The struggles of the Black American narrative — the arc from slavery to Barack Obama — are celebrated, contested and even sometimes disparaged. But there’s no denying that this narrative is well-known. We all grasp the importance of Black history to the American story, even if we argue over the proper emphasis.
The relationship between Asian American and Pacific Islanders and their place in American history is not, to many, nearly as obvious. The American racial conversation, in which African Americans are the default minority group, has impoverished our understanding of — and provided a poor platform for — the stories of others.
That is why, in a year with thousands of anti-Asian assaults, civil rights violations and instances of verbal harassment reported even before the Atlanta area shootings this month — in which six of the eight slain were women of Asian descent — most Americans are just beginning to engage with the Asian American struggle. That is why we sense that race is near the core of the Atlanta killings but have a harder time putting the tragedy in context or agreeing on whether these were, in a legal sense, hate crimes. That is why President Donald Trump wasn’t immediately drummed out of public life after calling covid-19 a “Chinese virus” or “kung flu” and appearing to give sanction to those who would exclude or attack people of Asian ancestry, rather than affirming Asian Americans’ place in the American family.
In our popular imagination, the snarling legacy of disenfranchisement does not as easily attach to Asian America, writ large. Asian Americans were not wiped out, like Native Americans, under the marauding imperatives of empire. A Civil War was not waged over their previous condition of servitude. There is not an Asian American figure as universally lauded for his contributions as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or, for that matter, Mexican American civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, whose likeness now sits behind President Biden in the Oval Office. But the impact of systemic racism in Asian American history is still right there: Los Angeles’s “Chinese Massacre,” a mass lynching in 1871 fueled by propaganda that Chinese Americans were “barbarians taking jobs away from whites”; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Vietnamese commercial fishermen in Texas facing racist confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s; six people gunned down at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012.