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College of Social Work

Episode 5: Anti Asian Racism in the U.S. - Part 1

*The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not represent the College of Social Work or the University of South Carolina.* 


Kirk Foster: Hello and welcome to fostering a difference. Our conversation today is part one of a two-part conversation that I will have on anti-Asian racism in the United States.

The importance of this topic became clear when a gunman went on a shooting spree in the Atlanta area earlier this year, killing six people of Asian descent but the truth is… such racism has deep roots in America. And today, I welcome Dr. Van Tran associate professor of sociology at the city university of New York.

Dr. Tran is an immigration scholar; an urban sociologist, who studies among many other things the integration of immigrants and their children and urban poverty and social inequality.

His research examines the dual study of immigrant and urban life with a focus on how immigration has transformed local communities across the country.

But also, important to know is that Dr. Tran came to the United States in 1998 as a Vietnamese refugee a native of H Chi Minh City. He spent his early years in refugee detention camps in Northern Thailand before his family was resettled to the Bronx, New York. So, Dr. Tran brings to us a unique and important perspective a story that needs to be told…  Dr. Tran, welcome!

Dr. Van Tran: Thank you for having me! I’m delighted to be here.

Kirk Foster: I’d like to start with your story, particularly your experiences as a new American.

Might you share with us some of those poignant moments of your own experiences as an immigrant to this country.

Dr. Van Tran: Being an immigrant in new land is always a difficult and challenging experience but I remembered my first memory of America was of JFK airport where my family landed in November 1998. And I remember so vividly the calming nature of JFK airport in contrast to the tumultuous lives that I led before arriving in the US, and that sort of was an optimistic beginning.

New York is a wonderful place to be an immigrant, precisely because in New York City being different is the norm and therefore people are more welcoming, and more accepting given the long history of immigration to New York City. Both in the past and the present. My cultural shock came when I first encountered the streets of New York City.

Coming from far away I’ve always known that America was deeply divided along racialized in terms of blacks, but the streets of New York were of every single colors and shapes and skin tones. And I was just utterly confused by the people that I encountered on the streets of New York, and that first moment of encounter really shaped the rest of my life. Which is… who are these people?  why are they here? what is their biography and history? And that has really been the core of what I do.

Kirk Foster: So, help me to um understand then… you arrived in um, you know you arrived in JFK as you told me. As we were chatting earlier, as a 19-year-old and um, I don't think many people… you know many Americans would uh characterize JFK as a calming experience. If any you know anyone who's flown through um JFK.

Um, but you described New York City as a wonderful place for immigrants because there…  so many people have had the immigrant experience, the new American experience, and there are so many people of different um skin tones so, so many people of different races and ethnicities. Um, then what are we to make of the attack that we saw on the streets of New York.

The woman…  the one woman who attacked the um two Asian women with a hammer. You know this is, you know this is a video that um, you know, has went viral on the news and a place like New York City. A place where so many people's immigrant story begins. We wouldn't necessarily expect to see this so, what is… what is changing in the united states around us?

Dr. Van Tran: I was actually shocked when I learned of the many, many, incidents of hate crimes in New York City, since last March. And, in so many ways it has transformed my understanding of the city and my personal feelings of safety in the city that I love.

And, what had happened since March 2020, which marked the beginning of the pandemic but also the rise of anti-Asian hate incidents has to do with a combination of a long-term stigmatizing rhetoric against Asians provoked by and spread around by elected officials such as Donald Trump over the last four years, not just the last year, and that has a long-lasting consequence in inciting people to act in ways that are more discriminatory towards Asian Americans, which resulted in the incidents that you repelled it in New York City. One might think well um, anti-Asian racism is not new so is this just more of the same, or something different has happened?

And I would argue that we are in a new era in which these incidents are on vivid display captured mostly by social media went viral and granted a lot of attention. And I think one important distinction here is the dehumanizing nature of these incidents and these encounters made it that much more jarring against the narrative and the myth of a model minority.

That Asian Americans and Chinese Americans often viewed as part of that narrative and it shows very clearly that no one is safe today, but especially minority groups in the United States.

And, that does not limit itself to just Asian Americans but also latinx Americans and black Americans as well.

Kirk Foster: So how then again, I mean you are an immigrant to this country and you lived in refugee detention camps and I’m sure um, well and I don't want to put words in your mouth… but um, there had to be some excitement, or some hope, or some um anticipation, when coming to the United States. How then um…  so if you could talk a little bit about that but also how do you… how do we reconcile um this notion of America as being a land of immigrants a land of people from all corners of the globe with what we were seeing today.

With images not only of the one that I described earlier but many, many, others.

Dr. Van Tran: That's a great question and I would just say that from a personal perspective, um I deeply appreciated the many, many, opportunities that the United States of America has provided me over the last two decades of me being here in the US.

I would not have an undergraduate of graduate education if it were not for, you know, the incredibly stellar system of public education and private universities in this country, which I have greatly benefited from.

So, one clear kind of transformation in my life during my time in the US has been that of acquiring an education but also educating others based on what I have learned, and sharing what I know with the public.

And, I take that mission seriously I see no contradiction between the understanding of America as a land of opportunity alongside the racial injustice and exclusion that we continue to see for multiple groups in this country.

Both are true and both are based on you know much of what we know from the rigorous social scientific research that we do… that we undo, as part of the academic community.

It is a great place for social mobility but especially in places like New York, where you have relatively open public institutions and higher education institutions that allow for lots of different people to create a new life for themselves, and to get a second chance at rebuilding and reshaping their lives. And, that was my story and we see this very clearly as well in the evidence on the tremendous social mobility across immigrant generations between the immigrants themselves and the US born children which we refer to as the second generation.

If anything the social mobility that we see among the second generation is significantly higher than that of US born individuals and therein lies a challenge that we must face… which is the potential leap frogging of the immigrants and their children over native-born groups that have been here for a long, long, time that have been historically excluded such as African Americans and Puerto Ricans.

And… that is the second part of what you are asking which is this historical exclusion has important contemporary implications in terms of racial inequality in residential settings, neighborhoods schools, and wealth creation, and generation and reproduction among blacks and white family.

And that inequality stays with us despite of and alongside the social mobility that we see for some groups including black Americans over the last half century.

Kirk Foster: And certainly as… as a scholar I’ve also examined this whole notion of the American dream and you know social and economic mobility, and you know these…. these are complex questions, and these are complex matters… and I want to circle you know back around to them in a moment.

I want to go back up to something that you and I both intimated at earlier and, and that is um the history in the United States of anti-Asian discrimination anti-Asian racism because in in some part…  because of the rise that we have seen over the past year we may, many Americans might believe this is a relatively modern and temporary phenomenon as related to coronavirus particularly as… as you have mentioned. Elected officials, notwithstanding our former president, being very derogatory toward Asians as they discussed the coronavirus.

But, it's much more than that… um this type of anti-Asian racism has a deep history in the United States. I had a friend—actually a church friend of mine, who was an older Japanese American. You know born and raised in the United States and he didn't have many stories to tell of the Japanese internment camps from World War II, except for one um that he often told about his tricycle.

That when they came to get his family and move them from California to Arkansas… that he had to leave behind his tricycle…  and for him that whole um, everything wrapped around that story was quite traumatic.

Um, although he talked very glowingly about the time that he spent um you know with his family and such and it was still a very um a very sad point in American history. So, can you walk us through some of these important events, um in the history of anti-racism in the United States? Just so the listeners can have a broader perspective of how far back this goes, and how it is not a necessarily a contemporary and temporary phenomenon…

Dr. Van Tran: Absolutely… and let me start with history before drawing any comparison…

A long, a long line of events people often start with…  the Chinese exclusion act of 1882… think about that 1882…

That was the first time when Chinese immigrants were excluded from entering the United States of America, and in fact if you go back to that long history of immigration…  Chinese were in fact the first and only racial group at that point that was born from entry and this really has everything to do with this stereotype of Asian Americans and of Chinese Americans as the forever foreigner even though we have been here for more than 150 years.

And I think the Japanese gentleman's agreement act in 1907 was the next moment that limited immigration from japan and between the two acts it highlighted that no single Asian country was left out of this overall Asian ban.

And that has a lot to do with the idea that Asian Americans as a racial group is often viewed as monolithic even though they are much more diverse. And yet they are also unified in the way in which they are excluded from this country.

Then came the Japanese internment during World War II, which is probably the most vivid example of why Asian Americans always felt targeted even when they were part of very much the American fabric of our society. And as you alluded to the experience of your church friend while we were fighting against Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Only Japanese Americans were interned and not the two European groups and thereby laying there the race-based nature of that exclusion.

More recently you know… you think about the 1965 being a turning point in immigration policy that opened up immigrant admission from all over the world, which by the way was the result of the civilized movement of the 1960s, which made any discriminatory immigration policy problematic for the US.

And therefore we open our doors to the half a century of immigration that we have seen since then that welcomed over 40 million immigrants into the US but, even over the last few decades you know the murder of Vincent Chin for example was a landmark um in 1982 when we had a 27 year old Chinese American in Detroit being picked on by two white men and were mistaken to be a Japanese American. And he was then beaten to death outside the bar where they encountered each other so once again I think over and over again we see very important moments whereby each Americans, despite their significant socio-economic mobility and integration are often reminded of the fact that they are still the outsider to American society.

What's new in this most recent episode is the public nature of it all and I think there is one silver lining in the significant spike and surge of anti-Asian sentiments over the last year, and that is public awareness around this issue has significantly increased as well that many Americans woke up for the first time and recognized there actually this is a problem facing a lot of Asian Americans.

So, that which was rendered somewhat invisible in history is now being rendered much more visible today and that I think is a significant factor, if you will.

Behind the recent passage of the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which was generally about hate crimes but also more specifically on hate crimes against Asian Americans— inspired by the Atlanta shooting that you began our podcast today with.

So, as an academic, I draw lessons from history to say that this is not new but every opportunity that we have to educate the public about the challenges facing the many communities within our society is a new opportunity for conversation, dialogue, discussion, that hopefully can lead to more understanding and mutual respect, and a more sheer unified version of our future.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.