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Capitol Punishments: Stop equivocating about anti-Asian violence

Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Gaslighting from police and other institutions just compounds the trauma of recent attacks in Madison.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Last week, after a third Asian international student was attacked in the span of two weeks in Madison, the Madison Police Department stated that they had “no information that leads them to believe this attack is racially motivated at this time.”

In an open letter to UW-Madison, Asian students, teaching assistants, and faculty members asked that the police department and university look into the incident and reconsider that determination. After all, thanks to Donald Trump and other Republicans racializing a virus—calling it the “China virus” and “kung-flu” to redirect from the administration’s failure to contain the outbreak—violence against Asian Americans has increased to the point that one-third of Asian Americans told Pew Research Center that they’ve changed their daily routines to avoid being attacked.

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And yet somehow, the justice system and larger institutions only recognize such violence as “racially motivated” when certain boxes are ticked. A suspect has to admit they attacked the victim because of their race, or utter a racial slur or some other painfully obviously racist comment. 

But even in this case, where a suspect threw a banana at one of the victims—which seems pretty obviously racist to me—authorities are reluctant to acknowledge the role of race in these incidents. So in addition to the trauma of seeing members of their community targeted, communities are also gaslighted by “race-blind” authorities. 

This is not the first time in American history that Asian Americans have been the scapegoats for the country’s problems. In 1982, amid the backsliding of American car manufacturers that resulted in them losing ground to Asian manufacturers, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American draftsman, was beaten unconscious by two white men in Detroit. Chin later died from his injuries. His murderers were each sentenced to two $3,000 fines and three years’ probation. 

The Page Act of 1875 was one of the first—if not the first—U.S. laws limiting immigration on the basis of race and sex. Chinese and Japanese women were stereotyped as promiscuous and as prostitutes and blamed for the spread of venereal diseases. Claiming to be aimed at preventing the immigration of Chinese and Japanese women to the U.S. for prostitution, the Page Act was enforced through medical examinations one historian described as “barbarous, humiliating, and discriminatory.”

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That’s why when you read about Asian American history, you see a pattern of Chinese men returning to China to marry and keeping their wives and daughters in China until they could find a way to circumvent the notoriously traumatic interrogations at Angel Island. 

You don’t need to know this history to know how American culture fetishizes Asian women. You only need to pay attention. Yet last year, after a white man went to three different spas in the Atlanta area and murdered eight people, six of whom were Asian women, police officials said that the incident was not “racially motivated” but was due to the shooter’s “sexual addiction” that drove him to lash out against “temptation.”

At a protest against Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) violence in Madison the day after the Atlanta spa killings, there was already a lot of anger and pain over the horrific incident, particularly for the young Asian women who had mothers, aunts, cousins, or friends working in nail salons or massage parlors. But the official statement, which took the murderer at his word and did zero analysis of the deeper meaning behind his words and actions, was arguably more painful. 

“What happened was racially motivated, and don’t let anyone else tell you that it’s not always about race,” said state Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) at a vigil in Milwaukee following the Atlanta shooting.

One theory is that authorities have excluded race as a factor in this most recent series of incidents because the suspects come from different racial backgrounds. Which is a cartoonishly simple way of understanding racial violence.

Dr. James McMaster, a professor of Asian American and gender studies at UW-Madison, tweeted last week that “A lot of interpersonal anti-Asian violence isn’t ‘motivated’ at all.”

“It is unconscious, an outcome of the racial order of things. Asians are experienced as easy targets, especially in the COVID era. We become outlets for aggression, paths of least resistance,” McMaster wrote. “Rather than focusing on racial motivations we should be focused on racial vulnerabilities to violence. Reducing violence against Asians to the question of motive is part of what allows those in power to skirt their duty to prevent such violence.”

I’m not saying the perpetrators should be charged with a hate crime and have the book thrown at them. If there’s one thing we should have learned by now, it’s that locking people up in our system—which is centered on punishment, not rehabilitation—doesn’t actually make our world safer.

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But when a community is under attack, the least that authorities can do is reassure them that they see what the community sees and will act to protect them. If authorities cannot recognize and acknowledge racist violence, how can they stop it?

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