The Long History of Anti-Asian Violence

A conversation with writer Mark Tseng-Putterman, who situates the recent attacks on Asian Americans within the structures of white supremacy and imperialism.

Joshua Leifer
March 26, 2021
Hundreds of people participate in a protest against anti-Asian violence in Washington, DC, March 17th, 2021. Photo: Allison C Bailey/Alamy Live News

The horrific mass shooting of spa and massage workers in Atlanta last week, in which a majority of the victims were Asian or Asian American women, has turned national media attention to the growing wave of assaults on Asian Americans around the country. The circumstances of such attacks differ from place to place, but they all take place against the backdrop of right-wing media’s racist scapegoating of Asian American communities for the Covid-19 pandemic and the deepening geopolitical tensions between the United States and China—with anti-China sentiment stoked by Democrats and Republicans alike. 

Earlier this week, I spoke with Mark Tseng-Putterman—a writer, educator, and PhD candidate at Brown University whose writing on race, empire, and social movements through an Asian American lens has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, ROAR Magazine, and Boston Review—about the history and structure of anti-Asian violence in the US, the limits of liberal anti-racist discourse, and where progressive Asian American organizers are doing crucial work. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited. It originally appeared in yesterday’s email newsletter, to which you can subscribe here.

Joshua Leifer: In the wake of the shootings in Atlanta, does it feel like there’s been a shift in the public’s consciousness of violence against Asian Americans?

Mark Tseng-Putterman: The tragedy in Atlanta has catalyzed the national interest in understanding anti-Asian violence in this moment, which feels unprecedented. But there’s a mismatch between how Asian American communities—particularly activists and community organizers—are thinking, and how the mainstream conversation is being framed. Organizers are building on decades of thinking about solidarity, coalition-building, and safety outside of the terms of the state and the carceral, hate crimes framework, while the mainstream conversation is emphasizing “anti-Asian hate” and associated hashtags like #StopAsianHate. That’s really a lackluster framing that’s divorced from an understanding of the long history of how anti-Asian violence is embedded as a systemic feature of racial capitalism and white supremacy.

JL: On social media, there is some criticism of the hate crimes framework. But what does that look like in practice? At least in New York, it seems there’s a real risk that the material response to this violence is the increased deployment of police in working-class communities of color.

MTP: I do see that as the direction this conversation is going, and it’s a dangerous one. We’ve seen a lot of liberal repudiation of so-called anti-Asian hate—from the president, from Chuck Schumer, from the NYPD—and the inevitable endpoint of these state disavowals of anti-Asian violence and this posturing of state intervention to “protect” Asian American communities from violence is increased policing and ramped-up hate crime charges for these acts of violence. But we’re also seeing a lot of pushback from Asian American organizers who are embracing an abolitionist framework, and who understand that policing is itself a form of violence in so many working-class communities of color—including Asian American communities.

JL: You mentioned the importance of understanding anti-Asian violence in relation to white supremacy and racial capitalism. How does that understanding inform approaches to anti-Asian violence that reject the carceral paradigm?

MTP: Many community organizers who work, for instance, with tenants’ rights groups in Chinatown, or other low-income immigrant communities—they know very viscerally that it is the police who get called to enforce the will of landlords against working-class, immigrant tenants in cases of disputes or evictions. The same is true when it comes to sex work. In New York in particular, there is a robust and growing trend of abolitionist sex work organizing, which has often intersected with Asian American organizing. One example is Red Canary Song, a group that formed in Flushing after the death of a massage worker, Yang Song, who fell to her death during an NYPD so-called “vice sting” in 2017.

These acts of violence point toward an understanding that anti-Asian violence is embedded in the state, in policing, and in immigration enforcement. From a left, anti-racist framework, we need to think about anti-Asian violence in this more capacious sense. That means recognizing, for instance, the Biden administration’s deportation of some 30 Vietnamese refugees a few weeks ago as a form of anti-Asian violence, which is not visible as such through the liberal statist lens, but which is really at the crux of the ideology of anti-Asian racism.

We also have to think about the much longer history of anti-Asian racism. Mainstream conversations often treat this violence as something new. That ahistoricism is a product of the erasure of at least 150 years of state-based anti-Asian violence and racism. I want to be specific about the Atlanta massacre: The murder of these six Asian and Asian American women is the result of a particular kind of gendered racism, rooted in anti-Asian misogyny, fetishization, and hyper-sexualization. Historicizing this particular massacre, and the shooter’s rhetoric about these Asian-owned massage businesses as “temptations,” illuminates a longer history that goes all the way back to some of the first immigration laws the United States enacted and enforced, such as the 1875 Page Act, which led up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Page Act barred the entry of forced Chinese laborers and Chinese women who, according to the legislation, would engage in prostitution. This act is one origin point for a very long history of criminalization and state regulation of Asian women’s sexualities, which has clear resonances in the conversation that we’re having today. The Page Act was ostensibly intended to target only those who were suspected of engaging in sex work, but in practice—because of racist notions about Chinese people—almost all Chinese women were barred from immigrating to the US. 

Another way to historicize the systemic nature of anti-Asian violence is to think about it in relation to imperialism. Gendered violence against Asian women in the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond is inextricable from US military interventions, including the occupation of Japan after World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In all of these cases, the bodies of Asian women became, within the US imperial imagination, a symbol for the openness and availability of Asian nations and Asian lands themselves. Routinized and institutionalized sexual violence against Asian women by members of the US military became a symbol for this larger project of empire and occupation. Many of the tropes that we continue to live with and that Asian women continue to face—whether it’s in the form of microaggressions, or direct acts of violence—originate in this field of empire, in which so-called “rest and relaxation” for American soldiers consisted of sexual tourism in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, and beyond. 

This is not simply a historical phenomenon. In 2014, a trans Filipina woman named Jennifer Laude was killed by a US Marine in the Philippines. In 2016, a young woman named Rina Shimabukuro was killed by a US base worker in Okinawa, Japan. These incidents don’t spark the same kind of national conversations about anti-Asian violence because they require a more direct confrontation with US imperialism in Asia. Because of the way that these histories and these acts of violence—especially when they’re situated abroad and committed in the name of US occupations—are erased, it sets us up for a more vacuous notion of anti-Asian violence as simply a matter of individual prejudices, which should be legislated and policed by the state. 

JL: Last summer, you and Minju Bae co-authored an article for ROAR Magazine about connecting movements against antiblackness, imperialism, and anti-Asian racism. “The model minority” myth, you wrote, “subsumes the very existence of US imperialism under a veneer of multicultural harmony.” How are progressive Asian American activists thinking about challenging the political tendency, represented by a figure like Andrew Yang, that wants to put the model minority myth in the service of US empire, and sees this as an exemplary form of Asian American politics?

MTP: Liberal multiculturalism helps justify and maintain the systems of the racial state and the structures of white supremacy by masking them with diverse figureheads. The more explicit discourses of white supremacy and white nationalism that Donald Trump represented and stoked have conditioned many on the center left to be satisfied with the vacuous liberal multiculturalism represented by the Obama and Biden administrations. We now have a president who can talk about how much he cares about the Asian American community, how much he cares about the Black community. We have a Black and South Asian vice president, which is being heralded as historic—and it is historic—but that kind of identity politics obscures, for instance, Kamala Harris’s history as an aggressive prosecutor. 

Politicians like Andrew Yang are emblematic of that paradigm of multiculturalism, which is particularly pernicious because it mobilizes Asian American inclusion in the civic body as an affirmation of American exceptionalism. That brings us to the origins of the model minority idea itself, which poses Asian Americans as a model counter to a pathologized Black underclass.

It’s increasingly important to understand the internationalist dimensions of the model minority myth, and particularly its anti-communist and imperialist dimensions. The ways, for instance, Chinese Americans in the 1950s and 1960s saw avenues to citizenship, civic inclusion, and political representation in the US was always structured by a strategy that understood Asian American inclusion as a propaganda coup for the US in its “battle for hearts and minds” in the so-called Third World. Part of combating and moving past this paradigm of multiculturalism is to prompt a reckoning with the structure of US empire.

JL: As the great power rivalry between the US and China has intensified, both Republicans and Democrats have joined anti-communism to anti-Chinese rhetoric. We hear this in the repetition of the term “the Chinese Communist Party” as the supposed enemy of US interests. There is a sad irony that in the US, the victims of increased anti-Asian sentiment as a result of this rhetoric are, in many instances, emigrants from communist countries like China and Vietnam, and often politically quite anti-communist themselves. 

MTP: This bipartisan stoking of anti-China hysteria—which has ramped up in the context of the pandemic—remains a point of strategic silence for a lot of the Asian American left. A defining question for the next decade will be what a new cold war with China will mean for Asian Americans. What does it mean for anti-imperialist organizing? What does it mean for fights against US occupations in Asia and the Pacific, many of which are strategically located around China in a kind of preemptive militarization? 

The liberal framework for understanding anti-Asian violence that I’ve been criticizing is structured by the silencing of the geopolitical context of this racism. It’s easy to say that Covid-19 has sparked anti-Asian animus and prejudice. But it’s harder, and less politically convenient, to name how the stoking of anti-China sentiments by both parties is implicated in these acts of violence. Some of the politicians who want to denounce the massacre in Atlanta are the very ones pushing this Sinophobic agenda.

It’s also complicated, because anti-communism is very prevalent in the Asian American community and in the Asian diaspora writ large. That’s not a coincidence; it’s part of how the model minority idea functions. US immigration policy—and refugee policy in particular—is designed to “liberate” Asian immigrants and refugees who are fleeing communism. That narrative is propagandized and instrumentalized to paint US war and occupation in Asia as part of a liberal project. That context structures a lot of Asian American conversations about socialism or communism, around states such as Vietnam, China, or North Korea. There’s often an assumption that the Asian diaspora is naturally anti-communist and oriented toward narratives of American exceptionalism, capitalism, and liberal democracy. But it’s important to historicize this. The diaspora in the US, and in the West more broadly, is not a natural, organic phenomenon; it’s structured by intentional policies of refugee relief, resettlement, and immigration, deployed in order to affirm particular ideological goals. The multiculturalist paradigm doesn’t have room for understanding the ways the diaspora itself is always structured by the imperial project.

JL: From an organizing perspective, it sounds like a difficult task to raise awareness of the political constructed-ness of diaspora communities in the US when many members of those communities may not necessarily see themselves in that way.

MTP: That is a perennial conflict within Asian American radical organizing. It often takes a generational manifestation, going back at least to the 1960s, the burgeoning of the Asian American movement, Asian American political identity, and the embrace of this Third World, anti-imperialist orientation. In that moment—when anti-communism was extremely strong, particularly within the Chinese American community—you have these second-generation Chinese Americans carrying around quotations from Mao Zedong and hanging the flag of the People’s Republic of China. Whereas the older generation of Chinese Americans—many of whom had loyalties to the Nationalist Party or were part of the old power elite of Chinatowns, and had worked alongside the US state to help purge and repress leftist and communists within the Chinese American community—were saying, “You can’t do that here, that kind of political speech and political orientation is not acceptable within this community.” It might not be quite as pronounced now 50 or 60 years later, but those same kinds of political and cultural and generational divides continue to exist.

I know a lot of folks are looking for ways to get involved and to support local organizations doing important work that is sometimes obscured in these national conversations. As I mentioned, in the New York City area, Red Canary Song is doing crucial organizing around Asian migrant sex workers from an abolitionist perspective. CAAV Organizing Asian Communities, also in New York, is deeply embedded in decades of work against anti-Asian violence, in conversation with struggles against police violence connected to other communities of color in the area. In terms of centering state violence, and in particular deportation as a mode of anti-Asian violence, I want to mention the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and the Asian Law Caucus in the Bay Area—these are two groups that do a lot of organizing with incarcerated Asian Americans, and in particular, Southeast Asian refugees with criminal records, who for many years have been targeted for deportation. They’ve been mobilizing community support and legal defense in really important ways that are often left out of these conversations. And in Providence, where I’ve been based for the past few years, The Providence Youth Student Movement is a group of mainly Southeast Asian Youth who are doing a lot of political education and organizing for police reform and against deportations.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.