Democracy Dies in Darkness
The long, ugly history of anti-Asian racism and
violence in the U.S.
By Gillian Brockell
March 18, 2021 at 7:00 a.m. EDT
A gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta-area spas Tuesday night; six of the victims were women of Asian
descent, sparking fears among advocacy groups that the killings may have been racially motivated.
Anti-Asian hate crimes have spiked 150 percent since the pandemic began, according to a recent study.
People of Asian descent have been living in the United States for more than 160 years, and have long been the target of
bigotry. Here is a look at the violence and racism that Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have faced since before
the Civil War.
People v. Hall
Chinese immigrants began coming to the United States in significant numbers in the 1850s, largely to California and
other Western states, to work in mining and railroad construction. There was high demand for these dangerous, lowwage jobs, and Chinese immigrants were willing to fill them. Almost immediately, the racist trope of â€œAsians coming to
steal White jobsâ€ was born. And in 1854, the California Supreme Court reinforced racism against Asian immigrants in
People v. Hall, ruling that people of Asian descent could not testify against a White person in court, virtually
guaranteeing that Whites could escape punishment for anti-Asian violence. In this case, it was murder: George Hall
shot and killed Chinese immigrant Ling Sing, and the testimony of witnesses was rejected because they were also
Chinese massacre of 1871
On Oct. 24, 1871, following the murder of a White man caught in the crossfire between rival Chinese groups, more than
500 White and Hispanic rioters surrounded and attacked Los Angelesâ€™ small Chinese community, centered in a redlight district known as Negro Alley. At least 17 Chinese men and boys were lynched, including a prominent local doctor.
They were hanged across several downtown sites, anywhere the rioters could find a beam to string a noose. Eight of the
rioters were eventually convicted of manslaughter, but their convictions were overturned. No one else was ever
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Economic woes in the 1870s spawned another spike in anti-Asian racism and scapegoating. In 1882, Congress
overwhelmingly passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration for 20 years. President Chester
A. Arthur vetoed it, but then signed another version with a 10-year ban. The first law placing a restriction on
immigration to the United States, it was extended for more than 60 years before it was repealed in 1943.
Rock Springs massacre, 1885
In Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, long-standing aggression against Chinese miners exploded in September 1885,
when 100 to 150 vigilantes surrounded and attacked Chinese mineworkers, killing 28 people and burning 79 homes.
Hundreds fled to a nearby town, then were tricked into boarding a train they were told would take them to safety in
San Francisco. Instead, it took them back to Rock Springs, where they were forced back into the mine. Federal troops
stayed for 13 years to impose order.
San Francisco plague outbreak
In 1900, an outbreak of bubonic plague struck San Francisco. It is likely that the outbreak began with a ship from
Australia, but since the first stateside victim was a Chinese immigrant, the whole community was blamed for it.
Overnight, the cityâ€™s Chinatown was surrounded by police, preventing anyone but White residents from going in or out.
Chinese residents were also subjected to home searches and property destruction by force. The episode was a prelude
to the racism that has been aimed at Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, which former President
Donald Trump frequently called â€œthe China virus,” â€œthe Wuhan virus,â€ and the â€œKung Flu.â€
Japanese internment during World War II
By the 1940s, tens of thousands of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans had built lives in the United States.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, the U.S. government forced all of them
into internment camps for the duration of the war over suspicions they might aid the enemy. Conditions in the camps
were extreme, blazing hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. No spies were ever found. When they were
freed, many returned to find their homes and businesses vandalized or confiscated. In 1988, survivors received a
presidential apology and $20,000 each in reparations.
Vietnamese shrimpers and the KKK
A h l f h Vi W h U i d S l d Vi fl i h i I T
At the close of the Vietnam War, the United States resettled many Vietnamese fleeing the communists. In Texas, many
of those immigrants took up shrimping. â€œWe like the weather, we like the shrimping, we like a chance to start our own
businesses,â€ Nguyen Van Nam told The Washington Post in 1984. As they worked hard and began to dominate the
industry, the trope of Asians coming to take White jobs returned, and this time it was wearing a white hood. Ku Klux
Klan leader Louis Beam trained his members in commando-style attacks; they patrolled the waters in their regalia and
set boats owned by Vietnamese people on fire.
The murder of Vincent Chin
Vincent Chin was out on the town. On June 19, 1982, the 27-year-old Chinese American was about to marry and was
celebrating with friends in Detroit. Then two White men picked a bar fight, blaming Chin for â€œthe Japaneseâ€ taking
their auto-industry jobs. Outside the bar, the men beat Chin with a baseball bat. He died several days later. His
assailants took a manslaughter plea bargain, which carried a possible sentence of 15 years. Instead, the judge gave the
men probation and a $3,000 fine. The lenient sentence outraged and galvanized the Asian American community,
helping to unite them across ethnic lines and work for civil rights.
The L.A. riots
Tensions had been building between the Black and Korean American communities in Los Angeles for years. Then came
the April 29, 1992, acquittal of the police officers caught on camera beating Rodney King. As the city erupted in riots,
Korean American businesses became targets; thousands were damaged during the unrest.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hate crimes spiked against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim,
including people of South Asian descent. Only four days after the attacks, aircraft mechanic Frank Silva Roque
murdered Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American gas station owner originally from India, whom Roque mistook for
Muslim. The post-9/11 period led to greater awareness and advocacy between the South and East Asian communities.
What one familyâ€™s story reveals about reparations
â€˜A Japanese Schindlerâ€™: The remarkable diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during WWII
Why youâ€™ve never heard of the six Chinese men who survived the Titanic
The U.S. hid Hiroshimaâ€™s human suffering. Then John Hersey went to Japan.
â€˜Cheap slavesâ€™: Trump, immigration and the ugly history of the Chinese Exclusion Act
Atlanta spa shootings: What to read
The latest: Asian American leaders struggle over where to take their movement | Atlanta-area Asian Americans speak up |
Atlanta spa shooting victims highlight struggles for Asian and Asian American immigrant women in low-wage jobs
Victims: What we know
The suspect: His life before the attacks | Accused Atlanta gunmanâ€™s church expels him, as local Korean church leaders
mourn, call for action
Photos: Crowds gather around the country to protest anti-Asian violence
Video: Calls for an end to anti-Asian discrimination ring loud in Atlanta
By Gillian Brockell
Gillian Brockell is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s history blog, Retropolis. She has been at The Post since 2013
and previously worked as a video editor. Twitter
Democracy Dies in Darkness