A Brief History of Anti-Asian Racism Pretending It’s Not Racist

American history is filled with politicians, journalists, organizers, and citizens claiming they don’t have a racist bone in their body

Uncle Sam’s boot kicks a Chinese immigrant off a dock as part of an anti-Chinese immigration campaign, 1905. Illustration: Puck/Library of Congress

Humans are notoriously terrible at accurately assessing themselves. That’s why medical researchers question the validity of self-reported data and pollsters rely on more subtle questioning to tease out people’s attitudes than a straightforward ask. And yet, at the highest echelons of American journalism and governance, human self-knowledge is still presumed to be easily accessible, particularly when it comes to racism.

The day after the Atlanta spa shootings, in which six of the eight massacred were women of Asian descent, Captain Jay Baker, the spokesman for Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia, relayed that the suspect himself claimed the attacks were not racially motivated, attributing them instead to a “sexual addiction” and a “really bad day.” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds later affirmed this: “During his interview, he gave no indicators that this was racially motivated. We asked him that specifically and the answer was no.”

The rush to rule out racism created a swift backlash. “Many of us familiar with criminal procedure were taken aback that the police officers in this case took the motives of the killer so seriously, as though he was being truthful, perhaps even definitive,” says John S.W. Park, Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. “Police officers can convey a general sense of what a suspect said, but we normally don’t and shouldn’t rely on the murderers to be truthful about their motives, nor do we expect people who’ve murdered so many people to determine for us what we ought to think of their actions.” It certainly didn’t help that Captain Baker was later found to have promoted a T-shirt on Facebook saying, “Covid 19 IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”

The jump to dismiss racism, bolstered by the authoritative heft of official government statements, quickly ricocheted across major media outlets, gaining even more legitimacy as it spread through reporting. CNN anchor Jim Sciutto tweeted, “‘indicators now may not be’ racially motivated, says Cherokee Cty Sheriff Frank Reynolds.” On the New York Times podcast The Daily, host Michael Barbaro noted that the deaths of six women of Asian descent “stirred fear and outrage among Asian Americans, who see it as the latest burst of racist violence against them, even as the shooter himself offered a more complicated motive” — as if the racism Asians perceived was somehow uncomplicated.

That murderous rampage, by the way, just so happened to target three Asian-owned massage parlors 27 miles apart in a state that has a 4% Asian population. And, of course, there is the U.S.’s long history of dehumanizing Asian women by portraying them as hypersexualized and disease vectors — temptations to be eliminated. The impulse to deny racism isn’t a new phenomenon. It is, in fact, so common, that in Bill Burr’s 2008 comedy special “Why Do I Do This,” he described “real” racism as such: “It’s subtle…There are disclaimers. Dude, you know I’m not racist, BUT these insert groups’ names are followed by fucked up conversation. That’s how it goes down.” And so it’s been going down for more than a century.

Of course, there have always been explicit white supremacists who openly declare their hate for other groups of humans. From the 1850s onward, politicians, labor groups, and other social networks, typically based on the West coast, dedicated themselves to the cause of excluding Chinese migrants and later the Japanese, Filipino, and other immigrants of Asian descent. The movement was vitriolic (one slogan was: “The Chinese Must Go!”) and violent, with pogroms against Chinese laborers quite common. Nevertheless, some of the movement’s most effective organizers denied that they were racist at all.

Take, for example, the 1901 American Federation of Labor pamphlet, written by president Samuel Gompers, a British immigrant: “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat Vs. Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism: Which Will Survive?”The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, but West Coast anti-Chinese groups, most of which were driven by white organized labor, persisted in organizing to strengthen enforcement against Chinese migrants, who immigrated now as “illegal” aliens while European immigrants continued to enter without restriction. The pamphlet’s introduction claims, “We furthermore desire to assure our readers that in maintaining our position we are not inspired by a scintilla of prejudice of any kind.”

It then goes on for another 34 dense pages, comparing Chinese migrant workers to “a malignant tumor” and arguing that the one race that “can swarm” — the myth of Yellow Peril in which hordes of Asians threaten a white Christian republic — shouldn’t be afforded the same immigration and citizenship rights as white immigrant laborers. It asserts that Chinese immigrants had “gradually invaded one industry and then another” and acted “quiet, docile…and bland” until they were numerous and would then “commit deeds of violence and felonies of all kind.”

The Japanese fared no better. In 1900, when white labor groups gathered for a major anti-Japanese protest in San Francisco, mayor James Duval Phelan had this to say: “Personally we have nothing against Japanese, but as they will not assimilate with us and their social life is so different from ours, let them keep at a respectful distance.” An R.L. Daugherty expressed a similar sentiment in an October 16, 1919 letter to the editor of The Christian Register, writing “I have nothing against the Japanese as individuals or as a people. I recognize their virtues. I am willing to grant that they are our equals and, for the sake of argument, willing to grant that they may be our superiors. But I would like to see this kept as a white man’s country.” And in The Nation editor Carey McWilliams’s 1944 book Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbol of Racial Intolerance, he writes, “Leaders of the anti-Oriental agitation in California will tell you that ‘some of my best friends’ are Japanese.”

“Personally we have nothing against Japanese, but as they will not assimilate with us and their social life is so different from ours, let them keep at a respectful distance.”

Following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the U.S. government rounded up and incarcerated 120,0000 Japanese Americans without due process — one of the country’s worst mass civil rights violations — and it put out a propaganda video, notes Linda Trinh Vo, professor of Asian American Studies at University of California, Irvine. The video portrayed the internment as “Christian decency” and government actions as noble — for example, helping Japanese American farmers find tenants, many of whom went on to steal their land. (The claim that incarceration was a military necessity, by the way, was absurd on its face — the government only rounded up Japanese Americans on the West Coast, which was home to a powerful anti-Asian movement, but not on the more racially tolerant Hawaii, where the Pearl Harbor attack actually occurred, and where 158,000 persons of Japanese ancestry lived.) Many of the men dedicated to the cause of Asian exclusion believed themselves to be upstanding citizens and good Christian men. The problem, therefore, couldn’t be any hate in their hearts, but with the unwanted population itself.

These pervasive white supremacist ideologies, and attendant disclaimers of racism, unsurprisingly made it into legal scholarship as well. The 1944 U.S. Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States challenged the government’s forced removal of Japanese Americans as a violation of the 14th Amendment. In the now-infamous decision upholding the removal, Justice Hugo Black wrote: “It should be noted, to begin with, that all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect.” He nevertheless determined that “Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race.”

American history is filled with politicians, journalists, organizers, judges, citizens, and, yes, mass murderers who claim that they are not racially motivated in the slightest, that they don’t have a racist bone in their body. They nevertheless take actions they would never inflict on white people, targeting specific groups that cause them grave harm, intergenerational trauma, and terror in their communities. If history tells us anything, it’s to look at the evidence, not to take them at their word.

Culture and politics writer based in Brooklyn and western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in GQ, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and more.

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