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Scholars examine intersecting global and local forces impacting anti-Asian violence

Lee Ann Wang

Following the murders on March 16, 2021 of eight people in Asian massage parlors in Atlanta, six of them Asian women, media coverage often focused on questions about the individuals. Were the women sex workers? Were they victims of trafficking? What were the motives of the young white male shooter? In a Clayman Conversations event titled “Anti-Asian violence at the intersection of gender and white supremacy,” three scholars took a macro look at the state structures, cultural myths, historical legacies and global politics underlying the current climate of increased violence against Asian Americans. The panel included Elena Shih of Brown University, Lee Ann Wang of UCLA, and Melissa C. Brown, a Clayman Institute postdoctoral fellow who served as moderator. 

Shih is the Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, where she directs a human trafficking research cluster through Brown's Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Wang is assistant professor of Asian American studies and social welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. Brown is a postdoctoral fellow for the Clayman Institute and a sociologist whose areas of expertise include intersectionality, digital sociology, social movements and sexual politics.

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In his introduction, Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub spoke of the country’s long history of racial and gender violence, and how official statements about the murders confirmed a forgetfulness of that history. “What horrified us was the way the framing in law enforcement and media -- from the now-infamous invocation of the killer’s quote-unquote ‘bad day’ by the police, via the bizarrely dehumanizing invocation of the shooter’s ‘sex addiction,’ to the suggestion that more policing might hold the solution to the violence -- seemed deliberately deaf” to recurring patterns. “That kind of forgetfulness itself has a history -- the claim that anti-Asian violence wasn’t about race, didn’t have anything to do with white supremacy, was more about the killer or about religion or about sex or about anything other than race, has a history,” Daub said. 

photo of Shih speaking
Elena Shih

Lee Ann Wang opened by encouraging an examination of larger societal structures. “In the way the state responds in particular to anti-Asian violence, I think one of the limits is thinking about anti-Asian violence within personal prejudice and individual acts of prejudice and implicit bias,” Wang said. Moving above individual attitudes and actions, she explained, “I’m thinking instead about where we actually see state structures of violence intersecting. And for me, one of those intersections is through immigration law.” She outlined the ways in which, in the name of protecting trafficking victims, the law sets up women as objects without agency susceptible to and dependent on the logic of policing and state enforcement. 

Given the fact that Asian communities are frequently overpoliced and put under generalized suspicion with regards to immigration or vice enforcement, extending the logic of policing to the current climate of anti-Asian violence is deeply troubling. “Why is it that we normalize and expect that it’s OK to ask Asian American communities, in this moment, where communities already are experiencing violence, to then say, let’s all learn how to call the police?” Wang asked. She praised the work of Mimi Kim and Creative Interventions in documenting all the different ways that communities have found forms of safety and accountability for each other without relying on police. 

Shih echoed the importance of such community-based approaches. “I think they are so necessary, because of how policing itself has become so integrated into the fabric of community watch to begin with.” She noted a difference in attitudes toward policing Asian women as compared with other groups, as increased public awareness of sex trafficking has made it “slightly unpopular” to arrest women who are seen as victims. 

Regarding the idea of the Asian woman as victim, Wang as an example recalled an interview in her ethnographic research in which a client applying for a humanitarian visa for relief from human trafficking was downplaying her violent past experiences. She told her attorney, “‘I feel like the more innocent and clean I can present myself, the more they’ll want to help me,’” Wang recalled. “And it’s pretty remarkable that somebody who had limited English access, knew nothing about the legal system in the United States, knew at least that much.” Wang said, “There is this notion of kind of this ‘quivering victim’ and questions around consent and whether there is enough coercion, that I think are actually forms of legal harm.” She described these state actions as part of an outlook that “goes back to the reification and the maintenance of a kind of colonial logic and Western humanitarianism.”

“VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act) is remembered and celebrated as a feminist success. But the majority of funds that go toward VAWA actually go to law enforcement agencies. A very, very, very small fraction goes to women’s shelters.” -- Lee Ann Wang

“A lot of work in the last decade has focused on softening the tentacles of policing and making it appear quite benevolent,” Shih said. She described some “outreach opportunities” she observed in Los Angeles in which college students staked out Asian massage parlors and shared their notes with the police. It was an example of “civilian, absolutely racist vigilance” being used to bolster state power, she said.

In one of many instances of synthesis among the speakers, Brown followed Shih’s comments with a reflection about the Atlanta killings. “So when you were talking, what struck me about … the white racialized vigilance, and thinking about [the alleged shooter] being a white male evangelical, it struck me that when he labelled his actions as eliminating temptation, I thought about how this savior rhetoric exposes the colonizer logic.” She noted that policing began with citizens monitoring enslaved African people in order to prevent escapes. “And now hearing this idea of this ideal Asian woman victim, being used to justify more policing, and just the ways it gets modernized, the ways that different bodies’ identities are implicated, is really intriguing,” she said.

While surveillance and enforcement affect businesses and workers, Shih noted, states and municipalities also have used licensing to impact spa businesses, and can shut down the businesses in absence of required licensing. These requirements create financial pressures and administrative barriers to work. In 2019, she said, a case that involved an owner of the New England Patriots targeted a day spa in Florida because a local official, who had been trained to look for “the signs” of sex trafficking, raised concerns after a routine health inspection. While all charges eventually were dismissed for the famous clients, several workers at the spa were turned over to ICE and held in custody, their funds were seized, some were jailed, fined, and released, but in the end the place of work was gone and there was no evidence of trafficking. 

photo of Brown speaking
Melissa C. Brown

Shih termed such local interventions as “really troubling bait and switch” operations that affect Asian massage workers. Anti-trafficking NGOs play a role as well. In their concern with the new category of illicit massage businesses, Shih said, “Nearly all interventions have called for heightened surveillance and policing of such businesses,” resulting in hundreds of raids across the country. The net effect is that “something as mundane as licensing really allows us to see the different kinds of racialized and gendered policing that are enacted not only on Asian massage workers, but across the low-wage migrant workforce,” Shih said. 

Regarding policing policy at a national level, Wang discussed some unexpected outcomes of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), originally passed in the 1990s as part of an omnibus crime bill. “VAWA is remembered and celebrated as a feminist success,” she said. “But the majority of funds that go toward VAWA actually go to law enforcement agencies. A very, very, very small fraction goes to women’s shelters.” With VAWA’s reauthorization in the 2000s, immigration provisions were added, including new visas designed for survivors who are undocumented. However, those women are required to cooperate with law enforcement in order to be eligible to apply for the visas. “What does this mean,” she asked, “when state sponsored protection reveals itself and is made available to immigrant women of color through this logic of policing and punishment?” She noted that some researchers have found increased violence within communities of color under VAWA. “We actually haven’t seen a reduction in gender and sexual violence since this moment, but we most certainly have seen an increase in policing and prison expansion within the nation-state and globally,” Wang said.

The conversation often touched on who is being elevated and who is being left out in official responses to anti-Asian violence. Do community watch organizations and lawmakers and law enforcement agencies center Asian women in their efforts, or are other incentives at work? As Brown said, “We have kind of accepted a certain perspective when we’re having these conversations about sex work and sex trafficking. We kind of normalize not just the white gaze, but the white Christian evangelical gaze, and the ways those systems have been manifested from the start of our nation.” She found further roots in the nation’s history of slavery. “A lot of what we’re discussing is made possible by the fact that at one point in U.S. history, it was perfectly legal to traffic women. ...It was perfectly legal to profit off of the sexualization of people’s bodies.” 

Colonial and imperial history are present in these power differences and inequalities as well. Pulling out to a global scale, Shih addressed imperialism and the economic forces that drive some Asian women to low-wage service sector work. During the Vietnam War, American soldiers were stationed in Thailand to engage in rest and recreation, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara “actively encouraged the Thai state to shift its economic focus from one dependent on agriculture to one dependent on tourism -- not only mass tourism but commercial sex tourism,” Shih said. Those shifts continue to impact mass migration patterns in the Asia Pacific region today. Through federal and municipal policy, white colonizer logic centers white people while also making “others,” including immigrants and Asian and Asian American women, hyper-visible and positioning them as potential targets of violence, both state-sponsored and not. 

The Clayman Conversations series convenes intellectual leaders to generate dialogue that speaks to their fields' current issues and debates. The full Clayman Conversations series can be accessed online.


List of Organizations

Organizations mentioned by the speakers throughout the event are listed below, along with a link to additional resources compiled by the Clayman Institute. 

Clayman Institute Statement

The Clayman Institute statement on recent anti-AAPI violence along with a list of scholarly resources