This essay, on anti-Asian racism in America, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on flag, queen and country.) It was published on 21 March 2021, under the headline “Myths of Asian privilege fuel a brutal and cartoonish bigotry”.
Beyond the horror of the shooting in Atlanta of eight people, six of them Asian women, lies the fraught question “why?”. In all probability, a multitude of factors – racism, misogyny, religious belief, personal inadequacies – coalesced in suspect Robert Aaron Long’s alleged murderous rampage.
What is incontestable, though, is that the Atlanta murders take place against a background of rising violence against Asian Americans. Hostility has been inflamed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the perception of Chinese culpability. Donald Trump’s insistence on talking of the “Chinese virus” has played no small part in stoking prejudice.
Trump’s rhetoric fits into a long history of anti-Asian racism reaching back to the “yellow peril” panics of the 19th century. From the Page Act of 1875, America’s first restriction on immigration, which banned the entry of Chinese women amid hysteria about “prostitution”, to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, barring all Chinese labourers, to the 1924 Immigration Act, which stopped any Asian immigration, to the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War – there is a deep and sordid history of bigotry.
All this has led many to denounce the current spate of anti-Asian violence as the latest product of “white supremacy”, a claim seemingly given substance by the Atlanta shootings. Attitudes to American Asians are shaped, however, not just by the history of racism but also by the contemporary role that Asians occupy in American consciousness, a role that has changed significantly in recent decades.
Before the pandemic, the principal debate involving Asians was less about the racism they faced than about their “privilege”. There was much talk of Asians as the “model community” that, through its own efforts, had carved out a place for itself in the American Dream. High-profile court cases against Harvard and Yale, contesting the colleges’ affirmative action policies as discriminatory in placing a cap on the numbers of Asians admitted, gave the impression of Asians as “almost white”.
However, the idea of privileged Asians is a myth. The term “Asian” covers a huge set of communities. In popular culture, people often see it as a label for east Asians – Chinese, Japanese, Koreans. Officially, though, including in the census, the category includes south and south-east Asian nationalities, from India to Vietnam. Each of these communities is itself deeply fractured along lines of class, age and much else.
In 1970, Asian Americans were the least unequal of any ethnic group. By 2016 they were the most. While the income of the bottom 10% of black people has increased by two-thirds over the past 50 years, that of the bottom decile of Asians has improved by just 11%. The income of the top 10% of Asian Americans has, however, rocketed.
Indians are the most successful of Asian groups: 40% of over 25s possess a postgraduate degree; just 7.5% live in poverty. That contrasts with the 28% of Hmong, a people of Chinese ancestry, who live below the poverty line. Almost half of Vietnamese have no education beyond high school. The median income of Laotians is barely half that of Indians. There is, in other words, no such thing as an “Asian community”, still less one that is uniformly affluent or highly educated.
Nevertheless, the myth has persisted, particularly on the left. Many of those now denouncing attacks on Asians as products of “white supremacy” were just a few months ago insisting that they were “privileged”, even “embracing whiteness”. As with Jews, the myth of privilege has allowed many to ignore the racism that Asians face.
A recent feature of American urban life has been tension between black and Asian people, ranging from the destruction of 2,200 Korean businesses during the 1992 Los Angeles riots to more recent attacks during the pandemic. The reasons for conflict are complex, and lie partly in the “middleman” role that some Asians play in American society. When differences of wealth or opportunity become viewed in identitarian terms, racial hostility is inevitably stoked.
At the same time, many use Asian success as a means of berating black people. Why can’t African Americans do as Asians have done, they ask. It’s a way of transforming problems of racism, and of a criminal justice system that discriminates against not just black people, but poor and working-class people more generally, into a question of individual behaviour.
Anti-Asian hostility is real. Asian privilege is not. Nor is hostility towards Asians merely the product of “white supremacy”; it emerges from a complex interplay of racism and identitarian politics. Whatever the reasons behind the Atlanta shootings, it’s time we stopped using myths about Asian Americans to sustain both racism and cartoonish views about racial differences.