In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, corporate America struggled to meet the moment, says Lily Zheng.
In the days that followed the massshootings in Atlanta, Georgia, that killed eight people, six of them Asian women, an outpouring of pain from Asian and Asian American communities in the United States flooded social media. As mainstream media outlets fumbled their initial reporting on the events, the corporate world responded with a smattering of supportive statements on social media to denounce the violence that occurred.
But then, an uneasy silence. No crescendo of charitable donations to Asian organizations occurred. No spike in community partnerships, new diversity and inclusion initiatives, or renewed commitments to corporate social responsibility emerged from corporate America. Nowhere was this more apparent than within my own community of diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners, individuals whose careers were made offering actionable advice in times like these.
Many of us were at a loss. I was at a loss. We knew that a tragedy of racist violence had taken place, and yet the language to describe the “why” behind that racism felt far out of reach. The actions to dismantle it felt harder to find, still. Months later, amid Asian Heritage Month, we’re still struggling to move beyond saying #StopAsianHate toward actionable change.
“There’s just too much we don’t understand,” one executive confided to me, a few days after the Atlanta shooting. The previous day, they had been pointedly told by a junior employee, who is Asian, to self-educate on anti-Asian racism.
This executive is not alone. In my work over the past few months, it’s become clear to me that many of my colleagues in corporate America lack the knowledge to contextualize this recent wave of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S.
We all need to self-educate on anti-Asian racism. In order to meet this moment and make good on the promise of corporate social justice, we need to fully understand the under-written histories of anti-Asian racism and the Asian American identity — and how today’s #StopAsianHate movement fits into those histories. I’m sharing this overview in the hopes that it starts or supplements you or your organization’s learning journey. Recognize that while there is always more to learn, understanding at least some of the complexity behind this issue will help you meaningfully take action.
The roots of anti-Asian racism in the U.S.
Discrimination against Asian immigrants began almost as soon as they entered the U.S. in the middle of the 19th century.
The first immigrants were Chinese laborers looking for new work opportunities abroad in the aftermath of the Opium Wars. By the early 1850s, the 25,000 Chinese migrants attracted by the California Gold Rush constituted roughly 10% of California’s total population.
Despite the integral role of these laborers in American mining, agriculture, textiles, and perhaps most prominently, the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese immigrants faced mounting hostility from white settlers who saw them as an economic, health, and moral threat. Exclusionary immigration policies followed, and within 35 years, the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made legal Chinese immigration all but impossible.
Chinese immigrants already in the U.S., who faced mass lynching, urban displacement, and violent attacks in their communities, had their options for recourse severely limited by People v. Hall in 1853, in which the California Supreme Court ruled that Chinese witnesses could not testify against white witnesses.
Subsequent waves of Asian immigrants arrived in the U.S. seeking opportunities like Chinese immigrants before them — and they were met with similarly oppressive policies. Immigration from Japan rose in the late 1880s and was curtailed by The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907. South Asian immigration rose and fell with the 1917 Immigration Act, an expansion of the Chinese Exclusion Act that had created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” from which all immigration was completely banned. And when Filipino immigrants — the only immigrants not targeted by the Exclusion Act due to the annexation of the Philippines by the U.S. after the Spanish-American War — began immigrating to the U.S., their immigration was swiftly curtailed by the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934. Crowning these many policies and their impacts was the quota system established by the Immigration Act of 1924, which sought to ensure that the population of immigrants in the U.S. would always stay proportional relative to the white population.
Anti-Asian racism took aim at one specific nationality during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans fell under intense social and political suspicion. This racial hysteria became the basis for Executive Order 9066, passed on February 19, 1942, and the establishment of Japanese internment camps. One hundred and twenty thousand Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens, were forcibly relocated.
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About the author: Lily Zheng is a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist and executive coach who works with organizations to create high-impact and sustainable change. They are the co-author of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination and The Ethical Sellout: Maintaining Your Integrity in the Age of Compromise.