Last week’s mass shooting in Atlanta, which claimed the lives of six Asian women profiled as sex workers and two others, has triggered a torrent of liberal outcries over, in President Biden’s words, the “ugly poison” of racism. Bourgeois politicians from Biden to BC Premier John Horgan have been quick to opportunize the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, positioning themselves as the benevolent white faces of liberal multiculturalism, which treats racism-as-individual-prejudice as a moral no-no while abstracting it from capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism. But these terrible moments of anti-Asian racism are not only problems of bad individuals – they are a direct expression of the anxieties of Anglo-American empire in response to China’s economic rise.
Divorcing moments of racist expression from their structural foundations is a well-established maneuver of progressive bourgeois politicians. Upon taking office, Biden was quick to take a symbolic stand against anti-Chinese racism in order to present himself as a progressive alternative to his predecessor Trump. During his first month in office, he made a big show of directing federal agencies and departments to refrain from using overtly racist and xenophobic language, banning the use of Trump-terms like “China virus” and “Wuhan virus” in communications about Covid-19. In response to the Georgia mass shooting, Vice President Harris doubled-down on the Biden strategy of blaming Trump for using Covid-19 as a pretext to fan the flames of anti-Chinese racism.
Trump broke from the multiculturalist playbook preferred by the Democrats by expressing the structural racism underlying US governing and international policy in direct language. Biden’s language decrees, far from turning away from that structural racism, show that the White House has returned to a mystifying political order where speech operates totally apart from action. That’s why Biden condemns Trump’s racist language while reinforcing anti-Chinese racism through diplomatic, trade, and military policies.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan has also been quick to register his rhetorical opposition to individual instances of violent anti-Asian racism. Over Twitter, Horgan issued a facile statement about the Atlanta murders, saying, “Violence that targets women is hate. Violence that targets the Asian community is hate. There’s no excuse.” The Premier said “we must all stand against it.”
Horgan’s NDP did not “stand against” anti-China hatred in 2020 when they campaigned against the BC Liberals on a platform of yellow peril tropes that blamed the housing crisis on “foreign investors” and the opioid poisoning crisis on “money laundering,” both dog-whistles for anti-Chinese xenophobia. These election campaigns synced up with a media climate saturated with misogynistic and racist editorials about a Chinese woman’s footwear and deviantly extravagant wealth in coverage of Canada’s detention and extradition process against Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou – charged by the US State Department with violating imperialist sanctions against Iran.
Even before sinophobia surged as a surrogate for the Covid-19 public health crisis, politicians and the bourgeois media in Western Canada were cooking up a racial cauldron where Chinese-ness abstracts overwhelming social crises of income inequality, housing insecurity, and health danger. In her book Alien Capital, social theorist Iyko Day spells out the components of Asian racialization along just these lines, explaining, “The racial signifiers of inscrutability, perpetual foreignness, transnational mobility, and flexibility… register the abstract features of Asian racialization.” Persistently staging Asians as involved in the movement of transnational capital, real estate investment, and state authoritarianism has racialized these historical crises of capitalist production, personifying them in Asian form.
Like Biden, Horgan’s “solution” to the problem of anti-Chinese racism in the context of a new Cold War-style conflict between the US-led West and China is legislation and prosecution against the violent individuals who carry the logic of imperialist campaigns against China to their conclusions in the terrain of everyday life. Such violence is unacceptable to Biden and Horgan because it trespasses and exceeds the state’s monopoly over expressions of violence.
You can’t legislate away hate and violence
After Robert Aaron Long’s arrest for killing 8 people, Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office shrugged off the hate crime as the product of a “bad day.” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms similarly hesitated to point out the racist, misogynist character of Long’s violence, telling the media that “a motive is still not clear.” Baker justified his hesitation by pointing to how police asked Long if he killed so many Asian women for racial reasons, to which Long said no. The reason Long gave was that he has a sex addiction and saw massage parlors as, in Baker’s words, a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.”
The failure of state officials in Atlanta to decry Long’s murders as hate crimes opened up space for President Biden to distinguish himself by swiftly denouncing anti-Asian hate crimes as having no place in America, the most powerful and violent nation on earth. But against President Biden’s intiative to mobilize the Justice Department to expedite investigations into Covid-19 related hate crimes, Asian sex worker organizations are calling for the decriminalization of sex work as the only viable approach to protecting sex workers from sexual and racist violence.
Alison Clancy of SWAN, a Vancouver nonprofit that advocates for Asian and migrant sex workers, pointed out that increased policing has never made women safer. Clancey said, “The reasons why police do not aggressively pursue some of these predators is because they resemble police officers so much. Much of the violence that happens to immigrant and migrant sex workers is at the hands of law enforcement, so it doesn’t surprise me that a police officer would see this unspeakable act of violence as nothing more than a ‘bad day.’”
A day after the Atlanta shooting, another incident of anti-Asian misogynistic violence went viral: a senior Chinese woman was punched in the face in San Francisco by a white man who had also just attacked an elderly Asian man. Advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate reported that out of the 4,000 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes it received between March 2020 and February 2021, women made 68% of the reports, with 29% coming from men and 2% from trans and non-binary people. The disproportionate representation of women points to the inextricability of white supremacy and patriarchy and demonstrates that, like in the battlefield of any war, women preeminently receive the violence of the US’s anti-Asian misogynist war machine.
For white men, the promise of the Canadian and American nation-states is that Asian women migrants exist for their enrichment, pleasure, profit, and self-expression. White men date Asian women in order to gratify their fetishistic longings for girlfriends and wives they imagine as submissive and hypersexual, and they attack and murder them in order to gratify the eliminatory flipside of that longing, embodied in Long’s dialectic of feeling attracted to Asian sex workers and wanting to cleanse himself of that attraction through murder, the ultimate assertion of imperial and settler-colonial white male sovereignty. For white men, then, Asian women are a form of property that ultimately reflects the imperialist foundations of Canada and the United States. Long’s gaze, murderous and sexualizing, assumed his access to Asian women’s bodies as part of his gendered race power as a white man.
What Biden, Harris, and other bourgeois politicians cannot recognize without renouncing their commitments to imperialism is that white supremacy as misogyny (and vice versa) scaffolds US empire. There can be no end to violence against migrant women that isn’t also the end of the United States, which is why anti-racism drained of any anti-imperialist politics is simply tepid multicultural reformism: the call for the state to mobilize the hard power of cops, laws, and prisons in order to criminalize a narrow definition of racist violence while also championing greater “diversity” amongst the politicians who helm a genocidal, settler-colonial, imperial nation-state.
Contemporary yellow peril in the West reaches far beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, and the only way to combat it is to go beyond “standing against” individual instances of violent racism to tear out its roots. The call from sex worker organizations to combat the criminalization of sex work dovetails with an anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics that locates anti-Asian racism as a function of colonial and imperial state power, whether exercised by formal state actors like cops, or white men who, like Long, have used vigilante, misogynistic racism to defend the sanctity of white empire against yellow peril since the first days of Asian migration to the West.
Today we hold our moment of silence for women whom our enemies stole from our communities, and in whose memories we will continue to struggle: Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, and Hyun-Jung Kim.
Sign sex worker-advocacy group Butterfly’s open letter calling for the decriminalization of sex work here.