by Jacinda Tran
We are undeniably living through a time of heightened attention to anti-Asian violence. Recently, there have been countless instances of anti-Asian violence reported across the US: from the fatal beating of Vicha Ratanapakdee in California last year to the suspected targeting of Michelle Go, who was pushed off a subway platform in New York earlier this year—alongside numerous other events deemed less newsworthy. Anti-Asian violence has garnered so much consideration, nationally and locally, as to even solicit an email from NYU President Andrew Hamilton this past March, which reported that “hate crimes against Asian increased nearly 350% from 2020 to 2021 in NYC.”
A Google trend analysis of the word “anti-Asian” demonstrates the gradual incline of the word’s use with the onset of the COVID-19 virus in 2020. It is followed by a noticeable peak in March 2021, after the Atlanta spa shootings resulting in the death of six Asian women—the brutal condensation of an atmosphere of anti-Asian violence (to draw from Christina Sharpe’s formulation of antiblack climate). According to a report about Asian American scapegoating by Stop AAPI Hate, a group that formed “in response to the alarming escalation in xenophobia and bigotry resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” this sudden spectacularization of anti-Asian violence could be attributed to former president Trump’s Orientalist rhetoric in reference to the global pandemic’s origins in China. Yet the Atlanta spa shootings suggests the culmination of histories of US militarism, misogyny, policing, and Orientalism in a moment of mass eradication.
In these ways, the mediatization of Asian American exclusion has certainly elevated the issue to the fore—but is it exceptional? What if we saw it as incidental of or instrumental to US nation formation? That’s what historical research can teach us. According to a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, this current moment recalls the violence that plagued Asian American communities in the 1980s-1990s—one extended from a longer history of structural violence.
My own research on Southeast Asian refugee resettlement in the aftermath of the so-called Vietnam War examines how state and news media represented Southeast Asians during instances of interracial violence. I focus on the framing of interracial violence to show how an atmosphere of anti-Asian violence obscured yet derived from national security imperatives. To prove this work, I look back to state archives during this preceding moment of heightened anti-Asian violence. The Asian/Pacific/American Institute’s Yoshio Kishi and Irene Yah Ling Sun Collection has been vital to this work: as an archive of Asian American representation over the years, its cultural artifacts and ephemera are palpable reminders of just how embedded anti-Asian culture is in the formation of the United States.
Within my investigations of anti-Asian atmospheres, I am particularly interested in law enforcement and policing as racializing projects. The sudden arrival of refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to the US in the aftermath of US militarization prompted local police departments to formulate racial knowledge about and surveillance of these new ethnic groups—as both victims and criminals. Within the Kishi/Sun collection, I focus on two artifacts that poignantly capture anti-Asian sentiments through law enforcement agencies: a newsletter and a conference pamphlet.
The first document is a 1989 newsletter, Quarterly News, from the Association of Asian Crime Investigators, a group of police departments from cities nationwide addressing the “growing problem of Asian crime” since the “influx of Southeast Asians began in the mid-1970s.” The Association met at the International Conference on Asian Crime established in 1979, though they only started publishing the newsletter in the late 1980s. What’s striking about the publication is its attempts to form knowledge about Asian crime writ-large, including headshots of wanted suspects, celebrations of police conquests, and speculations about potential criminal schemes. For the Association, the focus was on one specific racial group only—Asians—and how they could be identified and potential criminals. In these ways, police units focusing on Asian crime normalized the targeting of Asians-as-criminals, prolonging the suspicion of inscrutable Asian subjects from the Cold War and beyond.
The second document, a reductive guide developed by Lieutenant Jack Willoughby of the New Orleans Police Department for the 1993 Asian Gangs Symposium in Glendale, AZ, perpetuates this sentiment. “WoFat’s Incomplete Cultural Guide” invokes the name of a fictional Chinese villain from Hawaii Five-O, a television drama about a police task force in Honolulu that aired from 1968 to 1980. Played by a non-Asian actor, Wo Fat nonetheless embodied Nixon-era fears of Chinese government and intelligence, as a spy and nemesis of the protagonist.
These slippages between Cold War orientalism (including the more specific registers of Sinophobia and Japanophobia invoked by the document’s references) makes it possible to see Asians as a cultural amalgamation of all these foreign threats. Like the newsletter, “WoFat’s Incomplete Cultural Guide” blames the criminality of Vietnamese gangs on the deficiencies of the east. “Politics, as known in Europe and America,” the guide tells us, “has never existed in Vietnam. Their history is ruled by despots, monarchs and foreigners. This leaves little room for politics as we think of it. It is little wonder that Vietnamese in America have trouble understanding our political system.” Such generalized notions reinforce a western supremacy to which its opposite easterners must conform.
Despite its hierarchization of difference, the same document says: “Remember: Asians are different than Americans. Not better, not worse, just different.” Yet it is precisely this difference that deemed Asian Americans the target and preoccupation of police. The hypervisibility of Asian difference-as-foreign, and the criminalization of difference is what constitutes the umbrella of the Asian racial category (as defined by the police, and more broadly, the state)—facilitating the turn from long Cold War suspicion to COVID-era xenophobia.
We’ll never know the psychic underpinnings of people acting under this current climate of anti-Asian hate—but what we do know is that this has happened before, that the social and cultural formation of Asian identification has continually sought to target and punish racial difference. Within the very recent past of the 1980s examined here, Asian American victimization was nonetheless accompanied by Asian American criminalization, leading me to ask which Asian Americans get to be framed as victims of anti-Asian violence? In other words, what kinds of violence are legible as AAPI hate? Related to these inquiries, my research into law enforcement as a mode of enacting state racial violence suggests that the answer lies not in further policing and legislation, but rather in new ways of looking at and relating with difference altogether.
Jacinda Tran is a writer, researcher, and teacher based in Brooklyn, NY (Lenapehoking). She is a visiting scholar at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, and finishing her PhD in American Studies at Yale University. Her dissertation is on “Search and Destroy: Southeast Asia/ns through the Lens of U.S. Visual Warfare.”
This project was completed with support from the Yale Graduate Impact Fellowship for the Humanities, which allowed for the application of scholarship to public-facing opportunities.