Since the murders of eight people at Asian-run spas in Georgia on March 17, condemnations against anti-Asian violence have been at the forefront of the news cycle and social media discourse. Many have highlighted an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes since the beginning of the pandemic — despite an overall drop in hate crimes between 2019 and 2020, hate crimes against Asian-Americans rose nearly 150%.
Others have criticized the country’s more accepting attitude towards anti-Asian violence compared to anti-Black violence. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans are 20% more likely to say that Black Americans face “a lot” of racism compared to Asian Americans, despite the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.
What these conversations miss are the roots of anti-Asian violence in the United States: the imperial and colonial legacies of American foreign policy. Without understanding the roots of anti-Asian hate it will be difficult to counter, and eventually end, it within the United States. But can Americans come to terms with their troubling past?
A LONG HISTORY
Anti-Asian racism has a long history in the United States, characterized perhaps most infamously by the waves of anti-Chinese immigration policy in the 1800s, which includes: a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration, a “Foreign Miners Tax” that applied to Chinese laborers, preventing Chinese immigrants (as well as Native Americans and Black Americans) from testifying in court, and preventing Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized American citizens — all in addition to inhumane work conditions and increased violence against Chinese laborers. The racism and anti-Chinese discrimination perpetuated by these laws were not simply cases of disparate impact or disparate treatment. Rather, Congress adopted many of these restrictions with explicit hopes of preventing “racially inferior” immigration, economic competition with White American settlers, cultural clashes, and to maintain “racial purity” in America.
While this anti-Chinese episode in American history is just one representation of anti-Asian violence perpetuated by the US government, countless other examples — including Japanese internment camps during World War II, the targeting of Vietnamese individuals during the Vietnam War, sexual violence against Asian women perpetrated by American soldiers overseas, and hawkish actions towards China — document direct US involvement with perpetrating anti-Asian racism throughout its history.
HOW US FOREIGN POLICY DISGUISES ITS RACISM
If the United States truly seeks to end discrimination toward Asians and Asian Americans, it should begin by addressing how its foreign policy is responsible for creating a modern domestic culture rampant with anti-Asian sentiment. For example, the television and film industries have been criticized for their perpetuation of Asian American stereotypes and the “model minority” myth. The pornography industry, further, has capitalized on the sexual exploitation of Asian women, leading to both the dehumanization and infantilization of Asian women and perpetuation of Asian stereotypes in modern media, as well as inspiring sexual violence against Asian women. In other words, the consequences of US foreign policy clearly go beyond military activity. Both decolonial as well as postcolonial movements offer insight on how the United States can address the racist legacies of its foreign policy.
If the United States truly seeks to end discrimination toward Asians and Asian Americans, it should begin by addressing how its foreign policy is responsible for creating a modern domestic culture rampant with anti-Asian sentiment.
Decolonialism and postcolonialism are two similar movements that recognize the lasting effects of hundreds of years of colonialism and imperialism by Western countries. Although the formal end of colonialism was a decades-long process that occurred after World War II, decolonial and postcolonial critics argue that the neocolonial and neo imperial values underpin contemporary American foreign policy. These critics also highlight the ways in which American foreign policy has become adept at disguising its racism. For example, American projects, such as international democracy promotion, neoliberal economics, and internationally guaranteed human rights, have been thoroughly critiqued by scholars and activists for claiming that Western values are universally applicable while actually harming populations abroad who may not be as willing as American public discourse claims they are.
While these projects have characterized US foreign policy more broadly, they are especially relevant for how American policies attempt to sustain hegemony over Asian countries. For example, various presidential administrations have attempted to undermine communist regimes in Asia through military action and diplomatic coercion, including in Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and China. While many of these actions were justified as democracy promotion or protection of human rights, some argue they masked more insidious desires to advance the interests of American capitalists. Though the distance between US foreign policy in Asia and anti-Asian violence in the United States is seemingly vast, the connection between how the United States treats Asian populations abroad is directly correlated to the treatment of Asians and Asian Americans at home.
DECOLONIZING US FOREIGN POLICY
Asian populations (and especially Asian women) have been particularly victimized by US foreign policy. Addressing the anti-Asian racism that has been embedded in US foreign policy for nearly two centuries is the first step to ending anti-Asian racism at home. There are several tangible steps the Biden administration could take in order to begin decolonizing US foreign policy.
First, the Biden administration should support truth and reconciliation commissions for the racist actions of the American military in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. These wars were fueled by racist sentiments and the dehumanization of Asian populations that enabled the domination and murder of millions in pursuit of American economic and strategic goals. Acknowledgement of the trauma and abuse perpetrated by American soldiers and policymakers throughout these wars would show commitment to ending the spread of anti-Asian violence throughout the United States.
Second, to address gendered racism experienced by Asian women, President Joe Biden and the US military should increase their efforts to prevent sexual assault on local populations surrounding American military bases in Japan, South Korea, and Guam. The fetishization of Asian women in American culture has been extensively highlighted and connected to the presence of the US military abroad. Many American soldiers have interacted with Asian women within a deeply problematic and gendered power dynamic, as Asian women have often served as service workers who clean or cook for American soldiers, sex workers, or war brides that perpetuate stereotypes of Asian women as exotic and submissive. This has led to extensive physical and sexual violence toward Asian women in the areas surrounding US military bases abroad.
Violence against Asian women is not, however, a solely foreign phenomenon. According to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, Asian women were the victims of more than two-thirds of all anti-Asian violence. In many cases, this violence can be directly traced to the stereotypes perpetuated from the US military’s interactions with Asian women.
MOVING TOWARD HEALING
Whatever action the Biden administration decides to take, it is clear that its rhetorical critiques are far insufficient. Decolonizing US foreign policy means actively righting the wrongs that past wars and interactions with Asian countries have created. The undeniable link between the United States’ racist and colonial actions abroad and how those actions informed anti-Asian sentiments at home means that decolonizing contemporary US foreign policy would attempt to reframe US relationships with Asian countries, and thus reframe the United States’ relationship with its own Asian population.
Addressing anti-Asian racism is a critical step in healing the country’s broader struggle with racism and discrimination. Without acknowledging the role of US foreign policy in perpetuating deadly stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans, the movement against anti-Asian violence will be slow to make tangible change.
Bridgett Neff-Hickman is a Master’s student in political science at Colorado State University. Her research and podcast Disrupt focus on critical perspectives of international relations that seek to unpack the influence of colonialism, racism, and capitalism on contemporary politics and US foreign policy.