Asian racial scapegoating is rife in American politics. Lawmakers need to call a halt
- Hate crimes against all Asian-Americans have soared due to vitriol incited against China by destructive political rhetoric and the plague of racialisation in the American conscience. When we look at Congress, we can see why
This phenomenon is not new. Rather, it is a prominent thread stitched into our nation’s history, from the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps to the “red scare” and McCarthyism.
Today, the echoes of these racist policies are heard in the halls of Congress, where campaign fundraisers fuel anti-Asian sentiment and the congressional record is populated with bad faith bills targeting China.
Within the layered legacy of American xenophobia, white fear of the “yellow peril” is of particular contemporary significance. Since before World War II, Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam have each become the subject of American military and economic anxieties.
As a consequence of hawkish foreign policy and racial animosity towards Asians, Asian-Americans were, and still are, targeted for their perceived connection to the countries that some in Washington perceive as our enemies.
“Yellow peril” is further compounded by the complexity of racialisation. East and Southeast Asian Americans are not only targeted for their specific national or ethnic heritage, but also as members of a broader race of Asians.
No matter which country was the subject of American anxiety, all East and Southeast Asian Americans suffered, regardless of their ethnicity.
Whether it was Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment or anti-Asian sentiment stemming from the Korean and Vietnam wars, Asian-Americans with no connection to the countries or groups targeted still encountered the spillover of violence and systemic legal discrimination.
The unavoidable fact is that when politicians fearmonger about economic or security threats from Asian countries, they inevitably tap into the racial undercurrent of the American collective conscience and indirectly incite suspicion of and violence against Asian-Americans.
Today, hate crimes against all Asian-Americans have soared due to vitriol incited against China by destructive political rhetoric and the plague of racialisation in the American conscience. When we look at Congress, we can see why.
There have been more than 180 bills and resolutions that mention China filed in the short five months of the 117th Congress.
It is akin to the hostage-holding language of a toddler, failing to consider the diplomatic and global health consequences of such actions.
Senator Tom Cotton’s Visa Security Act (S. 417) would prohibit giving non-immigrant temporary B1 and B2 visas to Chinese citizens for more than a year unless the Chinese government meets impossible-to-prove standards such as ceasing all “economic and industrial espionage” in the US.
This is a drastic piece of legislation that echoes the economic anxiety of the Chinese Exclusion Act itself.
Many of the pieces of legislation are irresponsible and not meant to succeed; indeed, they are often less than a page long with vague language and little foresight into any potential consequences.
The campaign trail is even worse. Here in Texas, our home state, a recent Texas Republican Party candidate for Congress criticised Chinese immigrants over the coronavirus, saying, “I don’t want them here at all.”
Another Texas congressional candidate, Kathaleen Wall, who ran to represent the district with the highest Asian population in Texas, ran ads claiming, “China poisoned our people” and that “China is a criminal enterprise masquerading as a sovereign nation”.
But the ill-intended legislation that will never make a committee hearing, and the malign efforts to raise campaign dollars from fear and hatred of China are in bad faith, and lawmakers must stop.
Our nation’s history weighs heavy with the horrific outcomes of racial scapegoating and “yellow peril”. We, along with our leaders, have the power to ensure it does not happen again.
Leslie Tisdale Reagan is the director of communications at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations. Cameron Waltz is a research intern at the foundation and associate editor for the Intercollegiate US-China Journal