The murder of six women of Asian descent and two other victims in Atlanta by a white male gunman precipitated a wave of protests across the US under the demand to ‘Stop Asian Hate’. While the significance of race in the attack has been questioned by some, the tragedy has only catalyzed anger at the recent growth in anti-Asian hate crimes.
The escalation in racial violence can easily be reduced to an effect of the Trumpian response to the pandemic, but the reality is that anti-Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate in the US has a long, violent, and sordid history which presents urgent lessons and challenges to the global Black Lives Matter movement and the labor movement.
In 1932, two parallel and entwined stories of racial terror unfolded in quite different parts of the American empire. In March of the previous year, nine young men and boys, the youngest only 12 years old, had been accused by two white women of rape when they were found to have been sharing a train car in Alabama. The group of African American youths were put on trial by an all-white jury and almost all were sentenced to death. The attempted legal lynching was made a potent political topic by the intervention of the NAACP and, most of all, the Communist Party, whose legal defense organization initiated a mass campaign to save the young men from the electric chair. In October 1932, the US Supreme Court reversed the convictions having found that due process was not followed in Alabama. This was certainly not the end of a long and tragic saga for the young men, but it marked a landmark in civil rights history.
While the Scottsboro case was becoming an international cause célèbre, a parallel story began to capture headlines in a very different locale: the US possession of Hawai’i. Though it has become emblematic of a multiracial capitalist paradise, Hawai’i is a colonized territory where various ethnic groups have suffered intense racial violence as well as militarization and ruthless labor exploitation.
One Hawaiian victim of white supremacy was Joseph Kahahawai, a prize fighter who was identified as being one of the five men that Thalia Massie, the white wife of a US Navy officer, claimed beat and raped her. As the trial unfolded, Massie’s mother arranged for two of the defendants to be kidnapped and beaten. A Japanese man, Horace Ida, survived his beating, but Kahahawai was shot and killed. The Massie trial ended with a white jury delivering a verdict of manslaughter and the Territorial Governor commuting the ten-year sentences into a single hour.
The sexual politics of the recent murders were quite different than those in the Scottsboro and Massie-Kahahawai cases. Where the suspect in Atlanta claimed to have been trying to eliminate the apparent sources of his own sex addiction, historic legal lynching was justified in terms of the defense of white womanhood against Black men’s alleged untamed sexuality. But the wider picture presents a clear unity: in 1931, the place was Scottsboro and the names were Haywood Patterson and Charlie Ween; in 2021 it was Minneapolis and the name was Daunte Wright. In 1932, the place was Honolulu and the name was Joseph Kahahawai; in 2021 it was Atlanta and the names were Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. The pattern is clear, and its historical sources are not only deep in American soil but also global.
The regime of racial terror under which African Americans struggled for survival during and after slavery was always connected to a regime of labor discipline and the maintenance of a cross-class alliance among Europeans, defined by the social wage called whiteness. Rather than manifesting a mystical and unchanging antagonism against African people, that racial regime served the definite material ends of capital accumulation and social control. It therefore developed similarly when it was deployed against non-African people on the US West Coast and the Pacific islands.
In the late-nineteenth century Pacific, and especially after the defeat of slavery in the US South, the practice of “blackbirding” flourished. It saw tens of thousands of islanders kidnapped from their homes and brought to labor on plantations in Australia. Similarly, the decline of the transatlantic slave trade increased demand for Chinese labor, which was used extensively in the development of a basic infrastructure for industrial capitalism on the US West Coast. As a result of their status as intensely exploited and legally “alien” semi-free laborers, the Chinese became victims of hateful and violent campaigns carried on by the skilled white workers of the California trade unions and were targeted by leading politicians. By these means, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Through the twentieth century, Asian migration was a frequent political flashpoint, featuring prominently in discourse around immigration policy. Most notoriously, commentators such as Lothrop Stoddard regarded Asian people as a “Yellow Peril” which threatened to destroy white, Western supremacy on a global level. A similar fear motivated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wartime internment of Japanese Americans. Following the Second World War, the character of anti-Asian animus changed somewhat, with the growth of the model-minority myth—an ostensibly positive stereotype of Asian Americans which erased a great deal of racial injustice against them and which continues to be weaponized against other racialized groups.
In our time, the source and ideological shape of anti-AAPI hate is somewhat different, but its structuring determinants are the same. Diminishing material and psychological benefits of whiteness amid unrelenting economic crisis; the glaring fact of US imperial decline; the rise of rival capitalisms in East Asia; the fear of an emergent Left beyond and against the Democrats; and the ruling-class desire to deflect anger over their handling of the pandemic into racial antagonism all indicate that hate crimes will continue to blight the lives of AAPI people as well as African Americans and others. All these conditions are, in a certain sense, particular and contingent circumstances of twenty-first century America. But examining the history shows that they are also rooted in a capitalist system with which a growing number of Americans are utterly disillusioned.
Inevitably, gestural solidarity will come from the Democratic Party, which no longer makes much of its political currency from racial hatred. But the most substantial challenges to such attacks have always come from outside the two-party dictatorship of capital which still prevails in the US. They have emerged from the radical, socialist wing of the labor movement—such as the Communists in the 1930s—and from cosmopolitan revolutionaries such as Karl Yoneda, Yuri Kochiyama, and Grace Lee. Each of these knew that stopping Asian hate was a problem of class struggle, and a problem of socialist transformation.