Who Counts as Asian, and What Counts as Anti-Asian Hate?
Asian Americans of all backgrounds experience discrimination and violence, but narratives of anti-Asian hate tend to center East Asians
As fears about the coronavirus increased in early 2020, Asian Americans — especially Asian American women — began to sound the alarm about a rise in anti-Asian violence, harassment, and hate. But it took the mass murder of six Asian women in Atlanta to catapult anti-Asian violence onto a national platform. On March 16, a 21-year-old White man murdered eight people in three massage parlors in the Atlanta area, including four Korean and two Chinese women. The massacre shocked, horrified, and outraged the nation and generated an outpour of empathy.
Asian Americans were still mourning the victims in Atlanta when less than a month later, on April 15, a 19-year-old White man opened fire at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, murdering four Sikhs among a mass killing of eight workers in total. Both massacres were targeted attacks against Asians, yet only the mass murder in Atlanta elicited a massive, sustained, and resounding cry to “stop Asian hate.”
While anti-Asian violence has a long, brutal, and under-recognized history in the United States that dates back more than 150 years, the recognized faces of anti-Asian violence are primarily East Asian, and specifically Chinese. In 1982, two disgruntled White autoworkers in Detroit beat Vincent Chin, who went into a coma and eventually died. The assailants blamed Chin for the loss of auto jobs amid a rise in Japanese imports and a national recession. Chin’s death galvanized Asian Americans and is still held up as the canonical example of anti-Asian violence. Atlanta is now being seen as a similar watershed moment.
Since Chin’s murder, dozens of Asian Americans have been killed, including several Southeast Asian children in a 1989 school shooting incident that preceded Sandy Hook by 18 years. In the past two decades, South Asians have borne the biggest brunt of anti-Asian violence and death in the United States. For example, Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed outside his gas station in Mesa, Arizona, on September 15, 2001; his assailant was seeking revenge for the 9/11 attacks. Since then, many Sikh Americans have been beaten and killed because of their religion and ethnicity, including in 2012, when a known White supremacist entered a Sikh gurdwara and slaughtered six congregants in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 33-year-old Indian engineer, was shot and killed in Kansas City by a White man who yelled at Kuchibhotla, “Get out of my country!”
Indians and Pakistanis classify themselves as Asian, yet other Americans, including other Asian Americans, are significantly less likely to do so
Despite this extensive recent history of violence against South Asian Americans, the narratives of anti-Asian violence in the media and community commentary continue to privilege East Asians, toggling between Vincent Chin and Atlanta as key archetypal moments and skipping over other critical moments in between. Notably, however, the Atlanta killings bear much greater resemblance to the Oak Creek murders than the Vincent Chin murder in terms of proximity in time and method. And both Oak Creek and Atlanta bear a significant resemblance to the mass killing of four Sikhs in Indianapolis in April 2021.
Why, then, do our media and community narratives fail to make these connections? Our research indicates that much of the answer stems from the American public’s understanding of who counts as Asian. For the majority of Americans, the default for Asian is East Asian.
While national origin groups subsumed under the Asian rubric do not share a common language, ethnicity, culture, or religion, the definition is born of centuries of legal exclusion in the United States that denied U.S. citizenship to immigrants from Asian countries.
Nearly four in five Americans consider Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans as Asian or Asian American (81%, 80%, and 78%, respectively). By contrast, only 70% of Americans consider Southeast Asians, like Filipinos, as Asian or Asian American, and a mere 46% and 37% claim the same of Indians and Pakistanis, respectively, reflecting a glaring pattern of South Asian exclusion in who counts as Asian. This exclusion is one-sided, however: Indians and Pakistanis classify themselves as Asian, yet other Americans, including other Asian Americans, are significantly less likely to do so, reflecting a disjuncture between how South Asians identify and how they are identified by others in the U.S. context.
The disjuncture in who counts as Asian is salient given the changing diversity of the category. For the first time in U.S. history, Indian Americans are the largest Asian group in the United States. According to the latest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019 Indian Americans edged out Chinese Americans as the most numerous Asian American group in the country, at 4.24 million and 4.22 million residents, respectively. This is a notable change from a century ago, when Japanese were the largest Asian American group, and for most of the 20th century, when Chinese Americans held that distinction.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines Asian as a “person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.” While national origin groups subsumed under the Asian rubric do not share a common language, ethnicity, culture, or religion, the definition is born of centuries of legal exclusion in the United States that denied U.S. citizenship to immigrants from Asian countries.
The 1790 Naturalization Act allowed only free “white” persons to become naturalized citizens. Classified as non-White, Asians were deemed unfit for citizenship. Two landmark Supreme Court cases in the 1920s—Ozawa v. United States 1922 and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923—challenged the Naturalization Act, but the Supreme Court held that Asians could not be considered racially White even if they had a fair complexion, as Ozawa argued, or even though “high caste Hindus” were of the Caucasian race, as Thind claimed.
Indians and Filipinos spearheaded the fight for the right to naturalize under the 1946 Luce-Celler Act, but all Asian American groups continued to advocate for the removal of national-origin barriers to naturalization, which was finally granted with the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act. Soon thereafter, Dalip Singh Saund, who had mobilized for passage of the Luce-Celler Act in 1946, became the first Asian American to be elected to Congress — a mere seven years after obtaining naturalization in 1949.
As our new special issue of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences demonstrates, despite the diversity among Asians, historical exclusion, combined with more recent instances of discrimination and political mobilization, form the basis of Asian American political identity and solidarity. Since March 2020, upwards of 2 million Asian American adults have experienced an anti-Asian hate incident, including one in eight Asian Americans adults in 2020, and one in 10 during the first three months of 2021 alone. As shelter-in-place orders are lifted across the country, it is likely that we may see a spike in hate incidents against Asians.
The threat of being victimized by anti-Asian hate affects all Asian Americans, according to a March 2021 survey from AAPI Data and SurveyMonkey. While 72% of Chinese Americans worry about being a victim of a hate crime, so too do 68% of Southeast Asians and 58% of South Asians. Moreover, one in seven Asian American women, U.S.-born Asians, and young Asian adults worry all the time, forecasting the scars of race that will remain long after this wave of Covid-related anti-Asian violence abates.
When Asian American student activists in the 1960s coined the term “Asian American,” they did so as a unifying political, pan-ethnic identity to advocate for Asian American studies and to build coalitions with African Americans, Latino/as, Native Americans, and women. Today, Asian Americans encompass more than two dozen national origin groups with diverse histories, languages, cultures, phenotypes, and socioeconomic status. Yet, despite these differences, Asian Americans converge in their experiences with discrimination and the threat of anti-Asian hate. This commonality of experiences helps to explain why Asian Americans also converge in their support for policies that advance racial justice.
What binds Asian Americans has been what mobilizes them. As we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, let’s shed our parochial lens of who counts as Asian and commit to inclusive narratives of who we are as we unite and rise against anti-Asian violence and hate.