I am white. Male. Raised Catholic. We must take responsibility for our actions.
Much of the news coverage over the last few days has been on the most recent Anti-Asian violence. A white male (and yes, it’s almost always a white male) murdered eight people in the Atlanta area. Most of the people killed were Asian women.
Although I grew up in a predominantly white town and worked in predominantly white businesses, some of those most dear to me are Asian, either as immigrants, as native born U.S. with Asian heritage, or as continued residents in their home Asian nations. I see their pain, even if I’m not the target of what causes their pain. In fact, I fit the demographic that is most likely to contribute to, rather than alleviate, that pain.
Some of my Asian friends (see note) have felt the discrimination directly, others less so. One friend’s parent still living overseas calls more frequently to “check up,” feeling more anxious for the safety of their Asian American child. Another friend lives in constant anxiety. They had taken their parents out of an assisted living arrangement soon after the COVID pandemic began, fearful that they might become exposed to the virus that has taken so many in that system. Those parents recently got vaccinated, but still fear going out in public because of the attacks on Asian Americans, especially the elderly. Another friend moved back to Asia because of the heightened bigotry in the U.S. Yet another friend is the child of an Asian mother and White American father on military assignment, literally abandoned on the streets in their native country, and, after being adopted into a loving family, faced years of bigotry here in America. Psychological strain is evident even when there is no physical attack.
A conservative-leaning (as opposed to “conservative”) friend, who also happens to be of Asian descent, correctly pointed out to me that Anti-Asian violence is not new, nor is it exclusively perpetrated by white people. That is true. There has been a history of Asian-African American conflict in the U.S. for a long time, with both sides guilty of bigotry. Some of it may be home-grown, but some of it is a reflection of historical European/American interactions with Asia (much of which has not been positive) and pressure to secure a place in the white-dominant caste system in the U.S.
That conservative friend also got it right when they pointed out that bigotry against Asians in this country has been common in our history. Chinese immigrants, for example, came to the U.S. in the mid-1800s seeking their fortunes in the gold rush. Some were conned, kidnapped, and/or forced into exploitive arrangements, then and continuing today under “modern” trafficking crimes. When gold riches didn’t pan out for them, as with many Americans moving westward, the Chinese labored for the railroad companies, again in a largely exploitative arrangement. Later the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Acts. In World War II there were the Japanese internment camps. More violence against Asians followed the U.S. involvement in the Korean and Vietnam “conflicts” as refuges made their way to the United States. Anti-Japanese violence occurred in the 1970s as American factory workers felt competition from “cheap Japanese radios.” Clearly this isn’t a new phenomenon. Even the mythology of the “model minority” is bigoted and exploitative.
As with so many mass murders, there is a tendency to dehumanize the victims when the murderer is a white male. The Georgia Sheriff updating reporters on the murders, when asked about the perpetrator, noted: “They got that impression that yes, he understood the gravity of it. He was pretty much fed up, and kind of at [the] end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” You would think that the eight people murdered also had a bad day. So did millions of other people who didn’t murder eight people, and he apparently intended to continue his bad day by driving to Florida to murder other people. The sheriff also noted the perpetrator indicated he was trying to remove “the temptation” of the women’s presence. Language is powerful. By writing off the heinousness of the act, and putting the onus on those who were killed for why the murderer killed them, the sheriff is dehumanizing the victims of that act.
Dehumanizing the victims is a standard fallback. White people who vote against their interests are said to be experiencing “economic uncertainty” even though their votes exacerbate that uncertainty. In reality, the system favors whites; it always has. Voting differently would actually better address any of their valid concerns. So what is being covered up by this phrase? The same as it always has been. In our national history we quickly found that diminishing leaders of Native American civilizations as “savages” while setting up a system to cheat them gave us rationalization for pushing them further and further, and farther and farther, into untenable positions. We dehumanized African Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, criminalization policy, and more. We dehumanize “Mexicans,” who are mostly Central American refugees seeking escape from chronically corrupt regimes, along with migrant workers. We dehumanize Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and any other “other” we identify, simply to “keep them in their place,” that is, not interfere with our white privilege. We’ve done it throughout our history, and we continue to do it today.
What is new is the specific reason for this current wave of Anti-Asian violence. While the numbers are a moving target, there have been statistics like “there has been a 150% increase” or “3000 violent attacks” over the last few months. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is entirely due to the racist, Anti-Asian rhetoric spewed by Donald Trump and the Republican party. There is a reason Trump intentionally and repeatedly referred to the coronavirus that causes COVID as the “Chinese Virus,” ignominiously using his infamous black Sharpie to emphasize the point. He, and his Republican co-conspirators, intentionally used bigotry as a weapon to ignite the flames of passion in their followers. Because for the Republican party, bigotry works.
This isn’t new. “Conservatives” (again, as opposed to conservatives) have used bigotry to keep white workers in line against the “others” throughout our history, knowing that it distracted poorer whites from focusing on the oligarchy that manipulates the economic system in their favor. “Conservatives,” i.e., plantation slaveowners, argued that free states were attacking their right to enslave others, playing it up to the white farmers left destitute by the slave system as “northern aggression.” “Conservatives” screamed “socialism” in the 1860s and 1870s during Reconstruction, using the exact arguments that are used by today’s “conservatives.” John C. Calhoun’s mantra lives on in today’s oligarchs. Every time “others” manage to get a little bit more of the Constitution to apply to all Americans, not just the wealthy white ones, “conservative” forces pushed back. When Reconstruction threatened to give equality to former slaves, “conservatives” created Jim Crow laws and the KKK, and erected statues as intimidation. When the Supreme Court deemed segregation in schools unconstitutional and the civil rights movement was gaining steam, “movement conservatives” fought back by naming schools after slaveowners and instituting redlining to block equality of opportunity for African Americans. As soon as it became clear that Barack Obama could become president, “conservative” oligarchs invented the backronym “TEA Party” to provide cover for racist attacks (birtherism, Anti-Muslim, etc.). In other words, they did what they have done over and over again through our history. Want to know why Fox News has spent so much time lying about Dr. Seuss, and Mr. Potato Head? Because it is a tried-and-true culture war distraction from reality to rile up the bigotries of “conservatives.” And it keeps working.
Which gets me back to the beginning. While everyone must do their part, there is an extra responsibility for us white people. We have controlled the government, the airwaves, the economics, the public sentiment for the entire history of our nation. Often we’ve exploited our minority partners in this great experiment in self-government we call democracy (yes, technically we’re a republic, let’s not get distracted here). Whether white males like it or not, we’re slowly becoming inclusive. There’s a reason for that. It’s because the ideal of our nation requires it. That ideal is what has attracted immigrants from around the world. It’s what we should all be striving for.
The bottom line is that this is a nation of immigrants. Like most white Americans, I take pride in my English, Irish, and Portuguese heritage. My Asian friends, LatinX friends, African American friends, friends of all stripes and identities, all take pride in their heritages as well. But like me and virtually all of us, they also take pride in being American. We want America to be worth striving for. In allegorical terms, Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free” applies to today. We are all freer when we ensure our Constitution applies to all Americans.
Lincoln also said: “We are not enemies, but friends.” He called for us to be “again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Those better angels require us to take responsibility for our history, and our present. To quote another historical figure, “With great power comes great responsibility.” We are the power to be the change we need to be, if only we are brave enough to be it.
[Note: I’m being intentionally vague here for both privacy and safety reasons. For any given friend, Asian can mean Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Southeast Asian, South Asian, and other Asians. Of course, violence isn’t restricted to that against Asians, and these views, and our responsibility, applies to all of us.]
[Photo credit from https://www.glamour.com/story/anti-asian-hate-crimes-are-on-the-rise-heres-what-you-can-do-about-it%5D
David J. Kent is an avid traveler, scientist, and Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World as well as two specialty e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.
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