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Anti-Asian violence has surged in the U.S. since Covid-19. But it didn't start there

The first Asian immigrants were met with “discrimination and violence” right away, one expert said.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise of anti-Asian hate incidents that has led to fewer customers for Asian-run businesses and a surge in violence as well. But this is just another chapter in a long timeline of anti-Asian bigotry that spans centuries of U.S. history.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise of anti-Asian hate incidents that has led to fewer customers for Asian-run businesses and a surge in violence as well. But this is just another chapter in a long timeline of anti-Asian bigotry that spans centuries of U.S. history.Jenny Chang-Rodriguez / TODAY illustration

Chinatowns across the country are struggling because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has impacted these communities far beyond mask requirements and limited restaurant capacity. An apparent rise in anti-Asian bigotry over the past year has also led to fewer customers for Asian-run businesses and a surge in violence, especially against older people.

In the San Francisco area, home to the nation's largest and oldest Chinatown, there have been at least 18 attacks against Asians this month alone, one of which killed an 84-year-old Thai immigrant, Vicha Ratanapakdee. In 2020, New York City police recorded 28 hate crimes against Asian Americans, up from three in 2019.

Last spring, activists started a national system for tracking discrimination and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific islanders, called Stop AAPI Hate. It received more than 2,800 reports of hate incidents between March and December 2020. According to NBC News, Stop AAPI Hate said 69 occurrences included racist language coupled with a physical incident. The nonprofit doesn't report those to police.

NBC News investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen, who's reported extensively on anti-Asian sentiment, said via email that she sees these surges as "really disheartening."

"I knew anti-Asian sentiment existed long before the pandemic, but until now, I have never felt this level of worry for my parents out in public," she said. "It has instilled a sense of sadness that’s new for me."

Throughout history, "this yellow peril fear (has been) resurrected during times of war, pandemic and economic downturn," explained Russell Jeung, a professor at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. "The same fears and stereotypes ... (are) always sort of lurking underneath."

The first wave of immigration & the People v. Hall

With the first wave of East Asian immigration to the United States in the 1850s, "there was discrimination and violence ... right away," Chris Kwok, a board member of the Asian American Bar Association of New York, told "TODAY." "Since the Chinese were here first in large numbers, that set the framework for the political and social treatments of almost all other Asian immigrants."

Many Chinese people who emigrated to the Western U.S. during the gold rush were "driven out of town" out of fear they were driving down wages, he added. "They didn't want to accept them as American."

During this period, some 300 Chinese settlements were displaced, Jeung said. In 1906, a fishing village of 200 people outside Monterey, California, where his family lived at the time, was burned down, he said.

Kwok added that there were "many, many recorded lynchings and killings, but obviously not on the same scale as Native Americans and African Americans."

In the 1871 Chinese massacre, rioters killed 10 percent of the Chinese population in Los Angeles, about 18 people, according to the L.A. Public Library. Eight people were convicted of manslaughter, but the convictions were overturned and no one was retried. In 1885, white mobs in Rock Springs, Wyoming, murdered 28 Chinese coal miners, wounded 15 more and burnt down the city's Chinatown, according to the state's historical society.

An 1854 California Supreme Court case called the People v. Hall also set a dangerous precedent by ruling that an Asian person couldn't testify against a white person in a criminal proceeding.

"That understanding that there would be no legal repercussions for violence against Chinese people just changed ... the way that white people in America interacted with Chinese," Beth Lew-Williams, history professor at Princeton University and author of "The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America," said. "They were seen as open to attack."

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

In the spring of 1882, Congress passed and President Chester A. Arthur signed the first significant law limiting immigration into the United States, according to It legalized a 10-year ban on Chinese labor immigration, which continued in some form until 1943.

"It was the Chinese, who came in their numbers, that really pushed America to restrictive immigration laws for the very first time in history," Kwok said.

Perceptions in the 19th century that Chinese immigrants were the source of diseases like smallpox, leprosy and malaria, played a role in the act's passage, Jeung said, as did fears they were taking away jobs from white workers. At the time, many Chinese were out of work after helping in the 1860s to build the Transcontinental Railroad, completing the "most dangerous jobs on the toughest part of the route" and earning roughly one-third less than white workers, Kwok said.

Lew-Williams added that the Chinese Exclusion Act "tamped down on the number of Asian immigrants, and it deprived them of a place in American memory." Another reason the early violence against Asians isn't often discussed, she said, is that it was "effective. The violence was meant to push people out of communities, and in many communities, they succeeded."

San Francisco's bubonic plague, 1900

In March 1900, the discovery of a body of Chinese person suspected of having died from the plague led the health department to quarantine all of San Francisco's Chinatown, Jeung said.

"They allowed white people to leave, but they kept Chinese segregated there to get the disease," he explained. "The actual neighborhood was roped off some, barbed wire put up, and that's their approach to dealing with disease." He added that thousands were left homeless in Santa Ana, California, and Honolulu after residents burned down areas where infected people lived.

Later on, he said, "arbitrary health conditions" were used to justify detaining Asian immigrants at San Francisco's Angel Island.

Kwok sees current anti-Asian sentiment as "very similar" to this historical period. "The association with disease — they're dirty, they're contaminating our country — is consistent with the idea of the aliens that cannot become a part of America," he said.

World War II & Japanese internment camps

In the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1942 that led to internment camps for Japanese people, regardless of citizenship, according to the National WWII Museum.

Almost all Japanese Americans — more than 120,000, per — had to leave their homes and live in camps for the rest of the war. Although it was a violation of constitutional rights, it was considered an issue of public safety because of concerns Japanese Americans would help launch military attacks.

As Jeung described it, "Japanese Americans were seen as disloyal traders and incarcerated."

They were given just days before having to report to temporary "assembly centers," according to the museum. In one instance, families had to stay in horse stalls with dirt floors at a racetrack. The more permanent facilities resembled "Army-style barracks," with guard towers and barbed wire. They didn't protect against severe heat or cold, and there was little privacy. Still, Japanese Americans found ways to create a sense of community, establishing schools, markets and newspapers.

In 1948, Congress paid $38 million in reparations and 40 years later gave an additional $20,000 to anyone still living who'd been forced into the camps.

The civil rights movement

While the "explicitly racist" immigration laws fell in the 1940s, Kwok said, there still were restrictions on how many Asians could emigrate to the U.S. each year leading up to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. A 1917 act had established the Asiatic barred zone, which banned people from the Middle East to Southeast Asia from entering the U.S., Jeung said.

But the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act removed national-origin limitations, which had prioritized European immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Kwok said this change was a direct result of the civil rights movement and "the African-American freedom struggle."

"It was a response to (the idea that) maybe all the things that we did to keep America white, we need to get rid of those things," he explained. In fact, college students coined the term "Asian American" in the 1960s, inspired by the Black Power movement, Kwok said.

Also in the '60s, in response to poor pay and working conditions, Filipino American grape farmers started to strike, according to labor union United Farm Workers. In 1970, the strike, eventually led by Cesar Chavez, established union contracts, better pay and working conditions.

Although mistreatment of Filipino workers might not be considered explicit violence, “being exploited as workers has also been part of the rationale of (exploiting) Asian and brown bodies,” Jeung said. “They were seen as cheap labor, outsiders taking away white workers' jobs."

Murder of Vincent Chin & L.A. Riots

In the 1980s, the U.S. hit a recession, and the country's automotive industry was being outcompeted by the Japanese.

On June 19, 1982, two white auto workers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, attacked 27-year-old Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, with a baseball bat in the Detroit area. NBC News reported that witnesses said Ebens allegedly told Chin, "It's because of you little m—f—s that we're out of work." Chin — who'd been mistaken as Japanese by his assailants, Jeung said — died four days later. Ebens and Nitz were convicted of manslaughter but never did any jail time.

"It's another example of scapegoating," Lew-Williams said. "Anti-Japanese sentiment was rampant ... in the auto industry at the time."

Ten years later, in 1992, Los Angeles erupted in riots following the videotaped beating of Black man Rodney King by four police officers, who were later acquitted. At the time, tensions had been building between the Korean and Black communities in the wake of fatal shootings of Black customers by Korean shopkeepers the previous year and two shooting deaths of recent immigrants by a robber whom police identified as Black, NBC News reported. Some 2,200 Korean-owned businesses were damaged in the riots, according to research from Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American studies at the University of California, Riverside.

“As Asian Americans move into a neighborhood, they may face hostility for being different,” Jeung said. “The lack of protection from the police force is another example of ... state-sponsored violence. (The merchants) were calling for it when (police) protected other parts of L.A.”

Post-9/11 to present

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror strikes, the number of attacks against people perceived as Muslim rose "exponentially," according to Harvard University's Pluralism Project. An analysis from Pew Research Center based on FBI data found there were 93 anti-Muslim assaults in 2001 compared to 12 in 2000. The same report also found another spike in anti-Muslim violence in 2016.

“Asian Americans are seen as Muslim terrorists, just by their appearance,” Jeung explained.

He also remarked that since 2018, “Southeast Asians are being deported en masse” due to laws enacted in 1996 allowing immigrants to be deported for crimes, even though no such laws were in place when the crime was committed. “Let’s say they commit a crime, they pay their punishment,” Jeung explained. “But then they get double jeopardy because they come out of prison, they get paroled, but then they get immediately deported.”

South Asians and Muslims today are in many ways leading today's movement against hate directed at Asian Americans, an example of "pan-ethnic solidarity," Jeung said. Current activists are also "learning from the wisdom of our elders who strategized and organized" after Vincent Chin's murder, he continued.

"Part of the progress is that we're standing on the shoulders of other previous activists, who have a lot of insight about how government operates, how racism manifests itself, how we need to be prepared and change the narrative," Jeung added.

Nguyen stressed the importance of people educating themselves about the contributions of Asian American communities as a means to help.

"This history is not taught in public schools the way it could be," she said. "When you don’t know people, it’s easier to hate them. ... Many more things unite us than divide us when we take the time to understand each other."