Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janelle Wong discuss the importance of Asian American representation in popular culture for Cafe’s Stay Tuned with Preet.
Why Anti-Asian Racism Persists
History shows us the cyclical nature of anti-Asian racism and violence.
In the last year, violence against Asian-Americans has increased significantly. When a 21-year-old shooter in Atlanta, Georgia shot and killed eight, including six Asian-American women, a national eye finally turned to face the anti-Asian hate that’s been building since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic.
This kind of violence isn’t new. As Janelle Wong and Viet Thanh Nguyen write in a recent Washington Post piece, “While it is ever-lurking, the prominence of anti-Asian bias in U.S. life is cyclical. Though Asian Americans are often cast as a success story because of their high average levels of education and income, many Americans, at times of economic stress and uncertainty over U.S. global standing, associate Asian faces with a foreign threat.”
How can understanding the history of anti-Asian hate inform our national response today? Nguyen and Wong weigh in.
The following transcript was recorded on April 5, 2021 and has been edited for clarity.
Preet Bharara: My guests this week are Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janelle Wong. Nguyen is the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist of The Sympathizer, and its new sequel, The Committed, which trace the story of a North Vietnamese spy at the end of the Vietnam War. He is also the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and an English professor at the University of Southern California. Wong is a political scientist and a professor of American and Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland. She’s also a senior researcher at AAPI Data, where she collects demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Preet Bharara: Her most recent book, Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change, is an analysis of the relationship between demographic change and political alignment. As violence against Asian Americans continues to rise, my guests join me this week to discuss childhood recollections of racism, the danger of the model minority myth, and why anti-Asian violence is cyclical. That’s coming up, stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: It’s time for some listener questions. This question comes in a tweet from Melissa, at Twitter handle shortsigh44, who writes, “I heard the lawyer for the prosecution today agree with the opposing counsel’s objection to his question to the police chief, even before the judge ruled on it, saying, ‘That’s fair.’ Is that common? Or is he just a particularly open and fair-minded attorney? #askpreet.” That’s a great question, Melissa, and I’m glad you asked it. Obviously, you’re referring to testimony in the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, who’s accused of murdering George Floyd last year.
Preet Bharara: And typically, it’s a case both on television and too often in real life, when lawyers object to other lawyers doing things in court, there’s a strenuous response. Typically, people wait for the judge to rule, but it is true that on occasion, good professional, fair-minded prosecutors and defense lawyers, when they realize they’ve been doing something that maybe is not perfect, like asking leading questions on direct examination, which is a no-no, they’ll concede it and ask a better question. And that’s what happened here.
Preet Bharara: It was during the direct testimony of Minneapolis Police Chief Arradondo, and Prosecutor Steve Schleicher, I hope I’ve gotten the pronunciation right, who was going through a line of questioning about how police officers meet members of the community in the community, where they are. And he asked a couple of questions, one of which was this.
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher: And as you testified earlier, the police just don’t get to meet people on their very best day, do they?
Preet Bharara: And the chief responds…
Chief Arradondo: No, they don’t.
Preet Bharara: And then he asks another longer question, afterwards, the defense says, as you point out in your tweet, “Objection, it’s all leading at this point.” And the prosecutor says…
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher: That’s fair.
Preet Bharara: Now, there are a few reasons why you do that. It turns out, if you look back at the questions, they were leading. Anytime you have a question that ends with something like, “Do they? Isn’t that right? Isn’t that correct? Do you agree?” That tends to be characterized as a leading question, which you’re not supposed to do on direct examination, you can do it on cross-examination. And one reason why you might want to make the concession is you’re a professional, you gain credibility with the court, the judge, and most importantly perhaps, if you do that from time to time, you gain credibility with the jury. It’s the right professional, incredible thing to do.
Preet Bharara: Also, by the way, I would point out, there’s a reason why during direct examination, you’re not supposed to, and shouldn’t ask pointed leading questions, and rather, open-ended questions, because it increases the credibility of the answer. If it looks like the witness is just agreeing with what the lawyer is saying on direct examination, it’s almost as if you’re putting words in the witness’s mouth. So, good call all around, good question, and a good practice in court, and we don’t see enough of it.
Preet Bharara: Last evening and this morning, I got a number of questions about breaking news from yesterday, about still sitting representative, Matt Gaetz. Here are a couple of the questions I got. This is from Twitter user, nebhusker84, “In reference to The New York Times’ story that Gaetz was seeking a blanket pardon from Trump, who’s to say he didn’t get it? A secret pardon.” We wouldn’t know till after Gaetz is charged. And another question from Twitter user, JLeishae, “Why was he seeking blanket pardons for him and his congressional allies?” Of course, these questions are in response to a couple of things.
Preet Bharara: First, the ongoing reporting of an investigation into various activities by Matt Gaetz, an investigation, which by the way, and importantly, appears to have started when Trump was president and Bill Barr was the attorney general, with his knowledge and approval. That’s important. And in the midst of reporting about allegations involving Matt Gaetz and underage girls, and potentially the use of public funds in connection with sex trafficking, and other conduct that’s been reported with respect to him showing videos and pictures of nude women on the floor of the House of Representatives to fellow colleagues.
Preet Bharara: In the midst of all that, there was a scoop this Tuesday night from The New York Times with bylines from Maggie Haberman and a couple of her colleagues that reported with some precision that in the final weeks of the Trump administration, Representative Matt Gaetz sought from people at The White House, not clear if it was from the president himself, but suggested to people at The White House that Donald Trump should exercise his broad pardon power to pardon not only the people who had been seeking it before and the people that we saw got pardons, but also a blanket pardon for any and all potential crimes that Matt Gaetz and maybe some other congressmen might’ve committed, which is a bizarre thing.
Preet Bharara: Now, at one point, he did seem to say this on television himself, and I think people talked it up to Matt Gaetz being an over-talker in various ways. But you don’t seek a pardon preemptively in the final days of an administration, unless you have some feeling that you’ve been doing something wrong. And what we know about the investigation, also importantly, is that some of this may have emanated from and certainly is focused on a gentleman, a local tax official by the name of Joel Greenberg, who has been charged federally in Florida with a number of counts, including relating to sexual misconduct.
Preet Bharara: So, I think there’s a lot of things going on here, and none of it is good for Matt Gaetz. Number one, Joel Greenberg, it seems, either has flipped, or is likely to flip. Counts keep getting added to his indictment. When that happens, the potential sentence goes up. And if you’re Joel Greenberg, and your prison time potentially keeps going up, there’s a particularly good and time-tested way to help yourself, and that’s to provide substantial assistance to the prosecutors. And what better way to provide substantial assistance to the prosecutors than to give them incriminating evidence against a sitting member of Congress? And all the reporting suggests that’s what’s happening here.
Preet Bharara: And by the way, folks, I say that about the prospect of investigating and prosecuting a sitting member of Congress, that’s always going to be important to prosecutors, because members of Congress and other elected officials hold positions of trust, and they’ve sworn an oath to serve the public and to uphold the constitution. And so, when they commit crimes, including wasting or abusing their power, or wasting and abusing public funds that were entrusted to them, campaign funds or otherwise, for nefarious and illegal activities, that’s something that prosecutors take very seriously.
Preet Bharara: Those are serious crimes, and as we’ve discussed before on the show many times, cooperation usually involves providing information about someone who’s further up in the food chain, someone who’s a more serious target. And that would probably be the case with respect to Matt Gaetz. So, that’s bad for Matt Gaetz, number one. Number two, it seems that Joel Greenberg probably has a lot of ways to corroborate what he’s saying to investigators about conduct with young women. The reporting suggested various cash apps were used, the telephone calls were made, that money was withdrawn from ATM machines in a way that might be able to corroborate some of these activities.
Preet Bharara: So, the combination of Joel Greenberg likely flipping, his being able to point to data and records to corroborate what he’s saying, and the kind of carelessness that we’ve come to expect from Matt Gaetz, all in combination, is bad for Matt Gaetz. With respect to the question about whether or not there might be a secret pardon of Matt Gaetz that we don’t know about, I will say, for reasons that we’ve discussed before with respect to a potential secret pardon for Trump himself, or members of his family, it just seems very far-fetched.
Preet Bharara: I do believe the reporting that says that folks in The White House kind of, I guess, to their credit, laughed off and dismissed the idea of a preemptive broad, weird pardon for Matt Gaetz when it was brought up. I mean, that’s significant, by the way, in its own right. This is a White House and a president who engaged in controversial pardon after controversial pardon, including Michael Flynn and Roger Stone and other associates of his, but even this, the potential preemptive pardon of Matt Gaetz, was seen as a bridge too far. I think that even the craziness of Donald Trump and his own White House was not crazy enough to issue some bizarre, amorphous blanket pardon to Matt Gaetz in advance. And now, a word from our sponsors.
Preet Bharara: Joining me this week are Professors Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janelle Wong. After the March 16th killing of six Asian American women in Atlanta, the two professors penned a joint op-ed for The Washington Post, that outlined how bipartisan rhetoric about geopolitical events from World War II to COVID have historically led to spikes in violence against Asians, and Asian Americans. With the recent spate of violence, we discuss the cultural and political realities of being Asian American in 2021. Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Janelle Wong, thank you so much for being on the show.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi, Preet, thanks for having us.
Janelle Wong: Thank you.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m very excited to talk to both of you for a lot of reasons, particularly in the wake of the rising tide of violence against Asian Americans. You both penned this very compelling op-ed together in The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago called Bipartisan Political Rhetoric About Asia Leads to Anti-Asian Violence Here, and we’ll get to all of that in a moment. And I know you folks have thought about these issues deeply and have lived these issues deeply. But before we get to the present day, let me go back to when we were all kids. And I think I’m older than both of you, but not by a lot, and ask you what your memories are and experiences were as children in America who happened to be Asian.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And if you remember moments where you were made to feel like you didn’t belong here, told to go back to where you came from, how you process that, and how that informs how you think about these issues now. Maybe we start with you, Janelle?
Janelle Wong: Thank you so much. Well, I grew up in Yuba City, California, which is one of the most diverse rural places in the country, but it was highly segregated. And so, I have very early memories of, for instance, my parents and my brother and I going to a restaurant, and it was an Italian restaurant right outside my very rural town. And we entered and we looked at everybody, and they looked at us, this was probably in 1979, and we just turned around and left. We could feel this outsider status. And so, we left that place.
Preet Bharara: How could you feel that? And did you feel it? Or did you understand it from your parents?
I understood it myself. I was pretty well aware of being a Chinese American kid in a place that wasn’t completely white. It was white, it was Sikh Indian, and it was Latinx. And it was about a third of each of those populations. But some places were very white, and that was one of them, and I just remember crossing over the threshold, having everyone look at us. This is a memory that is very powerful. And then just my parents telling us, “Let’s go.” It was a shocking thing to have my parents decided it didn’t feel safe for us. And so, we left.
Preet Bharara: Viet, do you have any memory? I mean, your situation was very different. You were not born in the States, you came to the States when you were Five? Is that right?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: When I was four, and I grew up in San Jose, California, so, a few hours from Janelle. But it was a much more urban environment, and also very diverse, grew up in a city that was very multicultural with a lot of Vietnamese refugees, Mexican immigrants, or Mexican Americans, and the white working class. That was my neighborhood. But I did feel some occasional twinges of this feeling like an outsider, probably the most important one was when my parents opened perhaps the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, California, around 1978, which is what you’re supposed to do when you’re a refugee or an immigrant coming into this country, or pursue the American dream.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, it was a shock for me at around 10 or 11 years of age to walk down the street in Downtown San Jose from my parents’ store and see a sign in another store window that said, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” And I was too young to really process what that meant, but of course, I would eventually realize that that was a sign being targeted at my parents and the other Vietnamese refugees who had come to Downtown San Jose where no one else wanted to open any businesses, and that this was a sign that was a story. Another American driven out of business by filling the blank has been a part of American history for a very long time.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And then the other way in which I felt my exclusion was not face to face, but through popular culture. I was a refugee from the Vietnam War, and in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a lot of Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War, and I watched a lot of them, movies like Rambo, and Apocalypse Now, and Platoon, and so on, and I rapidly realized that this way that Hollywood portrayed Vietnamese people was the way that most Americans probably saw people like us, which is that we were these faceless victims, and if we had any chance to say anything, it was usually to scream as we were being killed, or to say thank you for being rescued.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I think that that representation of Vietnamese people really affected me and gave me the sense that we were alien in this country, and that the only way we were known here was through this really warped representation of the war.
Preet Bharara: Was there some amount of confusion about who you were? I mean, I would get the question because I would tell people that I was Indian, and they would ask me things, kids would ask me things like, “Do you live in a teepee?” And they would make sounds that they thought Native Americans make, which wasn’t necessarily hateful, but at some point, I think people began doing it deliberately. They knew who I was and where I was from, but decided to do that anyway. And then the other thing that I often found, and I don’t know if this happened to you folks, was some amount of surprise that me or my family did things that ordinary Americans did, including that I spoke English well, even though in my case, I came to the States when I was a year old, and basically, English is my native language.
Preet Bharara: And even into my teen years and in my 20s, people would say, “Oh, that’s an interesting name, Preet. Where are you from?” And I would say, “From India,” and I’m an 25-year-old lawyer practicing at a firm. And I remember sometimes people would say, “Well, that’s amazing. You have no accent at all.” Well, that’s because I’ve been here for 24 years. Any experiences like that?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, certainly when I was growing up in school, there were kids who would do the slanted sign at me a couple of times, and they would ask me things like, “Did you carry an AK-47 in the Vietnam War?” I mean, that’s what they knew about someone like me, and some more obnoxious things like that. So, I think that that was definitely a part of the landscape. And my background is similar to yours in the sense that I was completely fluent in English by the time I could remember, seven, eight years old, loved literature, wanted to be a writer, and became an English professor.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s definitely an irony that a Vietnamese refugee would end up being an English professor. So, I know that I’m proud of that because I think it does affect people’s perceptions of Vietnamese people, but certainly, what you experienced was part of my experience that English was not supposed to be my language, and literature was not supposed to be something that we as Vietnamese or as Asians did. So, I definitely felt that I was trying to knock down some barriers of perception there among Americans as a whole, but also among Vietnamese people who also didn’t think that Vietnamese people should be doing English literature.
Preet Bharara: You’re supposed to be doing math. What happened to math and science, guys?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Absolutely. Yeah, my God, I almost failed AP Calculus, or I almost failed pre-calculus, which would have been a lasting humiliation.
Preet Bharara: Oh, my God. And, Janelle, what happened to you in math and science?
Janelle Wong: Well, some of what you’re saying, Preet, really resonates with me. On my dad’s side, my grandparents immigrated. And on my mom’s side, my grandparents’ grandparents immigrated to the U.S. But I still have been asked, of course, where I’m from. I was a Chinese kid in a place where most of the Asian Americans were South Asian growing up, and so, I just saw so much racism and prejudice in this small rural town that is one of the largest Sikh populations in the country. But of course, most of the white residents referred to the group as Hindus, and there was just tremendous racism. There was a lot of teasing and just hyper-segregation of the farming community that was mostly Sikh Indian.
Janelle Wong: But then, fast forward to the present, much of what you’re saying still resonates. I just completed a survey with my colleague, Karthik Ramakrishnan, right after the Atlanta shootings. And we found that 64% of Asian Americans said that people had asked them where they were from, assuming they were not from the U.S. Similar proportion said that they had been assumed not to speak English, even though the whole survey was done in English. So, they were obviously competent in English. And so, these kinds of assumptions about Asian Americans continue to be part of the cultural landscape, and we can see that they affect all Asian Americans, not just people who are like me, Chinese, for instance.
Preet Bharara: It’s an interesting question. Does it offend you if someone asks in good faith, because they’re interested and they want to know where your family is from originally or where you hail from? And can you tell when people are asking it in an ignorant way? Do you follow the difference? I mean, conversation about people’s backgrounds and whether you’re Irish, or Russian, or Chinese, or Indian, I find that to be all wonderful and terrific, and to be celebrated, but you’re talking about something different, right?
Janelle Wong: I think it taps into something that Viet and I wrote about, and that Viet more recently just wrote about in a recent article in The Guardian, and it’s this really long-standing assumption about foreignness that is applied to Asians in particular in the U.S. And so, yes, when people ask about our personal backgrounds, I think that is good and fine, but you can feel sometimes a certain turn where I think a very long-standing assumption about not belonging, about being foreign is tapped into by that question. And so, it is confusing, because the majority of Asian American adults are foreign, imported in the United States. And yet, there is also this kind of longer history of assumed foreignness that plays into all sorts of other kinds of stereotypes, and can really cause harm in the U.S.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think in my case, I was born in Vietnam. So, when people ask me where I’m from, I can honestly say I’m from another country. But I do also obviously understand Janelle’s point that the assumption of foreignness can be deeply problematic. But I think that one other thing to point out here, of course, is that the Asian American response to this perception of foreignness has often been, as it is now, to assertively claim our American identity and our American belonging. That’s been a deep impulse in Asian American culture for decades, and it’s very understandable.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But there are some complications with doing that that I think a lot of Asian Americans don’t fully realize that if we claim American identity and American belonging, we claim all of it, which means that we also claim some very complicated histories in terms of American colonization of this country, and American wars in foreign countries, again, often directed at Asia or Asian countries, which is oftentimes the very reason that we ended up here in the United States. So, very complicated, this dynamic between foreignness and belonging.
Preet Bharara: This concept of Asian American is interesting to me, because when I was growing up, and maybe this is a false memory, I don’t remember a lot of people using the term Asian American. We, as our family, grew up in New Jersey, we thought of ourselves as Indian, Indian American. There were Korean Americans, there were Chinese Americans, there were Vietnamese Americans. What does it mean to be Asian American? You’ve referred a moment ago to Asian American culture, what is that? Given how different the countries are, given how much rivalry there has been and war between various Asian countries, and how differently the cultures have evolved and other things, what does it mean to be Asian American? That’s only a thing that occurs here in the United States, right?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I think so. I think people in Asia don’t really generally go around calling themselves Asians, in most cases, they refer to themselves by nationality, ethnicity, religion, and so on, as you mentioned. And certainly when I was growing up in San Jose, the Vietnamese people called themselves Vietnamese. We were not even Vietnamese Americans. And so, whenever they said… Oh, whenever we said Americans, we meant someone else besides us. And I grew up feeling, “Well, I’m an American, so, how do I fit into this?”
Preet Bharara: I had that same conversation with my parents.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right. And so, yeah, I didn’t hear of the term Asian American until I got to college at UC Berkeley. Certainly, when we were in high school, I went to this very elite white high school in San Jose, and there was some of us were of Asian descent. But we knew we were different. We didn’t know what to call ourselves. So, every day at lunch, we’d gather in a corner of the campus and we’d call ourselves the Asian Invasion. That was the closest we got to acknowledging that we had something in common that’s-
Preet Bharara: Were you talking about music? Was it like the British Invasion?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I wish. We were total nerds too, so, it could even be that cool. But we knew we had something in common. At the same time, there were Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Americans, but it wasn’t until college and arriving at Berkeley, taking Asian American Studies classes that I heard of this idea for the very first time and started calling myself an Asian American. And It felt like I was coming home, that I understood something about myself in this country. And I think you’re right that it’s a relatively new phenomenon, the term was coined in 1968 in California by students at the UC campuses, and I think it’s taken decades for it to really gain mass cultural momentum.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It used to be sort of a vanguard identity, but maybe Janelle can talk more about this, but now, I think, with a newer generation, American-born second generation, I think we’re really starting to see an Asian American cohesiveness take front stage.
Preet Bharara: And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anybody refer to themselves as European American, or South American American. Right? And I wonder, Janelle, if part of this, and you’ll know better you too, if part of this was a result of there being such small communities at least some years ago, of each particular Asian country background, a relatively small number of Vietnamese, a relatively small number of Korean, Chinese, Indian, and there was a reason politically perhaps to join together and to have a common label. Does that have anything to do with it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, definitely what we’ve seen in research is that it is a politically constructed category. And so, it has kind of emotional resonance, I think, for Viet and for myself, because we’ve devoted our lives to thinking about this category, and there is some kind of emotional connection too, at least for me, with this category, because it is so politically meaningful to me. But I think you’re absolutely right that in this democracy, numbers are power, and it was a way to band together to increase political power. When you think about what holds the Asian American community together, it is in large part, two experiences, that is, immigration, because immigration has so profoundly shaped the community, and then it is also shared experiences with the very kind of racial discrimination that we have talked about.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: There are two, I think, interesting findings related to Asian American identity. The first is one that you both have mentioned, which is that the second generation is much more likely to adopt the panethnic label than those who are first generation. So, we see that among those born in the United States, they’re more likely, regardless of whether they’ve taken an Asian American Studies class or not, to describe themselves in panethnic terms. But the second finding, I think, really does show the constructed and contested nature of Asian American identity, and that is that some groups are considered by other Asian Americans as more Asian American than others.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, some research we’ve done shows that, for instance, South Asians, those are Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, have a very high degree of Asian American identity. They identify as Asian American at the same levels as other Asian Americans from East Asia or Southeast Asia, but East Asians do not consider South Asians to be as likely to be Asian American as they consider East Asians.
Preet Bharara: Can we get to this concept, Viet, that you mentioned a few minutes ago, which was the assertion of Americanness and what that means. Because I do that, I think it’s critically important for me, how I identify, how I think about myself, how patriotic I am, and that means different things to different people, that I’m an American. But I’m also very proud of my Indian heritage, I like Indian music, I like a lot of Indian traditions, I like Indian food. Goodness, what would we do without Indian food? And this whole concept of the melting pot and assimilation. How do you think Asian Americans view of assimilation, if you want to use that word, and there’re probably better words, how do people think about that?
Preet Bharara: What is the proper balance for people who come to this country from other places of adopting the traditions, habits of America, versus maintaining some traditions from the motherland? And then finally, how does that play into this issue of violence and bias against Asian Americans?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think we have to think about Asian American identity in two dimensions, which is, one is culture, and one is politics. And they overlap, but they’re not the same. So, I think, for a lot of Asian-Americans, when they talk about becoming American, and they need to talk about what you just talked about, which is, what do we contribute to the United States? Our great food, or our great commitment to education, these kinds of things. We’re talking about culture, and that’s where the assimilation issue most prominently comes up. This idea that this country is a melting pot, or is multicultural, and all these different traditions from different places can be brought here and blended, and that America can absorb all of these different kinds of populations.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that’s a very powerful way of understanding Asian American culture, which is why the second generation level, I think, we see a great celebration of people consuming things across different boundaries, like, “Let’s have Korean tacos,” or, “Let’s have Boba tea, even if we’re not Taiwanese,” all this kind of stuff. But I love all that, that’s fantastic. And we all take pride in Korean pop culture and all this. All this is fabulous. Now, this runs into a tension though with Asian American politics, because that’s a different issue. I mean, Asian American politics is built out of the sense of cultural meshing and cohesion and greater strength in numbers, as Janelle said, but there is a tension there because the origins of the Asian American movement in the 1960s is much more radical than what many people remember.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean, the origins of the Asian American movement were not just anti-racist, but also anti-imperialist, anti-war, anticapitalist, and oftentimes, pro-Marxist. And if you take those politics to their logical conclusion today, you see that some versions of Asian American politics are not just about assimilation and becoming a part of the United States, but about contesting the very origins of the United States in violence and colonization and genocide. And this speaks directly to, I think, the very heart of the problem in American politics today, which is, this is how we can go from a president Obama to a president Trump.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think Obama, for me, represents this idea of assimilation and blending and multiculturalism. Trump seems to represent the assertion of a more white nationalist strand of identity, which is also fundamental to the United States. And Asian Americans are caught right in the middle of that tension. And that’s also where we’re caught right now with the question of anti-Asian violence. One set of responses to anti-Asian violence is to assert our belonging to this country, that we’re Americans, you’re not going to kick us out. We’re going to defend ourselves as Americans. And another response is to say anti-Asian violence is absolutely fundamental to the United States because the United States has been violent towards every single racialized population in its history.
Preet Bharara: Janelle, what do you think about that?
Janelle Wong: I couldn’t agree more. And I think the Asian American community is really at a kind of crossroads right now. We see greater attention, greater reporting of anti-Asian bias, and I think that is important because it is such a long history in the U.S. At the same time, I think that Asian Americans can either think only about themselves and the kinds of experience that’s highlighted in the news right now, or the deeper connections with this history of white supremacy in the United States and the ongoing kinds of disparities, racial disparities we see in current day.
Janelle Wong: So, yes, Asian Americans are reporting about the same level of hate crimes in 2021 as other groups, but prior to this year, Black Americans faced much more racial violence, much more reporting of hate crimes, sometimes 10 times more than Asian Americans just in 2019, for instance. And if we do a deeper dive into the data, we see both trends. We see that Asian Americans are facing a forever foreigner stereotype that manifests in the ways that we talked about, people thinking you’re not from this country, that you don’t speak English, but they are not facing the kinds of structural racism that some other groups are facing with regard to, for instance, policing, black people are much more likely to report police abuse and misconduct, education, black people are much more likely to report that a teacher or a counselor has unfairly told them to discontinue their education.
Janelle Wong: And we see it all in many areas of life, a kind of overlay of racism that affects us all. So, in the workplace, blacks are less likely to be promoted than Asian Americans. Asian Americans are reporting about the same level of discrimination in the workplace as white Americans. In some cases, or when we get to housing and neighborhoods, we see that realtors are much more likely to steer black and other of color away from certain neighborhoods. And that is not evident in the data on Asian Americans. Now, Pacific Islanders are a group that is closely connected to Asian Americans, where we see very high levels of discrimination. But even when we desegregate the Asian American population to include those groups that have faced higher levels of barriers to education, like Vietnamese, Cambodians, we still see that those levels of experience with let’s say being racialized by teachers to not continue their education, are still lower than for other groups.
Preet Bharara: We’ll be right back to the interview after this. I want to start talking about the violence that we’ve seen recently, but also put it in context. One of the things that you wrote in your op-ed that was very striking to me was that violence against Asian Americans and discrimination against Asian Americans has been, this is your word, cyclical. You don’t hear that when you talk about gender discrimination or discrimination against Black Americans. That has been a persistent thing, maybe it ebbs and flows a little bit. But this idea of bias being cyclical, explain what you mean by that, and give some context for it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that if we look at American history on specifically around the question of anti-Asian violence, we see that it spikes. And so, for example, I’m calling in from Los Angeles here, and in 1871, 19 Chinese men and boys were murdered by a mob of several hundred in downtown. And that’s pretty much an incident that’s been, I think, largely forgotten in American history, but it was also very fairly typical of the Chinese experience in the Western United States in the 19th century. And then the Chinese had been brought in as cheap labor, their usefulness expired, so then they were targeted by this racist rhetoric that stirred up anti-Chinese feeling. And that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Page Act of 1875 directed against Chinese women.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that should have solved the problem, but then further Asian populations were brought in as cheap labor, Filipinos, Japanese, and then United States fought wars in Asian countries, from Japan, to Korea, to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. So, different Asian populations came in at different periods in American history, and each of them faced anti-Asian violence. And so, this is why I think it’s cyclical, every new population that comes in encounters a new level of fear and skepticism. And that old story that I mentioned earlier, another American driven out of business by filling the blank, is applied to them. So, there’s a mix of racial and class tensions that takes place that targets these new Asian American populations.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And the other major marker in Asian American history that accounts for this ebb and flow or these spikes is the creation of the Asian American model minority in 1966. This was an actual term that a Newsweek reporter came up with, and it’s been stuck with Asian Americans ever since. And I think that in the last few decades, that seems to have been the dominant perception of Asian Americans, maybe dating since the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. That was the last major anti-Asian violence that most Asian Americans could recall. And then after that, Asian Americans were perceived as being the ones who were getting into Harvard and being the great students and all of that, and perhaps Asian Americans were lured into a sense of complacency, so that now when we face this new spike of anti-Asian violence, it catches a lot of people by surprise, but to me, it just feels more like a repetition of previous patterns in American history.
Janelle Wong: Well, I would just say that Viet has written poignantly too about another trigger for anti-Asian sentiment is always war and U.S. aggression abroad. And when the U.S. experiences anxieties over foreign policy, we see that Asian Americans are often targeted. So, after 9/11, South Asians and those presumed to be Muslim were targeted with Islamophobic racist attacks. And we saw in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, for instance, that again, white supremacist was targeting a South Asian Sikh temple. And so, this is one thing I really appreciate about Viet’s work is just bringing a more direct understanding of how foreign policy quickly becomes so racialized in the U.S.
Preet Bharara: Right. Can we pause on this idea of the model minority for a moment? And there are people who will say, “That’s not so much of a thing to complain about. What’s wrong with people assuming that you’re smart and you’re studious, and you’re going to do well, and giving you the benefit of the doubt?” Or is there something about the soft bigotry of high expectations, to change a phrase? Explain what it is that’s bad about that for Asian Americans.
Janelle Wong: In my view, there are two problems. The first is that the model minority is a direct line to anti-blackness. And so, you see that people who hold those, this is a recent research from Jerry Park and his colleague, shows that among white people, this was of students, who believe that Asian Americans are super competent when it comes to education and other skills, that those same people are the ones most likely to believe that black and Latinx people are criminals or lazy. So, there’s a direct relationship. This also turns out to be the case for Asian Americans. Asian Americans who internalize the model minority stereotype are also the most likely to exhibit anti-black attitudes.
Janelle Wong: And this is no surprise because the emergence of the model minority stereotype was in part, a stereotype that was used to discipline Black Americans, who at the time, in the 1960s, were agitating for basic civil rights. And it was a way to say, “Look at this group that is successful without political agitation.” And the other problem with the model minority stereotype is that it does cover over vast inequalities within Asian America. And so, there are groups within the Asian American population and within particular national origin groups that face tremendous barriers to acquiring education, to achieving economic stability. And those stories really get lost with the tenacious power of the model minority stereotype.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: One more thing I’ll add to that is that it’s a stereotype, and although it’s a positive stereotype, what you can construe as something good, positive stereotypes always come with negative stereotypes, they’re two sides of the same coin, and I think every minority population in this country is subjected to its own version of the positive and negative stereotypes. And so, for us as Asian Americans, the positive part is being the model minority, and the negative part, ready to be applied to us in any moment of crisis, whether it’s domestic economic crisis or whether it’s attached to a foreign war, the negative stereotype is the yellow peril or whatever color you want to put on this.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, when my parents opened their grocery store in Downtown San Jose, they were fulfilling the positive stereotype, but the negative stereotype was ready to be applied to them as the economic Asian threat to white business people in Downtown San Jose. The very appearance of the model minority in this news report in 1966 was built specifically around Japanese Americans. And the reporter was marveling at how in the 1940s, Japanese Americans had been sent to internment camps, and yet here we are, 20-some years later, and they’ve completely turned things around and become this model minority in the sense that Janelle was talking about.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that spinning of the coin around the Japanese American experience, around what happened to my parents, is exactly still what’s happening today. We should be very careful whenever people apply these stereotypes to us, saying, “Oh, you’re such a good neighbor,” or, “You’re such a good classmate,” and so on and so forth, because, lurking right around the corner is the possibility that we will become too good, too threatening, too competitive, and therefore, too dangerous.
Janelle Wong: And that’s not to say that there aren’t advantages that do attend these stereotypes. We know that there is a concept called stereotype promise, where, for instance, teachers, they look at their students, and for Asian American students, they’re actually more likely to assume that they are smart and competent, and that leads to all kinds of benefits, like getting tracked into higher level courses, more rigorous courses. And that kind of attention can actually lead to increases in standardized testing among Asian Americans. And so, it’s not to say that there aren’t advantages to the model minority stereotype that most Asian Americans do benefit from in a way that no other nonwhite group experiences.
Preet Bharara: I want to talk about this other dynamic that you folks address, I mean, lots of people are addressing, and that is the policy of the United States, both policy and rhetoric of the United States, most typified by the former president, in attacking China. Now, it happens to be the case that we have domestic policy, and then we have foreign trade policy, and from time to time, there are countries like China who do pose a threat to the American economy, who are competitors of ours, militarily and otherwise.
Preet Bharara: And I guess my question is, how do you deal with the issue of American presidents and diplomats and business people doing their job and calling out other countries, in recent times, China, for bad practices, including civil rights abuses, human rights abuses, without causing bigots in the United States, to use that as an excuse, to think bad things and do bad things and engage in violence against people who are far removed from that country, but are from that country? Isn’t that just a feature of life?
Preet Bharara: I mean, just quickly, the example that I’ve been thinking about in the last few days in preparing for this interview is I think back to when I was 10, 11, 12 years old, it was a very difficult thing in this country to be Iranian back then, because all the rhetoric from pundits, journalists, the president, about Iran, were very negative because we were going through the hostage crisis. And I remember as a young kid with parents and uncles, who sometimes were mistaken for being Iranian, finding it a very peculiar thing. How do you deal with that? And it happens in other times in our history as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think when you certainly have a president, as a former one did, who says things like China virus and kung flu, you have a deliberate provocation of anti-Chinese feeling, and arguably that it was also serving to distract Americans from domestic issues happening within the United States. So, there’s definitely a connection between stoking xenophobia directed at some external issue, and also trying to distract from internal issues as well. And so, obviously in those kinds of moments, the connection between foreign policy and domestic racism is very clear.
Preet Bharara: It can be pronouncing, and I think that’s totally fair, and I think that probably is, we would agree, what is stoking this particular violence, but it sounds like your thesis is broader than that.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right. And so, the question would be, like, for example, under administrations where there’s clearly more awareness of these questions of domestic differences and the necessity not to stoke racist feeling, which is certainly the case probably under the Obama and Biden administrations, you have much more awareness of this. Is there still a correlation or maybe even a causation between a more muted policy that is still aggressive towards China, for example, but which does not try to connect it to stoking racist feelings within the United States? And I think, for me, there does seem to be some correlation of that.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think it’s very hard not to create an image of a country as a very specialized kind of threat, a very heightened kind of danger, given the way that race operates in the United States, given the deeply held notions by many Americans that Asians are foreigners and outsiders, that people would not, some people would not make that connection between a foreign economic competitor and the dangers posed by people who look like a foreign economic competitor. And so, yes, I think China is obviously major economic competition for the United States. I think China does engage in some very problematic tactics when it comes to economic competition.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes, I think that China does engage in severe human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in Tibet, in Hong Kong. The question is, are these tactics and are these human rights abuses worse than other countries? In some cases, yes. In some cases, no. So, one of the examples that, I think, Janelle and I brought up was, we face major economic competition as well from the European Union. We don’t stoke that same kind of rhetoric around the European Union, and we don’t have a particular racist legacy towards European Americans, as you implied earlier. So, there are some-
Preet Bharara: Because that’s most Americans.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s most. Well, that’s a lot of Americans.
Preet Bharara: A lot of Americans.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And Janelle can amplify on all of these kinds of issues, but it’s difficult, I think, to extricate our stances from China towards this wide reservoir of feelings about Asians in this country.
Janelle Wong: Yeah. I think this received a lot of attention when we threw out that we need to be cautious about how we talk about Asian countries and Asian foreign policy, because there always has been a backlash. And that’s not to say that we should not condemn China for its human rights abuses, it’s not to say that it is not a source of competition, it may even be a unique source of competition, but in doing so, we need to recall, as history has shown us, that foreign policy is deeply tied to racial politics in the United States. So, when the U.S. holds up Russia as an adversary, Russians in the United States do not feel the backlash that all Asians feel, regardless of whether they’re from China or not, when China is held up as an adversary.
Janelle Wong: And I don’t think we are trying to defend China’s policies at all, I think we are trying to say, we need to invest more in helping people to understand here in the United States, what this racist legacy has been, how it is triggered by foreign policy rhetoric, and to help people understand through ethnic studies, through understanding this long history of anti-Asian bias in the U.S., that there are consequences, deep consequences for villainizing countries in Asia that we don’t see when other countries are villainized.
Preet Bharara: Right. But is that a function of the politicians’ rhetoric, or just ugly, latent racism on the part of a lot of Americans? Because I’ll tell you, back during the Cold War, and to a much greater degree than now, I mean, this is nothing, this is like ping pong or badminton compared to the way politicians and presidents talked about Russia during the Cold War, but Russians tend to be white, and Asians tend to look different. So, how much of this is underlying racism?
Janelle Wong: I think we would both agree with you, it is underlying racism, but that racism cannot be separated from the ways in which people talk about foreign policy. So, there is a way of talking about our relationship with China that condemns China for its human rights abuses, that condemns China for its economic malfeasance, and that condemns China for its acts, but that does not dehumanize the people in China or the people here in the United States who are Asian American. I think it is very difficult because it is such a script, but I think we are encouraging people to think twice before they engage in the kind of rhetoric that, for instance, President Trump used, that was immediately dehumanizing.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ll just say two things about the Biden administration stance on China, one positive, and one potentially negative. I think one positive about the Biden stance is that part of the way that racist feeling gets stoked in the United States is in the way that it’s tied to economic crisis. So, in times of economic crisis within the United States and people are feeling economic pressure, it’s easy to target a foreign population abroad or a racialized population domestically and say, “They’re the cause of our problems.” And so, the Biden administration’s policies now in terms of trying to amplify domestic spending and increasing our investments in infrastructure and people and so on, I think that’s a very strong positive.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean, we should take the sign of economic competition from China to be a healthy one, where we should then look at ourselves and how we conduct our own economic policy and human policy within the United States, try to make ourselves a stronger country in that sense. So, that’s great. But the other dimension of the Biden policy on China that reiterate Trump and Obama stances as well is positing China as a military threat, America’s number one military threat at this moment in time. Now, that’s, I think, a lot more arguable. I mean, there’re certainly other voices that say we’re overstressing the dangers that China poses as a military power. We’re potentially using China as an excuse to continue spending enormous amounts of money on the Pentagon, part of which is extremely wasteful.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so, this goes back to other issues in terms of America’s image of itself as not just a global power, but as the sole global power after the end of the Cold War. And here, I think, whether we’re talking about Democrats or Republicans, there seems to be some sense of unity on the foreign policy stance towards China as the preeminent threat that helps to motivate what the United States does and what the United States spends militarily.
Preet Bharara: Obviously, one of the reasons I wanted you to be on the show was to talk about the violence in Atlanta, and the murder of, among others, six Asian American women there. Obviously, it’s important to have the context and talk about Asian Americans in politics, and all the things that we’ve been talking about, but there have been some suggestions, including from law enforcement in Atlanta, that people shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that those killings happened for reasons of racial animus or national origin animus. Janelle, is that a fair point or not?
Janelle Wong: Well, I think there’s no question that the, at least in my mind, that the killings, they were racially motivated, that they were motivated by gender. And that to me, regardless of how one categorizes it legally, the position of those Asian American women was a function of their race and gender. The access of the killer to those places of work was also a function of race and gender. And so, I don’t think we can easily separate the motivations, the circumstances of the victims from the occurrence of that day. So, I think what we are seeing there is an illustration of the ways in which women and men in Asian America are, do experience race very differently in certain aspects, that women are hyper-sexualized, that women might be in a vulnerable economic position that put them on the front lines that day.
Janelle Wong: So, in my mind, there’s not a lot of value in parsing the legal term, but I think it’s obvious to most people that this was a crime that was, in many ways, shaped by the gendered and racial position of everyone involved.
Preet Bharara: I mean, does it matter to the analysis, Viet, that regardless of how you parse out the motivations, and maybe there were multiple motivations, and maybe this person was a bit troubled, but the reaction in the Asian American community, myself included, and you folks included, was to feel like you were punched in the stomach? And you see that time and time again with these surveillance videos capturing, for example, the 65-year-old Asian woman walking to church in Midtown Manhattan and being kicked to the ground and stomped in the head multiple times with the doorman in the luxury condo building, not only not doing anything, but shutting the door. What weight is to be placed on how the community feels about an action, as opposed to how we parse out the particular motivations of the perpetrator?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think a lot of Asian Americans felt that they were being gaslit by this response on the part of the FBI director, Christopher Wray, who said, and he’s taking this cue from the local police officials in Atlanta, that this was not a racially motivated shooting. And of course, all of us felt, I think many of us felt that it certainly was, and partly because of what Janelle said, which is that, in experience of many Asian Americans, it’s impossible to separate questions of racism from sexism. That these things happen simultaneously.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that when we assert our analysis of this, when we draw upon everything that we’ve been talking about for the past hour in terms of Asian American history and the structural problems of anti-Asian violence in this country, and the fact that Asian Americans have been raising the alarm about the rising tide of anti-Asian violence in this country ever since the beginning of the pandemic, and then to hear, from law authorities, that we just can’t be certain that race played a factor, it feels like our lived experience, our lived knowledge and our historical knowledge of our situation has been completely disregarded.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so, I think that’s one of the reasons why I think many of us felt that something horrifying was going to be coming during the past 12 months or so. And of course, our worst fears were realized in Atlanta. And then the episode that you’re talking about when this Filipina was stabbed so badly that her pelvis was fractured, and people just ignored this, it felt like simply the final punctuation mark in this really horrifying history of the last few weeks.
Janelle Wong: But at the same time, I will also say that, a difference between past episodes of anti-Asian violence and the contemporary moment is that we have a set of established community organizations on the ground, who have been doing work in the community prior to these incidents, who continue to do it now, and they are really trying to shape a productive narrative and response to this violence. For instance, they’re really trying to push an agenda that doesn’t lead to increased in overpolicing. And so, these are, I think, important kinds of nuances that we’re seeing in this particular moment.
Preet Bharara: Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Janelle Wong, thank you so much for joining me and thanks for all your thoughtful analysis and writing about these issues.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks so much for having us, Preet.
Janelle Wong: Thanks for having us.
Preet Bharara: My conversation with Professors Nguyen and Wong continues for members of the CAFE Insider community. To try out the membership free for two weeks, head to cafe.com/insider. Again, that’s cafe.com/insider.
Preet Bharara: Folks, I want to end the show this week to talk a little bit about the controversy relating to the Major League Baseball, and the decision of the league to remove the all-star game from Georgia in light of the controversy over the Georgia State legislature making voting more difficult and more restrictive, after Republicans suffered significant losses in the last election. And there’s a lot of debate about whether or not MLB should have done that, whether or not it harms average Georgians, whether or not sports leagues and corporations generally for that matter, should be involved in a particular way in politics, should they stay out of it? Should they not?
Preet Bharara: And one answer that comes to mind relies on a particular, pretty much forgotten, I think, historical precedent. And last Sunday, April 4th, which was Easter, which millions of people celebrated and observed, also happened to be the sad and tragic 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And for a moment on Sunday evening, Twitter, which is usually a terrain of toxicity and silliness, was for a moment, as it sometimes can be, a source of historical wisdom. An MSNBC journalist, Ali Velshi, reminded us of a story from the past, during the time of Martin Luther King Jr., and I wanted to share it with you.
Preet Bharara: And Ali Velshi reminded us of 1964 Atlanta, when then Coca-Cola CEO, J. Paul Austin, fought to get Martin Luther King Jr. the recognition he deserved from the business community in Atlanta in the wake of his winning the Nobel Prize. I’m just going to read the thread that Velshi posted. “53 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by a white racist as he stood on the second floor balcony outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s dream, that all people be judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin, is a fight that continues today, and was the reason King received a Nobel Peace Prize just three years earlier.
Preet Bharara: “He was celebrated with high honors in New York City. The reception in his hometown, Atlanta, however, was a different story. 1964, Atlanta was still a self-segregated city. So, plans for an interracial dinner honoring King were not well supported by the city’s top business leaders. Tickets weren’t selling. The New York Times even wrote a story about it, which concerns some in Atlanta. Then CEO of Coca-Cola, J. Paul Austin, did something about it. Austin knew firsthand what apartheid had done to South Africa’s economy, and was determined that Atlanta not follow suit.
Preet Bharara: “The mayor of Atlanta summoned the city’s elite business leaders to the 18th floor dining room of The Commerce Club, where it’s reported Austin spoke bluntly saying, ‘It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola company.’ There were no cries of cancel culture after that, no whining about lies or left wing ideology. The CEO of an international company saw its city on the wrong side of history, and acted. Today, the corporate world is once again, taking action. Major businesses are condemning restrictive voting laws being pushed by Republicans at the state level.
Preet Bharara: “On Friday, Major League Baseball announced that the all-star game will be moved out of Atlanta because of the state’s new Republican voter restrictions. The Republican governor was outraged by the decision, blaming liberal cancel culture. It’s not cancel culture to respond to democracy-weakening legislation, stopping people from voting is cancel culture. And once again, Coca-Cola, along with other major corporations based in Georgia, have been called on to do the right thing. In an historic open letter, 72 black executives called on all corporations, no matter their location, to oppose these voting restrictions. This is happening because of activists who care about protecting the right to vote.
Preet Bharara: “Activists pressed Georgia-based businesses to publicly oppose voting restrictions for weeks before they were signed into law. And then they called on people to boycott those same companies, when they failed to speak out. It didn’t take long for those companies to change their minds. The question now is, will Republicans making these laws do the same?” That’s quite a thread by Ali Velshi. And I think there’s a lot of food for thought about what happened before, and what is happening now, and how history will judge all of us.
Preet Bharara: If you want to learn more, you might want to pick up the memoir of former Atlanta mayor, Andrew Yang, who talks about this issue in his autobiography. It’s called An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, published in 1996. To the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., may you continue to rest in peace. And kudos to everyone, from corporate executives like J. Paul Austin, to the young activists of today, who speak out about unjust laws in institutions.
Preet Bharara: Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guests, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Janelle Wong. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. Tweet them to me @PreetBharara with the #askpreet, or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338, that’s 669-24 Preet. Or, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following transcript was recorded on April 5, 2021 and has been edited for clarity.