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Divide and Rule: What Drives Anti-Asian Resentment in America?

On the surface, the recent wave of anti-Asian hostility might easily be explained as being directly related to COVID-19. The reality is more complex.
Hans-Georg Betz, anti-Asian resentment in America, Asian Americans, Asian American community, COVID-19 spike in anti-Asian sentiment, Asian Americans and COVID-19, ethnic minorities US, Asian Americans history of persecution, Asian Americans privileged minority, Asian Americans inequality

Black Lives Matter protest in Las Vegas, Nevada, 5/30/2020 © chara_stagram / Shutterstock

February 24, 2021 07:57 EDT

Donald Trump might have left the White House. His nefarious legacy, however, lingers on. A prominent case in point is the dramatic rise in the number of attacks on Asian Americans, ranging from verbal insults and harassment to physical assault to deadly acts of violence that has gone hand in hand with the pandemic.

Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. It stands to reason, however, that Trump’s repeated characterization of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” significantly contributed to the mobilization of anti-Asian resentment, particularly among his most ardent supporters. Trump had started to blame China as early as mid-March last year, when the pandemic was starting to spread in the United States. The results of an Ipsos survey from April 2020 suggests that it had a considerable impact on public opinion. Among other things, the survey found that 60% of Republican respondents believed that “people or organizations” were responsible for the virus, most prominently the Chinese government and the Chinese people in general. In short, large numbers of Americans blamed China and the Chinese for spreading the virus — with sometimes fatal consequences.

Xenophobia and Denial: Coronavirus Outbreak in Historical Context


In mid-March, a man attacked the members of an Asian American family with a knife at a retail store in Midland, Texas. Only the intervention of a courageous bystander prevented a bloodbath. Nevertheless, several persons suffered serious injuries, among them two children aged 2 and 6. When interrogated, the perpetrator stated that he had thought “the family was Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus.” They were actually Burmese.

A report published in early April recorded over 1,000 incidents of anti-Asian cases of various types of aggression and discrimination associated with COVID-19 in the last week of March alone. Among them were individuals reporting having been verbally assaulted, spat on and shunned in grocery stores, supermarkets and pharmacies. Most of the incidences occurred in California, New York and Texas.

Divide and Rule

In the meantime, a year has passed, information available about the virus has dramatically increased, yet Asian Americans continue to be scapegoated and victimized. The dramatic increase in conspiracy thinking over the past several months, promoted by right-wing media and politicians alike, has done its part to fuel the flames of anti-Asian prejudice and hatred. The most recent cases that have caught widespread attention have been deadly assaults on elderly Asian Americans in California. One victim, an 84-year-old man, was knocked to the ground in a San Francisco street by a young man. The victim died two days later of his injuries, with the perpetrator now facing murder and elder abuse charges. The other victim was a 91-year-old man, pushed to the ground by a young man wearing a mask and a hoodie in Oakland’s Chinatown. The victim survived the attack.

On the surface, the recent wave of anti-Asian hostility might easily be explained as being directly related to COVID-19. On second thought, however, things are significantly more complex and intricate. What might appear to be spontaneous outbursts of violence, verbal or physical — as, for instance against refugees in Germany and other Western European countries — are, in reality, the result of deep-seated diffuse resentments. What COVID-19 has done is to provide something like an excuse allowing these resentments to get out into the open.

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To a large extent, as has been frequently pointed out these days, anti-Asian resentment is intimately tied to the myth of Asian Americans as the “model minority.” In this narrative, what accounts for the success of Asian Americans is intact family structures and a high priority accorded to education and traditional values such as thriftiness and discipline. This explains why, on average, Asian American household incomes have been higher than those of white households. As has also been noted, this narrative has been primarily used not to celebrate the achievements of Asian Americans but to blunt charges of racism and privilege. As Bill O’Reilly, the disgraced former Fox News star, asked rhetorically during a debate on the “truth of white privilege,” “Do we have Asian privilege in America?”

For O’Reilly and other prominent figures on the American right, the success of Asian Americans was a convenient occasion to bolster a rhetoric that blames blacks, Hispanics as well as the poor (independent of color) for their plight. If only they followed the example of Asian Americans, worked hard, kept their families together, and lived within their means — or so the charge goes — they too would be able to achieve the American dream. In short, individual flaws, rather than racism and discrimination, are to blame if some Americans fail “to make it.”

In order to bolster their case even further, right-wing “thought leaders” such as Charles Murray, the author, together with Richard Hernstein, of the 1994 bestseller “The Bell Curve,” had no qualms to note that with regard to IQs, Asian Americans came out on top, ahead of whites. More recently, Murray wrote a short blog entry on the state of American education, charging that high schools were “going to hell” — unless “you’re Asian.” Analyzing SAT test scores over the past decade or so, Murry pointed out that the scores had declined for all major ethnic groups, except for Asians. Their scores had actually increased, and this not only in math, but also in verbal skills, where Asians had trailed whites in the past.

It should not entirely come as a surprise if comments like these and similar remarks provoke resentment, particularly on the part of minorities that are constantly subjected to this kind of comparison. One might suspect that this was exactly what was intended. By suggesting that Asian Americans might be “privileged” or pointing out, as Murray does, that Asian Americans constitute “the unprotected minority” they drove a wedge between minorities that share a common, if differentiated, history of oppression, discrimination and structural violence directed against them. In Roman times, they used to call this strategy of safeguarding one’s hegemonic position divide et impera — divide and rule.

A History of Migration

The history of Asian migration to the West Coast in the 19th and early 20th century is replete with episodes of anti-Asian mobilization. The arguably best-known case was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers — but only after they helped build the nation’s railway system. It came at the heel of intense anti-Chinese agitation, both “on the ground” in California and Oregon and in the US Congress. The rhetoric was highly charged, inflammatory — and meant to be so. In a speech on Chinese immigration, Senator Mitchell from Oregon, for instance, in 1876 characterized Chinese immigrants as a “festering sore which, like a plague-spot, has fastened itself upon the very vitals of our western civilization and which to day threatens to destroy it.” 

Two years later, Representative Davis from California, in a speech in the House, warned that Chinese immigrants posed a fundamental threat to the institutions of the republic.  The Chinese of California, Davis charged, clung to their nationality and separated themselves from other men; they were incapable “to change their ways and adapt themselves to their surroundings.” This alone rendered them “most undesirable immigrants.” Arrested in their development as a result of “ages of uniformity” that had “fixed the type,” they had “nothing in sympathy with the social and political thoughts of a free people.” Instead, their “political aspirations” were limited to a “paternal despotism, with no conceptions of a popular government.” 

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This meant that the Chinese were unfit for life in the United States. Exclusion was the logical consequence, as were various measures adopted in the decades that followed targeting Asians. In the decades that followed, western states and territories passed various pieces of legislation that prevented aliens from acquiring land. Although general in nature, they were primarily directed against Chinese and particularly Japanese aliens.

One of the more ludicrous exclusionary measures was San Francisco’s Cubic Air Ordinance of 1870. Disguised as a sanitary measure, it was designed to expel Chinese workers from their crowded tenement quarters in the city’s Chinatown and thus “persuade” them to return to China. The ordinance led to the incarceration of thousands of Chinese from 1873 to 1886 “under a public health law driven by anti-Chinese sentiment.”

Even the populists, arguably the most progressive political force at the end of the 19th century, adopted nativist rhetoric directed against the Chinese. In the early 1890s, several state populist platforms included a passage calling for the exclusion of Chinese and/or Asian immigration. The passage appealed particularly to women who felt threatened by competition from Chinese men for domestic services and laundry jobs. Anti‐Chinese agitators seized the opportunity and charged Chinese workers with threatening the job opportunities of working women. Anti-Asian exclusion and discrimination were also reflected in anti-miscegenation and naturalization laws. The first anti-miscegenation law, which derived its justification from views on racial distinctions and barred marriages between whites and Asians, was passed in 1861 by Nevada. In the decades that followed, 14 more states passed similar laws. It was not until the middle of the 20th century to miscegenation laws were abolished.

This was also the case when it came to naturalization, the right to which was established in the Naturalization Act of 1875 that restricted American citizenship to whites and blacks. Whenever Asian immigrants in subsequent decades petitioned for naturalization, American courts ruled that Asians belonged to the “Mongolian race.” Ergo, they were not white and, therefore, not eligible for citizenship. In response to these court cases, Congress passed a law in 1917 banning immigration from most parts of Asia. Seven years later, Congress passed a further measure, excluding foreign-born Asians from citizenship “because they no longer were able to enter the country, and they could no longer enter the country because they were ineligible for citizenship.” It was not until 1952 that race-based naturalization was formally abolished.

A Privileged Minority?

Given this background, the suggestion that Asian Americans somehow constitute a privileged minority so dear to right-wing apologists of white privilege rings more than hollow — as does the myth of the model minority. The reality is quite different. The narrative of Asian American success obscures, for instance, the fact that over the past decade or so, inequality has risen most dramatically among Asian Americans. According to Pew Research, between 1970 to 2016, the gap between Asians near the top and the bottom of the income ladder “nearly doubled, and the distribution of income among Asians transformed from being one of the most equal to being the most unequal among America’s major racial and ethnic groups.”

Poverty rates among Asian Americans have been slightly higher than among whites, with some groups, such as Hmong and Burmese, far above the national average. This underscores the fact that Asian Americans constitute a community that is ethnically, socioeconomically and, in particular, culturally highly diverse.

The dominant narrative of the model minority, largely promulgated by the white right, largely ignores these subtleties. Instead, it creates the image of the privileged minority — singled out by the white majority compared over other minorities — and, in the process, sows discord among America’s subordinate communities. The resulting resentment goes a long way to explain the recent wave of anti-Asian hatred. It is hardly a coincidence that both recent hate crimes against Asian Americans in northern California were committed by blacks.

It is also hardly a coincidence that the two attacks put Asian American activists into a quandary. As one of them noted, “If addressing violence against Asian Americans entails furthering stereotypes about Black criminality and the policies associated with those stereotypes … we’ve misdiagnosed the problem.” The problem, of course, is the widespread disgruntlement toward Asian Americans, wrongfully seen as constituting an “honorable white” minority bent on defending its privileges.


A case in point is the lawsuit launched against Harvard University in 2014 charging it with discriminating against Asian American applicants in favor of less-qualified black and Hispanic students. Hardly surprising, the Trump administration, ever eager to stir the resentment pot, sided with the plaintiffs. The administration’s brief argued that the evidence showed that “Harvard’s process has repeatedly penalized one particular racial group: Asian Americans. Indeed, Harvard concedes that eliminating consideration of race would increase Asian-American admissions while decreasing those of Harvard’s favored racial groups.”

For those in the know, the language echoed Murray’s notion of “protected groups.” Once again, divide et impera was in action. Courts finally rejected the plaintiffs’ case. But ill feelings are likely to linger on, feeding into extant resentments that appear to have poisoned the Asian American community’s relations with other visible minorities in the United States. Under the circumstances, anti-Asian hostility, hatred and violence are unlikely to fade out in the near future.  

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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