For many Americans, Dec. 7 serves as a day of remembrance to honor the memory of the 2,403 service members and civilians who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor. It also serves as a reminder of when the United States entered World War II.
But for many Asian Americans, Dec. 7 holds a very different memory. After that day, many Asian Americans would begin to live in constant fear as anti-Asian hate crimes reached frightening levels.
This year’s anniversary echoes back to that time as the United States experiences another surge in anti-Asian hate crimes following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic during the Trump Administration. Many believe that Trump’s handling of the pandemic and “China virus” label has only helped to fuel this surge.
The United States has a long history of exclusion, bigotry, and hate directed at people of Asian descent. That history resulted in systemic racism, laws, policies, and practices meant to suppress, oppress, and deny the rights of Asian Americans. Long before Pearl Harbor and WWII, the United States began to restrict immigration after the Civil War for the first time in history.
As westward expansion increased, so, too, did immigration as the west coast provided for ample flow into the region from the Pacific Ring and South America. Chinese immigration, specifically, increased after the Opium Wars left China in debt and both drought and crop failure drove people from their homes.
Eventually gold was discovered on the west coast and soon the great race over Hollywood’s gold bust would transpire.
Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans aided expansion working in mines, on farms, on ranches, logging, and building railroads that interconnected the continent. But as development declined, jobs became scarce and competition eventually set in.
Eleven years before the Civil War, California imposed a Foreign Miners Tax of $20 per month to inhibit Chinese immigration. Xenophobic westerners feared that Asians, particularly Chinese immigrants, would destroy “Western values” believing that their influence would negatively impact democracy, Christianity, and slow down technological innovation, among other biased beliefs.
Those beliefs also fueled labor disputes as working-class white Americans and European immigrants feared that intruding Chinese immigrants would take their jobs away by working for lower wages, reducing overall pay.
These unfounded fears would become known as the “yellow peril.”
After the Civil War, tension continued to escalate between white society and Asian Americans which resulted in a number of massacres and immigration acts.
Chinese women were the first to be excluded for “immorality.” In 1854, municipal reports falsely claimed that all the women in San Francisco’s Chinatown were prostitutes. San Francisco was the home to many brothels at the time and city officials passed Ordinance 546 “To Suppress Houses of Ill-Fame Within City Limits” with the hopes of creating a more moral society.
Law enforcement, however, was racially selective when enforcing the new ordinance. Focusing on closing down Mexican and Chinese brothels only — not all houses of ill-fame. Lawmakers also worked ceaselessly to control immigration of the Chinese in various ways in the following years.
Racial tensions were also rising in other parts of California.
On Oct. 24, 1871 a mob of 500 white and Hispanic people attacked Old Chinatown in Los Angeles, killing 19 Chinese immigrants.
In Buried History, Gay Q. Yuen, board chair of the Friends of the Chinese American Museum, explained that the museum felt compelled to tell the story of the massacre. Especially because it has been excluded from mainstream education as a part of U.S. History.
Yuen feels it’s important to honor the spirit of those who lost their lives in the massacre “so that they know there are still people on Earth who remember.”
The Page Act was passed in 1875 forbidding immigration of Chinese, Japanese and or any Oriental contract laborers, women for prostitution, and individuals accused of felony behavior.
Entry could be denied at the discretion of port control if they believed “that any such obnoxious persons are on board.”
A few years later, the U.S. halted Chinese immigration altogether with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That law was originally slated for a duration of 10 years but it remained on the books for a total of 61 years.
Some individuals involved in the Chinese Massacre of 1871 were taken to court and found guilty. However, their sentences were appealed and overturned. At that time in Californian history, Chinese immigrants were not allowed to testify against whites.
As it says in the stone, “no one was held accountable.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943 after the bombing on Pearl Harbor. The Chinese, after all, were U.S. allies during WWII when thousands of Chinese Americans enlisted and fought during the war.
Resentment towards the Japanese on the other hand only increased during WWII. Fears were driven politically during the first Red Scare as many Americans began to fear communism. Those fears intensified after Japan bombed the US base on Pearl Harbor.
Violent crimes—accelerated by fear and hate—rose as westerners attacked Asian Americans in retaliation. These included crimes committed by law enforcement at the county, city, state, and federal level with accusations of “spying for the enemy.”
In response, the government decided to send Japanese Americans to concentration camps. Authorities would argue that this was for protection.
Japanese Americans would counter this by explaining that the barbed wire covering the fences surrounding the camps was aimed inward — imprisoning them inside, not providing protection.
On Feb. 19, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order to evacuate all persons considered “a threat to national security” from the West Coast and relocated to exclusion centers further inland.
With that order, assets were frozen or sold and people were forced from their homes and sent to detention centers set up to concentrate, isolate, and segregate them from society.
These centers were hastily set up and consisted of military-style barracks with no insulation and limited resources. Nonetheless, the Japanese persisted and established some semblance of normal life. Families were not separated and the community set up schools, churches, farmers, and newspapers.
As the war waged on, sugar beet production was in high demand, however, the war effort also required a great deal of manpower, reducing the amount of men available to work on the farms.
Local farmers and state officials submitted a plan to the government to put the Japanese Americans to work in the fields — an idea that was initially rejected with fears that the workers would be attacked by the community.
Eventually, though, the farmers got their way and interned men went to work picking sugar beets under constant supervision.
In Dec. 1944, the government announced that the concentration camps would close by the end of the following year. That year the United States detonated the first atomic bombs, beginning with a test blast named Trinity.
Two bombs were dropped on Japan in August. The war ended on Sept. 2. The last concentration camp closed in March 1946.
No one was held accountable for the 199,000 to 214,000 lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagaski on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945 and from their effects in following years.
No one has been held accountable for the harm and intentional poisoning of those living on Bikini Atoll and Marshall Islands.
No one was held accountable for violating the constitutional rights of the U.S. Japanese American citizens and Japanese immigrants who were sent to concentration camps during the war.
No proof of espionage was ever found.
Presently, many of those same racial divides have been re-ignited and even inflamed.
Politically, conservatives have played on fear and hate driving the same narrative about the Chinese. Another red scare is occurring, and this time, the focal point is on Communist China.
Since the end of WWII, relations with China have gone back and forth as the two countries battled over the top position economically. In the U.S., conservatives bait racial tensions eliciting fear that the Chinese will take over production, jobs, and democracy. This fear was exaggerated after the emergence of COVID-19.
Then-President Trump and his followers quickly blamed China for the virus and violent crimes induced by fear and hate increased. In Feb. 2020, a Chinese American high school student was hospitalized after being accused of carrying COVID-19 and was beaten by peers.
In response to the rise in xenophobia, the Stop AAPI Hate Coalition was formed in March 2020 and, after just eight weeks, received 1,843 reports of anti-Asian discrimination due to COVID-19.
In March 2021, a white man in Atlanta killed eight individuals who worked in local spas. Six of those individuals were Asian women. The initial reports about the motive of the shooter claimed the man blamed the spa workers for his “sex addiction.”
The FBI reports that Anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 73 percent in 2020 confirming a drastic upswing due to the pandemic. Though sources confirm an increase, others fear that countless hate crimes are going unreported.
This under-reporting stems from the belief that the justice system will not hold perpetrators accountable.
To increase awareness, other organizations have formed in response to this increase in hate crimes. Mayor Emeritus Steve Ly of Elk Grove, California co-founder and board president of the Asian American Civil Liberties and Anti-Defamation civil rights justice coalition, the AACLAD.
The mission of the non-profit is to identify and collect evidence of Asian discrimination, defamation, hate, and civil rights violations, to address and bring justice to victims, and to coordinate and develop resources for remedies.
The non-profit has also set up the Asian American Justice Defense fund. This fund is dedicated to providing pro-bono legal services to victims and works with over 150 law firms across the nation to address Anti-Asian hate.
Locally, the AACLAD has provided assistance to Xia Wang and Ben Christensen after they were targeted in a series of hate crimes reported by Double Sided Media last July. A neighbor, Maxwell Lewis, was arrested for the paintball crime, but six months later, he has still not been arraigned.
Christensen says that the Lane County district attorney is expected to charge Lewis with criminal mischief, not a hate crime, and does not know when that might happen.
When asked how she feels about the lack of action by the DA, Wang said:
“I continuously feel unsafe in my neighborhood. Every time I drive by Lewis’ house, I am thinking, what is he going to do to hurt me and my family again after court? And what if I run into him in our neighborhood by myself when I take a walk, is he going to hurt me? I don’t trust the criminal justice system could protect me and make me feel safe regardless if Lewis was arrested or not. This feeling has been increasing after I interacted with the DA and deputy who work for the criminal justice system but have little trauma informed sense to work with people, especially marginalized populations. I don’t have hope that justice will be served in my case.”
The AACLAD believes that ending Asian hate begins with education and awareness. They have a 24-hour tech team working on finding reports of hate crimes and microaggressions and to help victims navigate the justice system.
Often, mediation is the quickest way to solve problems. Mayor Emeritus Ly says “that every case is different.”
Trained as a mediator, Ly has helped to connect victims and perpetrators through mediation. He said he has worked on cases in which he never imagined people would be willing to sit in the same room.
One of the more difficult cases he worked on involved a murder. Ly was shocked that the murderer, already incarcerated, would be willing to sit down with the family to talk about why the incident occurred. More shocking, though, was the understanding that both parties received as a result. In the end, the family forgave the man.
“In terms of healing, this is unheard of,” said Ly. The goal of mediation is to “make this world more civil and bring both sides together.”
The AACLAD is working “to galvanize 10,000 communities around the country to speak up and stand up” through the AsiansTogetherStrong Foundation. The foundation aims to help Asians be proud and to amplify their voices so that they “are no longer invisible or viewed as a weak culture.”
Through it all, Asian Americans have persevered and many hope that through recognition, education, accountability, and reform, positive change can be accomplished.
These sentiments echo back to the days of Asian perseverance during WWII. After the bombing on Pearl Harbor, many Asians responded to the escalating hate crimes with verbal affirmations of their citizenship and dedication to the “American Way of Life.”
One of the long lasting results of the Chinese Exclusion Act was the impression that Asian immigrants were unassimilable and therefore un-American.
Media portrayals helped to propagate the “yellow peril’s” negative stereotypes about Asians, often labeling Asians as political, criminal masterminds possessing mystical powers. Their characters in the media were often portrayed as evil villains who practiced martial arts and spoke with an exaggerated dialect. This effect is most notably demonstrated through the “fu-man-chu” television and film trope.
To counter this stereotype, Asians would reinforce their “Americanness.” Great effort was made to showcase what was believed to be “model behavior” highlighting similar family life, speaking English, acceptance and practice of Christianity, as well as home and business ownership.
To dissuade community concerns about the Japanese concentration camps, the government commissioned Ansel Adams to photograph life at the camps. Those photos were created to demonstrate the same “model behavior” of those who were incarcerated.
Regardless, the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act and negative stereotypes, in essence, cemented anti-Asian sentiment within whites Even after the war ended, anti-Japanese attitudes lingered. Many Japanese would return to their homes to find signs expressing that they were no longer welcome.
Seeking accommodations from businesses like barbers, restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries became increasingly difficult. Upon entrance one would be asked “are you a Jap?” and service was denied.
Asians would double down on their “Americanness” after WWII and throughout the Cold War.
Though the “model behavior” method seemed to provide a “leg up” to Asians, it also had unforeseen consequences. Now termed the “model minority myth,” this movement unexpectedly worked to deepen the racial divide and reinforced a caste system, propagating anti-Blackness.
The media and right-wing conservatives latched on to the “model minority” myth, using Asian “success” as a scale for Black and African Americans. Rooted in the myth of the “American Way of Life,” many Asians would internalize the “model minority myth” and view themselves through a “white superiority lens.”
The belief is that the closer proximity to whiteness combined with “model behavior” afforded Asians a “better place” in society.
Tensions, as a result of this deepening divide, between a rebounding Asian population and Blacks exploded in 1992 in Los Angeles. Similar to the protests that broke out following the murder of George Floyd, the 1992 L.A. riots began after four police officers were found not guilty of excessive use of force during the arrest of Rodney King in 1991.
The Black community was also mourning the killing of a 15-year-old Black American girl named Latasha Harlins. Harlins was killed by a Korean store owner during the same month as the Rodney King beating.
In Los Angeles at that time, the unemployment rate in the neighborhood was at 50 percent. As a result, drug use, gang activity, and violent crimes were high. So, too, was racial fear. The store owner falsely accused the girl of attempting to steal a bottle of orange juice. A small struggle ensued, then the girl tried to leave as the owner shot her in the back of the head.
The store owner was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but was only sentenced to 5 years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and issued a $500 fine.
The devastation the Black community felt after the announcement of the verdict in the Rodney King trial combined with the leniency given to the Korean store owner was the final straw. Three hours after the verdict was read, L.A. erupted into chaos and Koreatown was a focal point of activity.
Armed Korean business owners, fearing looters and getting no response from law enforcement, went to the rooftops to guard their stores, but no protesters were shot.
Years later, in response to the protests that erupted all over the country after George Floyd was murdered, a new trope has emerged, “rooftop Koreans.” The media and right-wing conservatives have used the actions of the store owners during the 1992 L.A. riots to transform the “model minority” myth, further inflaming racial tensions.
To further this racial divide, the media inaccurately reports that anti-Asian hate crimes are perpetrated by Black individuals, however, analysis has shown that the majority of these crimes are actually committed by whites.
The Asian American and Pacific Islander community is speaking out against this trope.
“The notion of defending your property isn’t so problematic on its face, but it turns darker when you calculate how racism and white supremacy have led to so many deaths over stolen goods and broken windows — or, often, no probable cause at all.” wrote Eddie Kim, a feature writer for Mel Magazine.
Circulation of the “rooftop Korean” meme has also increased as a result of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial and verdict. Kim explained:
“Every instance adds more evidence to the conclusion that the Second Amendment and property rights have been used to terrorize Black and brown communities for pretty much as long as America has existed. And the list of names lost because of overzealous people “protecting” their property is as long as the history of America itself. In the present, it’s not hard to spot the overt racism bubbling up in the cracks between the Rooftop Korean memes, nor the subtle prejudice that coats conversations about who loots and why.”
Kim, along with many Asian Americans, wish to dispel the deeply rooted fantasy that “true liberty is the ability to levy fatal danger against anyone who dares to intrude.”
All of these reasons make National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day a complicated, and conflicting, day of remembrance for all Americans, but especially for Asian Americans.