Why Canadians can’t ignore the rising anti-Asian racism and hate crimes in the US

Even your worst neighbour won’t make your bad look good

Wen Zhai // Contributor
Tiffany Zhong // Illustrator

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the long-standing racism and hate crimes against Chinese and other Asian groups more visible in the US—and Canada too. 

Thanks to the fuel from the former US president who used “China virus” and “Kung-flu” to refer to the Coronavirus, a new violent wave of sinophobia, anti-Asian racism and hate crimes has gained enough momentum to create a separate pandemic. Living in one pandemic is difficult enough; imagine living in two simultaneously. 

My family and friends back home have been worried about me. Luckily, I haven’t personally encountered any extreme cases—but it doesn’t have to be personal to feel threatened, especially when those targeted are people who look just like me. The emotional, mental, and psychological burden is overwhelming. 

What’s horrifying is the perpetrators didn’t even bother to conceal their crimes committed in front of groups or open public places. My blood boiled when I researched anti-Asian hate crimes since the beginning of COVID-19 and tried to count but eventually had to give up because there were just too many.

It’s the vulnerable that have been targeted the most, such as the 84-year-old Thai elder in California who was pushed to the ground and died or the  91-year-old man violently shoved to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown. In one horrific case, an 89-year-old woman was slapped before set on fire in Brooklyn by two men. And a 61-year-old man was slashed on the face ear to ear—and later received about 100 stitches—while riding the NYC subway to work.  

The physical harm has been the most visible, but the mental and psychological trauma to the Asian community has been enormous. In 2020, hate crimes against Asians in major US cities increased 150 per cent despite the overall crime rate falling. Most Canadians wouldn’t want to believe similar hate crimes have happened on this side of the border. However, A police report shows anti-Asian hate crimes went up 717 per cent in Vancouver in 2020 while the overall hate crimes increased by 97 per cent. If anyone finds these statistics are staggering, wait until you learn that many anti-Asian hate crimes were not classified as hate crimes unless the perpetrator voices their actions are racially motivated. Even more go unreported. 

Gender also plays into verdict. If the victim was a woman and the assault could be classified as a sexual crime, the attack wouldn’t be categorized as an anti-Asian hate crime. According to Stop AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) Hate, more than two-thirds of their cases were from women victims. 

This intersection of race and gender was highlighted in the eight people murdered in Atlanta on Mar. 16, six of whom were Asian women. What’s chilling was that the shooter went to three locations intending a  massacre and was on his way to the fourth before he was stopped—this was still not classified as an anti-Asian hate crime. The police spokesman claimed the shooter’s motivatons were due to his sex addiction, rather than racial. The director of the FBI agreed. 

More disturbing was the police spokesman’s near justification saying the shooter was having “a really bad day,” an excuse painfully similar to the “temper tantrum” the police said caused the murder of the 84-year-old Thai elder. After this spokesman’s history of anti-Asian racism was uncovered and he was removed from the case due to public outrage, his sheriff defended him saying he had a “difficult task before him” and added the spokesman had “personal ties to the Asian community.” 

Basically, the spokesman’s not racist; he was just having a hard day—oh, and he had an Asian friend. Oops. Words are cheap, and the lives of victims were made cheaper. Media also afforded more humanity to the shooter as CNN visited his grandparents but misspelt and mispronounced the victims’ names and the New York Times empathized with his “shame of lust.”

Despite rising media attention, anti-Asian hate crimes are not new in the US or Canada. Chinese and Asians have been repeatedly targeted under discriminatory laws and racist governments, especially when scapegoats were needed. After the Chinese Exclusion Act—the only discriminative law in US history to date that targeted a specific race or nationality—was signed in 1882, many attacks and massacres were perpetuated against Chinese immigrants, such as the Rock Springs Massacre in 1885 that left 28 dead and the whole Chinatown looted and burnt to the ground. 

Like the US, racism against Chinese and Asians has a long history in Canada. It’s explicitly in the genes of the effort to establish a white British Columbia (BC). In 1871, BC joined Canada with the promise of building the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), built primarily by “cheap, diligent and faithful” Chinese labourers. They worked the most dangerous tasks yet were paid half or a third of their non-Chinese co-workers, and hundreds to thousands of them vanished along the way. 

As soon as CPR was completed in 1885, the Chinese Immigration Act was passed. The act required all Chinese immigrants to pay a head tax ($50, later raised to $100, then $500) and restricted them from certain occupations. The subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 banned Chinese immigrants until 1947. These legislations, followed by more than 100 other racist policies and regulations, prevented existing Chinese immigrants, mostly married men, from bringing their families to Canada, cutting them from family and cultural ties for decades. In 1967, Chinese immigrants were finally admitted under the point system (which is still racist because some countries have more points than others) that is still in place today.

Chinese Canadians didn’t have voting rights until 1947. That means Chinese Canadian soldiers in World War II fought and sacrificed their lives for Canada without citizenship or voting rights. And Chinese children were bullied in school and were scared of going outside of Chinatown. Gim Wong, a WWII Canadian air force veteran, was more than 80 years old when he reflected on his childhood and was still brought to tears. 

The federal government only apologized in 2006 for the $23 million head tax collected from 82,000 Chinese immigrants and in 2014, the BC premier apologized for the province’s anti-Chinese past and more than 100 racist laws and policies. 

This history’s brutality and scale made the racism and hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic almost seem unnewsworthy. It’s just history repeating itself: the return of the “yellow peril” coupled with xenophobia inflamed by extreme nationalism. But if anyone is tired of hearing about anti-Asian hate crimes, try to imagine living it every day. 

Canadians may seem less racist against Chinese/Asians at first glance, partially because Canada can never rival the US for media attention. But Vancouverites should be reminded that local media didn’t hesitate to call out “China Virus.”

In the face of the openly violent anti-Chinese/Asian racism in the US, Canada and BC appear to possess more sanity. However, it is fragile and needs to be protected while the hate crimes and various microaggressions here still need to be addressed. No matter how much worse your neighbour is, your bad is still bad. And precisely because you have a bad neighbour, you need to be vigilant so as not to fall susceptible to its influence. 

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