Pandemic Discrimination Against Asian Americans Has Long Roots

Little girl holding sign reading "Stop Asian Hate."

There were at least 3,795 documented hate incidents and acts of violence against Asian Americans over the past year and this is almost certainly an undercount. Photo: Miki Jourdan, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, cropped from the original

“I have pepper spray and I hold it every time I’m alone right now in case I see someone that is really frightening,” said New York City teacher Annie Tan, who is Chinese American.

By February 2020, friends of hers had already been verbally harassed on the subway. One had been deliberately coughed on. Another was too scared to take the train anymore.

Many Asian Americans and Asian immigrants are experiencing similar incidents.

A neighbor pointed to her and said “China virus,” said Ah Ying, a homecare worker in San Francisco who immigrated years ago from Taishan, China. A physical assault on an Asian American occurred near where she lives. Ah Ying has told her daughter to restrict her activities outside the home.

“In this society, we should have safety and the value of our lives should be equal,” she said through a translator.

In downtown Seattle, a hotel worker of Asian descent was almost abducted on the street, according to UNITE HERE Local 8 organizer Eunice How.

“We are not safe wherever we go now,” said University of Washington custodian Georgina Tabasan, a member of the Washington Federation of State Employees, who comes from the Philippines. “I have an old mom and dad. They cannot protect themselves if they go outside. Other moms and dads too. What if something happens to them?”

Most notably, six Asian American women, most of whom were working, were among the eight people murdered in shootings at three Atlanta-area spas on March 16. Only one was a U.S. citizen; one held a green card. The amount of time they had lived in the United States ranged from a few months to decades. Two were Chinese immigrants and four were from South Korea.

“It may resonate in particular ways in the Korean community, because their names sound like the names of our mothers, our cousins, our sisters,” said Alexandra Suh, executive director of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) in Los Angeles. “But they’re connected to the lives of all people who have been hurt and killed in this society that is still so racist.”


The horrific incidents in Georgia were shocking, but they were not isolated; there were, by one count, at least 3,795 documented hate incidents and acts of violence against Asian Americans over the past year.
And this is almost certainly an undercount, given that nearly half the reported incidents were in one state.

There were 2.3 times more incidents against women than men.

The anti-Asian upsurge started in the early days of the pandemic amid a torrent of abuse from former President Trump against China, labeling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung Flu.”

“It was not even in question that there would be this violence,” Tan said. “It was completely Trump that fomented this violence, and the media refusing to hold him accountable for his language.”

The wave of discrimination is also taking place during deep economic unrest and inequality and saber-rattling towards China by both parties.


The pandemic isn’t the whole story. Many working-class Asian American women have faced mistreatment throughout their working lives over their English language ability, class, gender, race, and immigration status.

SEIU 1199NW member Angel Sherburne cleans and does housekeeping at a Swedish Medical Center hospital in Seattle. She immigrated to the United States on a fiancée visa from the Philippines in 2012 and has worked at the hospital for the last seven years.

While her white family has welcomed her, she said, “some Americans, like the big boss, they will treat you different because your job is only this, you’re just cleaning the bathroom.”

When her supervisor said she needed to improve her English, “I hurt,” Sherburne said. “And when I get married again, he says, ‘How do you talk to your husband?’ It was mean.”

She added, “I know I’m not fluent because I’m not born here, but I want to tell him go to the Philippines and talk in Tagalog.”

“The biggest challenge is that being Asian, being a woman, not being able to speak English as an immigrant, you just don’t have many choices,” Ah Ying said.

She worked at a restaurant and in a grocery before finding somewhat higher-paying work in her current job, caring for elders—but she said that work carries its own stresses.

Tabasan used to work in laundry at the university, before the laundry was shut down and outsourced. She said the University of Washington found it easy to outsource the jobs of the 100 laundry workers because they were of Asian descent and low-education.


A troubling dimension in the spa murders is that “Asian women are fetishized as sex objects and perceived as deserving of violence,” said the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). “Such dehumanization goes back to more than a century ago when the Page Act of 1875 defined all Asian women as sexually deviant and therefore limited their mobility and freedom.”

“I’ve been approached at bars and called ‘exotic’ and ‘beautiful,’ told that I would have ‘beautiful mixed babies,’ that I must be ‘super sexual,’” said Tan.

“I used to work in an Asian restaurant [in Texas],” said How, who is president of APALA’s Seattle chapter. “The manager told me specifically that they hired Asian women to be hosts and we had to look pretty to sell food.”

Another time, she said, “I was sitting by myself on the bus, and some person who I perceived to be a white man just came up to me and started talking to me about how much he loved Korea, and how he likes the people and the culture of Korea, he started listing off names of rivers in Korea…”

How is Chinese-Malaysian American.

“I was taken aback,” she said. “He didn’t outright say anything overt, but I had a weird feeling in my stomach.”


U.S. discrimination against Asian Americans and Asians goes back nearly 200 years. The first major wave of Asian American immigration was in the 1850s when workers came from China to take part in California’s Gold Rush.



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Fifteen thousand to 20,000 low-wage Chinese workers were exploited to build the transcontinental railroad in unsafe and backbreaking conditions, paid 30 to 50 percent less than white workers for the same job. As early as 1853, the rights of Asian Americans were being limited by law.

In the second half of the 19th century, around the same time that Black people were being stripped of newly won rights, white Americans organized against Asian Americans as well, egged on by racist media. This culminated in mass lynchings and eventually a near-total ban on immigrants from Asia.

The Page Act, mentioned above, purported to ban Chinese sex workers from coming to the U.S.—but in actuality was used to exclude all Chinese women. Chinese immigrants were believed to carry germs and disease that would endanger whites.

Sound familiar?

Discrimination wasn’t restricted to Chinese immigrants. Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps during World War II. In the aftermath, the traumatized and dispossessed community sought to assimilate; there were once about 40 Japantowns in U.S. cities, but there are now only a few.


The U.S. also engaged in massive violence from 1898 through the 1970s in East and Southeast Asia, from the colonization of the Philippines to the invasion of Vietnam. The story of U.S. involvement in the Korean peninsula reveals the relationship between U.S. military activity and the exploitation of Asian women workers like those killed in the spa shootings.

From 1945 to 1948, the U.S. occupied South Korea in the aftermath of World War II. Building on the infrastructure of Japanese military sex slavery sites, it relocated sex work to on or near its own military bases, regularly inspecting and treating the health of women workers. The purpose was ostensibly to reduce sexually transmitted and other communicable diseases among U.S. troops, but it also provided a means of controlling the women.

Since 1955, two years after the armistice of the Korean War (the war has not yet formally ended), the U.S. has had 30,000 to 75,000 troops stationed in South Korea at any given time, and sometimes many more. In 1958, there were 300,000 sex workers in South Korea, out of a population of 22 million. Similar stories have played out in Thailand, Vietnam, and Okinawa, Japan.

These troops’ desire for sex workers in South Korea was blessed by the U.S. military. It was also a source of dollars for the economy in the 1960s and was explicitly cultivated by the Korean government. In a discussion of sex work, academic Katharine Moon said that U.S. troops contributed 25 percent of South Korea’s economy in the 1960s. Meanwhile, sex workers themselves were controlled; if they were ill, they would be detained and shot up with so many antibiotics that their arms hung down.

This economy led to the emigration of many of these Korean women to the United States through marriage to U.S. soldiers, gradually dropping off after the 1980s. In some cases, they returned to sex work or entered related professions in the U.S.

Within and beyond Korean communities, sex workers and those perceived to be sex workers, like the victims of the Atlanta-area shootings, are stigmatized. One of the women killed, Hyun Jung Grant, had told her sons to tell people that she worked doing makeup rather than in the massage business.

The grassroots Asian and migrant sex workers collective Red Canary Song, based in Flushing, Queens, said in a statement, “Whether or not they were actually sex workers or self-identified under that label, we know that as massage workers, they were subjected to sexualized violence stemming from the hatred of sex workers, Asian women, working-class people, and immigrants.”


In the late 1960s, even as it was committing mass atrocities in Southeast Asia, the U.S. opened up immigration from Asia in large numbers. It allowed in mostly educated professionals at first, and later working-class Asians. It is this wave that has led to larger numbers of Asian Americans in the U.S. and the eventual blossoming of the Asian American movement.

The discrimination and violence never stopped, though. Tan knows this well; she is a relative of the late Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old draftsman who was beaten to death with a baseball bat on the night of his bachelor party in Detroit in 1982.

The murderer, Ronald Ebens, is reported to have said to Chin, “It’s because of you little m--f--ers that we’re out of work,” reflecting a widespread belief in the 1980s that Japanese competition was responsible for American auto job loss.

“We know from my cousin Vincent Chin’s murder that it was economic unrest that fomented anti-Asian racism then,” said Tan, and she sees the same catalyst fueling today’s wave of violence.

Ebens was an auto plant manager and his stepson, an accomplice in the killing, was a laid-off auto worker. They received three years’ probation and Ebens had to pay $3,780.

The murder of Chin led to an upsurge in Asian American organizing and alliances with Black, Latino, and other disempowered groups, as well as with labor.


What can the labor movement do to combat discrimination and violence against Asian Americans? A starting point is to help these workers build power on the job.

“When you say ‘the labor movement,’ I don’t see it as a ‘them’ that I’m criticizing, I see it as an ‘us’ that we need to rally together,” Suh said.

KIWA, a multiethnic worker center, organizes primarily Korean and Latino workers in restaurants and supermarkets. “Many immigrant workers and workers in small shops may not even be aware that they have the right to organize, the right to a voice at work,” she said.

“One of the most powerful things we do is to organize really amazing contracts for wages and benefits,” said How. “But we should think wider than that and say ‘What else do people need to feel safe at work?’” She pointed to Local 8’s organizing to ensure panic buttons and other safety measures for hotel housekeepers.

She added that the labor movement can support leaders of color, train them how to be shop stewards and staff members, pass resolutions condemning anti-Asian hate, and win contract language that allows people to speak their own languages at work and allows them time to work out immigration issues.

“When I become a union [member], I got the idea why there’s racial justice, why there’s racism,” Sherburne said.

For instance, in a major snowstorm in 2019, her hospital did not provide the cleaning staff with beds to sleep in. There was too much snow to go home, and the next shift could not come; hers had to pick up the work.

Through her union, she fought “through a racial justice lens” and “now they treat us fair,” she said. Worker-management committees now include at least one worker from the housekeeping department; housekeepers participate in contract discussions.

“No one can be not treated fair, even if your color is different or not, or you are an immigrant or not,” Sherburne said.

Correction: This article has been updated to indicate that a cited academic study says U.S. troops contributed 25 percent of South Korea’s economy in the 1960s through all activities, not solely through sex work and related activities.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #506. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Saurav Sarkar is a former Assistant Editor of Labor