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Anti-Asian violence has surged in the US since COVID-19. But it didn’t start there

Anti-Asian violence has surged in the US since COVID-19. But it didn’t start there

“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, 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.”

View of Chinese fishing camp against a hillside in Point San Pedro, San Francisco Bay, circa 1889.Corbis via Getty Images

During this period, some 300 Chinese settlements were displaced, Jeung told TODAY. 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% 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.

A wood engraving showing members of a youth gang attacking Chinese and Chilean contract laborers’ encampments from San Francisco, 1849.ullstein bild via Getty Images

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,” told TODAY. “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 OurDocuments.gov. 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.

Chinese laborers at work with pick and shovel wheelbarrows and one-horse dump carts filling in under the long-secret town trestle, which was originally built in 1865 on the Present Southern Pacific Railroad lines of Sacramento. The picture was taken in 1877 and shows the crude construction methods in use when the first railroad was built across the Sierra Nevada Mountains.Bettmann Archive

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.

A Chinese apothecary in Chinatown in San Francisco, California, mid-1880s.Getty Images

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.


Anti-Asian violence has surged in the US since COVID-19. But it didn’t start there

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