall. The witnesses’ testimonies went unheard because they were Asian. The court ruled that people of Asian descent were prohibited from testifying against a white person in court. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. for 20 years. The law was not repealed in 1943, exceeding 20 years.

Chinese immigrants also experienced violence. Two incidents were the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885. In 1900, San Francisco experienced a bubonic plague outbreak, which came from a ship from Australia. However, because the first victim of the plague was a Chinese immigrant, the whole community was scapegoated. As a result, the police barricaded the city’s Chinatown, prohibiting Chinese residents from coming and leaving. Chinese residents also were subjected to home searches and having their properties destroyed by force.

During World War II, Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were viewed with suspicion after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. As a result, the U.S. government forced Japanese Americans/immigrants to move to internment camps with poor conditions. Even when they were freed, they found that their homes and businesses were destroyed or seized.

During the 1970s and 1980s, many Vietnamese refugees fled to the U.S. to escape communism. Many of the refugees that moved to Texas entered the shrimping business. The same allegation that fueled anti-Chinese sentiment during the 1850s had returned, prompting the KKK to threaten Vietnamese shrimpers by patrolling the waters and setting boats owned by Vietnamese shrimpers on fire.

One notorious case of anti-Asian violence was the murder of Vincent Chin. In 1982, 27-year-old Chin was celebrating his upcoming wedding with his friends. Two white men entered the bar to fight Chin because they thought he was Japanese and blamed him for taking their jobs. They took him outside and beat him with a baseball bat. Days later, Chin died from his injuries. The next year, Chin’s murderers were found guilty of manslaughter, but they were both given three years’ probation, and each were fined $3,000 plus $780 in court costs. Basically, it was a slap on the wrist.

Hate crimes against Muslims and people perceived to be Muslims skyrocketed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The victims included South Asians. One example was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was a gas station owner who was fatally shot for being perceived as a Muslim, despite being a Sikh from India.

Anti-Asian racism isn’t new, and what happened then and what is happening now will always be wrong and should not be ignored. My heart goes out the victims of last Tuesday’s tragedy, their families, and the entire Asian community.

Kenya Smith is a Suffolk native. Email her at