May 13, 2021
#STOPASIANHATE HAS BECOME a rallying cry in response to the surge in anti-Asian violence since the beginning of the pandemic, from random, brutal attacks on the elderly to a white gunman’s murder of six Asian women as well as two others in Atlanta in March. As incidents of anti-Asian violence have accumulated alongside a continuous stream of viral videos of police officers killing Black people, there has been a tendency to collapse all forms of anti-Asian and anti-Black racial violence into an amorphous framework of “white supremacy.” At the same time, videos of Black men attacking Asians have undercut the universality of the white supremacy narrative, instead reinforcing stereotypes of Black criminal aggression while promoting the exceptional vulnerability of Asian Americans to racist violence. Such generalizations about white supremacy or the aberrational quality of anti-Asian violence risk obfuscating the structures of racial disposability embedded in neoliberal capitalism. By contextualizing anti-Asian racism within a longer arc of capitalist development, I argue that understanding the racial discontinuities are as important as the continuities for determining our collective response. My purpose therefore is to clarify the specificity of Asian racialization as it exists on a settler-colonial terrain of anti-Blackness. Rather than create an equivalence between anti-Asian and anti-Black racisms, I underscore the asymmetries of racial difference that coalesce to reproduce the inequality, scarcity, and isolation that capitalism requires.
The racial ontology of Asianness is marked by an unusual abstraction, eliciting a reactionary form of dehumanization that is based less on ideas of biological inferiority than on a menacing foreignness. In the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese migrants arrived in the US during a period of heightened social unrest surrounding the abolition of slavery. Caught between proslavery and free-labor debates, Chinese “coolies,” neither free nor enslaved, were pulled into a classificatory paradox. Explaining this contradiction, Moon-Ho Jung notes that coolies “were viewed as [both] a natural advancement from chattel slavery and a means to maintain slavery’s worst features.” Chinese migrants thus became associated less with their status as free or enslaved workers than with their mode of labor efficiency, whose excess could threaten the normativity of white labor within the settler-colonial capitalist system. In other words, the humanity of Chinese migrants was reduced to an economic functionality based on labor efficiency, identified not with the qualitative substance of their bodies but with the quantitative rate of their labor. Between the poles of freedom and slavery, this form of racialized plasticity was constituted on the fixed ground of Black unfreedom.
The aberrant productivity of Chinese labor eventually took on a perverse character in the settler-colonial imagination, symbolized by degeneracy, disease, and vice that endangered the white-settler nation. The source of Chinese perversity was the bachelor home, a space whose nonconformity to white heteropatriarchal norms was seen as constitutive of Chinese labor efficiency. As homosocial spaces not bounded by relations of normative kinship or procreation, the costs of Chinese social reproduction were lower than those of the white nuclear family, where the male breadwinner assumed the social-reproduction costs of his wife and children. The deviancy of the Chinese domestic sphere thus threatened both the value of labor and the stability of the heteropatriarchal home. The fungible character of Chinese labor held a degenerative power, establishing the foundation on which Asians more broadly have ever since been associated with a destructive value regime. Chinese migrants were depicted as both pestilent rats and rat eaters, a threatening swarm of contagion and cultural depravity. Always lurking unseen in the background, the foreign peril that Asians have come to represent is largely a covert one, akin to the “invisible enemy” that Trump invoked at his press briefings to characterize Covid-19. Popular constructions of Asians that evoke inscrutability, untrustworthiness, mystery, or deceitfulness collectively reinforce the hidden menace they embody, suggesting that the negative, racial substance of Asianness is, like disease, beyond representation. This is the mirror opposite of Blackness, which has historically been constructed as manifestly and eternally biological.
While the economic and political exclusion of Black people was partially controlled through Jim Crow and antimiscegenation laws, the abstract threat of Chinese labor was managed through gendered and sexual regulation at the border. When cheap labor was no longer required for the infrastructural expansion of the white-settler nation, the US government passed a series of laws to restrict the biological reproduction of the Chinese population and thus restore the normativity of white social reproduction. Border control initially took the form of gendered and sexual policing, first of Chinese women, then of Chinese men. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Law, which was designed to bar Chinese women from immigrating to the US for “lewd and immoral purposes,” including prostitution. This law placed a cloud of suspicion over the sexual morality of Chinese women, who were subject to an interrogation process that presumed they were prostitutes unless proven otherwise. The Page Law was implemented not out of any concern for the sexual trafficking of Chinese women, but rather from the fear that their degeneracy was a threat to the white race, so much so that the American Medical Association conducted a study on whether a “Chinese” strain of syphilis was poisoning the nation’s bloodstream. The policing of these women’s bodies became what Eithne Luibheid calls a “blueprint for exclusion,” one that remains embedded in immigration policy today. Its legacy extends to the Atlanta shooting through the widespread assumption that all of the shooters’ Asian victims were sex workers—and, by extension, that sex workers are undeserving of protection.
The analogue to the hypersexualization of Chinese women was the sexual perversity associated with Chinese men. Crowded, segregated bachelor communities were stigmatized as hotbeds of homosexual vice, addiction, and illness. The excessive efficiency associated with Chinese bodies through their higher rate of exploitation found its corollary in the depravity imagined to breed in the nonreproductive spheres of Chinese homosocial domesticity. This combination of moral panic and economic anxiety led to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration for more than half a century.
While the gendered and sexual contours of Chinese foreignness represented an abstract threat to white social reproduction based on the destructive economism of their labor, this form of racialization was molded onto an existing terrain of anti-Blackness. The status of the Chinese as unassimilable aliens who were ineligible for citizenship amounts to what Claire Jean Kim refers to as a racial position of simultaneous disadvantage and advantage: disadvantage because of not-whiteness but advantage because of not-Blackness. While policy constructions of the intractable foreignness of Chinese people were undoubtedly racist, Kim clarifies that they were also a testament to the perceived strength—and hence threat—of China’s civilization and culture. For Black people, in contrast, legal enfranchisement in the aftermath of the abolition of chattel slavery was constituted on the basis of their lack of national origins. Chinese unassimilability was a therefore a sign of civilizational difference, while Black assimilability was an index of uncivilized barbarism. While the passage of Chinese Exclusion and Jim Crow laws in the nineteenth century was a means of maintaining white supremacy through racial segregation on national and global scales, there was no equivalence in the substance of anti-Asian and anti-Black racism. While the former remains an Orientalist projection of a fundamental Asian otherness, the latter is based less on antipathy toward African origins than on an essentialized conflation of Blackness and criminality that was instantiated under slavery. In the eyes of the law, the only will that enslaved people could exercise was a criminal one. The implication, as Sau-ling Wong observes, following Elliott Butler-Evans, is that “Rodney King was beaten as a member of an American minority, not as a member of the black diaspora.” The same cannot be said for Asian Americans.
Globalizing Domestic Warfare
The global dimensions of US imperialism were shaped by the continental accumulation of Indigenous land and African bodies and are intertwined with the association of Asian women with sex work that informed the horrifying murders of the Asian spa workers. During the expansion of US empire from the Philippine-American War at the turn of the twentieth century, the postwar occupation of Japan, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, sex work was a mode of survival for Asian women in devastated countries. In the post–World War II era, the building of military operations and bases in Asia and the Pacific went hand in hand with the expansion of the sex industry in military camptowns and the development of Thailand’s modern-day sex-tourism industry. Camptowns, particularly in South Korea, reinforced a culture in which American GIs were effectively immune from prosecution for the rape and murder of any Asian woman, regardless of employment. This culture of violence has steadily been transplanted to southern US bases, where camptown massage parlors and spas were reconstituted through brokered marriages between GIs and camptown madams after troop reductions in South Korea impacted the military sex economy. Referring to the futility of containing the “human spillover of empire,” Yuri Doolan underscores how “US military encounters in [Asia] have changed American society by bringing US imperial spaces, practices, and subjects into the home front.”
The acute vulnerability of the Asian women who were killed in March is layered onto the devaluation of Black and Indigenous women. Historically, the legal protection of white women’s virtue was not extended to Black and Indigenous women. As critical-race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw has demonstrated, rape statutes were limited to the regulation, protection, and restoration of white female chastity. Alternatively, for Black women, chastity was never presumed and therefore outside the law’s protection. Courts in some states went so far as to instruct juries that unlike white women, Black women were not chaste, which made it virtually inconceivable that a Black woman could even be raped, let alone that a man could be convicted of doing it. The intersection of colonialism and misogyny also informs the movement for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, which has exposed the vulnerability of Indigenous women to murder by non-Native men. Even after the passage of the 2013 Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, violent crimes on Native lands remain subject to federal and state law rather than Native judicial systems, creating an accountability vacuum in which non-Native men can commit rape and murder on Native land with virtual impunity. In the case of Asian women, their sexual deviance was constructed in immigration policy and reinforced by US militarism in Asia. This confluence of domestic and global contexts subjects them to the threat of sexual violence, while their presumed sexual immorality serves to justify increased surveillance, policing, and criminalization.
Hate Crimes and Carceral Care
Despite the historical asymmetries that exist between and across the experiences of racialized groups, the state has offered only a single solution to address anti-Black and anti-Asian violence: the expansion of antidiscriminatory policing and hate-crimes legislation, most recently with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act. The former bill bans the use of choke holds and no-knock warrants and limits qualified immunity, among other reforms. Designed to “eliminate discriminatory policing,” the bill gives millions of dollars to the police during an unprecedented economic and health crisis that has disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities. If passed, the George Floyd Act authorizes new grant programs that will allocate a combined $850 million to investigate repeated civil-rights violations and deadly use of force by law enforcement. As Mariame Kaba notes, this funding offers an expensive answer to a nonexistent question: “They already know how we die. It’s policing.” The tragic irony of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is that none of its provisions would have saved the life of the man for whom it was named. Floyd’s death was not the result of a choke hold, a no-knock warrant, qualified immunity, or racial profiling. Rather, he was killed by a police officer who knelt on his neck for nine minutes. Regardless of reforms, the police have at their disposal any number of ways to kill a person. The state of New York spent thirty-five million dollars to train officers to comply with the ban on choke holds, but this did nothing to save Eric Garner’s life. As Kaba emphasizes, the only way to prevent people from dying at the hands of the police is to reduce police contact with communities of color.
Like the George Floyd Act, the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act will allocate funding to expand reporting and data collection by the Department of Justice, adding to existing hate-crimes legislation that includes sentencing enhancements. Just as the police reform bill would not have protected George Floyd, the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act does not increase the safety of Asian women who work in stigmatized industries. The bill largely disregards the public statements of Asian American community leaders and organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta and the grassroots migrant-sex-worker coalition Red Canary Song, which have opposed additional policing. They have advocated instead for the legalization of sex work as the most effective means of increasing safety for migrant women employed in these industries, whether they are engaged in sex work or not. What calls for more policing and more surveillance fail to acknowledge is that massage parlors are already surveilled, criminalized, and targeted by immigration raids. It is precisely in these contexts in which police departments double as border enforcement that migrant workers become powerless and hyperexploitable.
If the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act is passed, which is likely, anti-Asian hate crimes will be catalogued as all hate crimes are: as individualized, dehistoricized instances of bias rather than as part of a domestic and global structure of imperial violence. Above all, by quantifying the escalation of anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Bill promises to reinforce the notion that hardworking Asian Americans are the innocent victims of undeserved hate. While that’s true, what will be missing from this accounting is that Asian Americans are the only group of color that have lower Covid-19 mortality rates than white people; Indigenous, Black, and Latinx groups have the highest. The hate-crimes bill will make it easier to overlook this gap, to turn away from a more honest reckoning with the reactionary, anti-Black foundations of model minority status.
Anti-Asian racism isn’t exceptional, nor was it initiated by the Sinophobic ravings of the former president. It is deeply embedded in the colonial, anti-Black foundations of our racial capitalist order. Since the nineteenth century, economic and social dislocations, particularly for white men, have presented ideal conditions for the growth of a regressive form of romantic “anticapitalism,” a staple of white-settler ideology that has informed immigrant-exclusion campaigns, the eugenics movement, and, more recent ecofascist mobilizations. To be clear, romantic anticapitalism is not anticapitalist; rather, it is a regressive ideology based in a binary view of the social world. A profound misreading of capitalist modernity, this ideology promotes the violent, patriarchal defense of the natural white world against the unnatural and abstract circuits of destructive capitalism. Under Nazi romantic anticapitalist ideology, it was Jewish people who became the personification of this abstract evil. By comparison, in North America, Asians have personified a destructive value regime rooted in the excessive efficiency of their labor, whether in conflicts between capital and labor against the backdrop of Reconstruction, or in fears over Japanese agricultural monopolies during the early-twentieth century, or in the evisceration of the US auto industry by Japanese competition in the 1980s. In the current moment, the gendered economic and political dislocations resulting from a forty-year period of wage stagnation, the deterioration of white-male breadwinning potential, and the steady decline of US global hegemony present the prime breeding ground for romantic anticapitalism. Moreover, the passage of neoliberal immigration reforms in 1965 that favored Asian immigrants from investor and managerial classes, alongside the rise of Asian economies, has further reinforced the identification of Asians with the speculative dynamism of finance capitalism. In this light, the “Chinese virus” might also refer to the abstract flows of capital that produce a toxic intersection of race, disease, and crisis.
Collectively, ending these forms of gendered racist violence would require an end to US empire: an end to militarism and policing, criminal punishment, state regulation of women’s bodies, and an economy based on violent relations of scarcity over plenty, individualism over interdependence. Alternatively, antidiscrimination and hate-crimes legislation represent what Ren-yo Hwang calls “carceral care,” punitive solutions that expand the power of prisons, borders, and bases that disproportionately target the very gendered, racialized bodies they purport to protect. Covid-19 still has much to teach us, perhaps most urgently that it is time to stop looking to the carceral state for the care and protection it cannot give.
Iyko Day is associate professor of English and Critical Social Thought at Mount Holyoke College.