It’s Impossible to See Racism Toward Asian Americans Right Now and Not Think of Vincent Chin
In the face of coronavirus, people are resorting to the same bigoted attacks that led to Chin’s murder in Detroit 38 years ago
In 1982, Japan’s growing success in the automobile industry left U.S. companies with declining opportunities. The United States was struggling, still traumatized from the worst recession since the Great Depression. Some people sought a scapegoat.
That summer, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American draftsman, was murdered in Detroit. His killers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, stalked him following a spat in a night club, where Chin had been celebrating his bachelor party with some friends. Ebens allegedly incited the incident by shouting at Chin, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work!” About 20 minutes later, the two men found Chin at a McDonald’s. Nitz, who had recently been laid off, held Chin while Ebens, a Chrysler plant supervisor, bludgeoned him with a baseball bat. Chin, whose skull was cracked open from the trauma, passed away after four days in a coma. The two men either didn’t know or didn’t care that Chin wasn’t Japanese—he was of Chinese descent.
Now, 38 years later, the coronavirus pandemic feels newly apocalyptic. Covid-19 has sowed the seeds of distrust among many Americans, not just of their government or the stock market, but of China and, by extension, of anyone of East Asian descent.
In order for us to quell anti-Asian narratives, we first must reflect on how shallow our collective understanding is, not only of Asian people themselves, but of the nature of violence toward them.
Over the past few weeks, a storm of assaults and general abuse toward East Asian people in multicultural countries have been reported to police and published by the press. The New York Times ran a piece last week generally covering such incidences of racism. The cases pile up: a Chinese woman who was spat upon in San Francisco, a teenager from San Fernando Valley who was violently bullied, a New York City woman whose hair was torn out, and a Singaporean man in London who was bloodied and bruised by a random assailant.
The resemblances between these instances and Vincent Chin’s murder are troubling: The manifestation of political anxieties into violent acts toward strangers, the verbalization of such anxieties (“I don’t want your coronavirus in my country,” said the Singaporean man’s assailant), and the disregard for victims’ descendancy from non-Chinese countries all call Chin’s story to mind. The hate crime that ended Chin’s life was not merely the result of political tension manifesting in violence. It was the result of a dehumanization of Asian people that is, subtly or otherwise, intrinsic in Western values, a product of “techno Orientalism” — a recently coined term that describes the dehumanization and otherization of Asian people from countries with cyberized economies and infrastructures.
According to techno Orientalism, people rationalize Asian nations’ economic and technological developments as still being owed to their citizens’ servile, subhuman nature, resulting from that a place of sub-humanity. “You had to feed a kind of logic that explains away the reality,” says David S. Roh, one of three academics (alongside Greta A. Niu and Betsy Huang) who put together the 2015 book Techno Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. “So you had ‘Japanese people are good at stealing; they’re machines, so they can work really hard, they don’t ask for human rights or the same working conditions as we, the Western people do.’”
The book Techno Orientalism enumerates some of the ways these dehumanizing ideas are taught to your average Westerner, from its origins as paranoid propaganda surrounding the Japanese military’s (supposed) technological mastery during the Russo-Japanese War to a 2010 commercial by a U.S. PAC that depicts a Matrix-like future wherein the United States has fallen to the Chinese. That video has garnered over two million views on YouTube.
Roh recalls a conversation with what he describes as an intelligent, thoughtful military officer in a civilian setting, who couldn’t help but reiterate techno-Orientalist tropes, namely that China was “good at copying other ideas, but couldn’t create things on their own.” “That’s the same stuff they said about Japan,” says Roh. “It was so internalized that it shaped his thinking, and that could eventually have real consequences for our national security — that uncritical approach to those tenets which shape policy.”
With the numerous sweeping shifts in the global economy and society at large, techno-Orientalist narratives play an outsize role in coronavirus-fueled anti-Asian racism. A standout example is the popular conspiracy theory peddled by Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh suggesting COVID-19 is the product of a Chinese bioweapons program — an intentional or unintentional release of a biological weapon pioneered by scientists in Wuhan stationed 10 miles away from the food markets most commonly posited as the site where the disease originated.
While this theory, like many others by Jones and Limbaugh, can be dismissed out of hand as highly unlikely, it gains traction for the same reason viral videos of “bat soup” and coughing Chinese people gain traction: The West philosophically generalizes the Chinese through harmful tropes.
It does so not out of mere carelessness but to continuously fuel the West’s identity of itself and its mission. Toward the end of Techno Orientalism, the book’s writers describe its titular subject as “account(ing) for — and then dismiss(ing) — Eastern modernity as both process and product of dehumanization, of which the West is an economic and ontological beneficiary.”
In order for us to quell anti-Asian narratives, we first must reflect on how shallow our collective understanding is, not only of Asian people themselves, but of the nature of violence toward them. “Many people don’t want to recognize that these narratives exist and they’re harmful because it conflicts with their worldview,” says Roh.
Part of the solution, Roh asserts, is for newsrooms and classrooms to continue to diversify, not only in their personnel but in their scholarship. “The fluidity with which the conversation changes almost every day speaks to the power and the adaptability of Orientalism and techno-Orientalist discourse,” says Roh. The ramifications if they don’t are all too real: “That dehumanizing effect gives you license to inflict violence, justifiably, because you don’t think they’re human,” Roh says. “They’re some kind of alien force that needs to be eradicated.”