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Seattle law professor: Asian-American history often viewed as ‘side subject’

Demonstrators gather in the Chinatown-International District during a "We Are Not Silent" rally and march against anti-Asian hate and bias on March 13, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Hate crimes directed at Asian-Americans have skyrocketed 150% over the last year, with over 3,800 reported incidents. Unfortunately, with what we’re seeing this year, that trend does not look to get any better any time soon.

Local leaders speak out to condemn anti-Asian violence, hate crimes

For insight on how America got to this point and how to help moving forward, Robert Chang, a civil rights attorney and the director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University, stopped by KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show.

Before diving into the history, host Ursula Reutin took a moment to ask Chang, as an Asian-American who has devoted his entire career to equality, what his reaction was to the shooting in Atlanta.

“Gosh, my reaction? Grief, horror,” he replied. “Those really are the predominant emotions that I’m feeling.”

Ursula said she and co-host Gee Scott had spoke about the shooting earlier in the show Thursday and don’t understand how it can’t be looked at as a possible hate crime. Police haven’t yet said it’s not, but they’ve focused more on the idea that the killer’s sex addiction was the motive.

“I’ve found it really curious, the spokesperson for the sheriff’s department that’s doing the investigation, … just how quickly he offered up the excuse about he was having a ‘bad day’ and this idea, in some ways, that the man was suffering from a sex addiction,” Chang said. “And the problem for me is that plays into so many of the stereotypes that exist.”

“In some ways, it almost feels like the spokesperson is already engaging in a defense for the man that somehow race is not connected to this,” he added. “And so that’s where I come at this, in terms of thinking about and understanding what it is that the spokesperson said.”

Why, Gee asked, aren’t we as a nation more aware of the history of hate crimes and the anti-Asian rhetoric that has been a part of the country’s history for so long?

“Part of it is the way that history, American history, is taught in most schools. It tends really to be a story that excludes the stories of minorities,” Chang said. “And so we shouldn’t be surprised that the story of Asian-Americans is not included.”

“Earlier today, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from people about discrimination against Asian-Americans, and one of the people testifying was [actor] Daniel Dae Kim, and he talked about it as the stories that he’s trying to put out there. It’s not Asian-American history. It’s American history,” Chang explained. “But the problem is that Asian-American history is too often thought of — or not included as American history. It’s this side subject.”

The same thing goes with African-American history and the history of Mexican-Americans in the United States, Chang pointed out.

“If these stories aren’t included, it’s not surprising then that people aren’t aware of this,” he said. “I mean, in terms of thinking about Washington’s own history, Washington has a long history of anti-Asian sentiment and actions, going back to the very terrible riots in Tacoma and Seattle in 1885 and 1886 when Chinese persons were sort of corralled and taken to the docks to be removed from Tacoma and Seattle.”

Hundreds gather at Seattle park to protest attacks on Asian Americans

Moving forward, what needs to be done to make people more aware, expand the conversation, and ultimately make things better in this country for Asian-Americans?

“Well, certainly being made more aware is critical to this effort,” Chang replied. “So when the former president talks about things like the Chinese flu, or the Chinese virus, or ‘kung flu,’ it’s able to take hold and affect people because of the way that persons of Asian ancestry are regarded as always foreign.”

“In some ways, [it’s] new versions of the previous yellow peril,” he added.

It’s important to understand the history, he says, and the way that those words have power because of the history.

“It’s not all just ancient history, it’s something that has persisted throughout this nation’s history,” he said. “In some ways, when we think about the number of Asian-Americans in this country, I think, Gee, you, on Twitter, you noticed one of the slides that I had put up. Why does America look the way that it does? And it’s because, by deliberate design, people from Asia and Africa were kept out.”

It’s a very long history of exclusion, Chang explains.

“And part of the blame for this also comes from a Washington representative, Albert Johnson,” Chang noted. “He was a sponsor of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration and Nationality Act. And what Congress did is it decided that it wanted a certain vision of what America was. And it determined immigration and country quotas based on what America looked like in 1890.”

“So it’s from that point in time that you get the quotas that were put into place that persisted and didn’t change until 1965,” he said.

The KIRO Radio Newsdesk contributed to this report. Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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