Since the end of World War II, much of the hateful rhetoric and violence directed toward the Asian American community has emerged from those who have viewed their Asian American neighbors as competitors in a zero-sum game.
While a growing number of media outlets are attempting to indict “white supremacists” for the dramatic increase in reported hate crimes against people of Asian descent, the reality is that for more than four decades Asian Americans in some of our largest cities have been the victims of violence and discrimination perpetrated by members of several racial and ethnic groups. And, although there has indeed been an uptick during the past year of hateful rhetoric and violent assaults against Asian Americans throughout the nation, which can likely be attributed to irrationally blaming them for the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the truth is that there has been an ugly history of violence and discrimination directed toward Asian Americans throughout much of our nation’s history.
To be sure, it was white nativism that drove the passage of the infamous 19th century Chinese Exclusion Act—the xenophobic law that barred immigration solely based on race. And it was fear of possible Japanese-Americans’ complicity in the war, coupled with a toxic envy over Japanese-American economic success in the United States, that led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to order the internment of Japanese Americans in detention camps in 1942.
Since the end of World War II, much of the hateful rhetoric and violence directed toward the Asian American community has emerged from those who have viewed their Asian American neighbors as competitors in a zero-sum game. Sadly, it became a competition that Asian Americans appeared to be winning. In the 1960s, the term “model minority” was adopted by the media to describe the admirable Asian American success. Unfortunately, the term was unfairly used against African Americans. As a recent article in The Guardian points out, “the model-minority discourse extols the virtues of Asian-Americans in stark contrast to the culture of poverty attributed to African-Americans. This racial wedge may be more relevant today with the sharpening of identity politics.”
Stereotyping Asian Americans as the “good minority” has contributed to a growing resentment among members of other ethnic and racial groups who may not have achieved the level of economic success and educational attainment that Asian Americans have. With advantages like stable family life, a commitment to education, a strong work ethic, and an army of “tiger moms” dedicated to motivating their children, Asian Americans have achieved greater economic success than all other racial and ethnic groups. U.S. Census data revealed that, in 2019, Asian-American households had a median income of $98,174—more than double that of Black households, with a median income of $45,438, and significantly higher than non-Hispanic whites who have a median income of $76,057.
Such success has caused a form of toxic envy and resentment that has been creating divisions for decades. As my latest book The Politics of Envy (Crisis publications) points out, similar patterns of envious rage and frustration against Asian Americans were evident in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Korean-owned businesses were targeted for vandalism and destruction through arson during the riots that followed the Rodney King beating by white police officers. More than 1,700 Korean businesses were destroyed because the African American community in South Central opposed the widespread Korean ownership and control of real estate across South Central Los Angeles. African American and Latino rioters believed that they did not have the same entrepreneurial opportunities.