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Opinion: Historical underinvestment and continuing discrimination is violence against the AAPI community

May 28, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This guest column was written by Kee Tobar, Community Legal Services's racial equity, inclusion, and diversity director.
“Stop Asian Hate” has become a rallying cry demanding that individual actors in our community stop physically assaulting and harassing Asians. This is a necessary statement. The ability for Asian Americans to walk the streets without being assaulted for their race should be a primary concern.

However, violence against the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is not only perpetrated by individual bad actors, but also by our institutions, systems (especially our legal system), and government. These institutions and systems have a legacy of discrimination and pursuing violent actions against AAPI individuals.

It is vital that civil legal aid and advocacy organizations hold the government, our institutions, and our systems accountable to stop the historical and continuing violence and discrimination perpetrated against the AAPI community.

We need to look no further to prove the institutional and systemic violence perpetrated against the AAPI community than the Foreign Miners Tax of 1852 and the subsequent Supreme Court case in 1854, People v. Hall (decision ruled Chinese people were not allowed to testify in court). This was followed by the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese exclusion Act of 1882. These government actions were proceeded by the State sanctioned burning of Chinatowns across the west coast.

Anti-Asian violence has not only been perpetrated against Chinese Americans, but also other members of the Asian community including Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese, and other South and Southeast Asians. Historically, there was the 1930 riot against Filipino Americans in Watsonville, California and the 1942 Japanese American internment camps. The severe under-resourcing of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees arriving between 1970s-1990s should also be seen as a source of violence by the State against Asians.

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This historical foundation has led us to this current anti-Asian violent environment in America.

While the history of Asian Americans in this country has been greatly distorted through the “model minority” myth and weaponizing the resiliency of the Asian community, it is vital that civil legal aid organizations propagate the truth.

This legacy of discrimination and harm is no more apparent than in Philadelphia.

We must call out the violence of our society that intentionally perpetuates the invisibility of many South, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander people in our discussion of the Asian community. This practice propagates the white supremacist myth of the “model minority,” while aiding in the continued discrimination and diminishment of the plight of the Asian community.

This legacy of discrimination and harm is no more apparent than in Philadelphia.

According to a recent report done by Pew Charitable Trust, Asians make up around 8% of the population in Philadelphia.

The Urban Institute stated the overall national poverty rate for 2021 is 13.7 percent. Comparatively, the poverty rate for Asians in Philadelphia is between 23.1% and 26.7%.

(Graphs created by Aldercy Lam, courtesy of Community Legal Services)

The numbers indicated in the graphs above directly reflect the historical underinvestment and ramifications of discrimination against the AAPI community.

They also run counter to the “model minority” myth.

It is the duty of civil legal aid organizations who bear witness to the institutionalized and systemic violence perpetrated against the AAPI community in our daily casework and advocacy efforts to hold our housing systems, our safety net systems, our education systems, employers and the business community, and our local and national governments accountable for their violence against the AAPI community.

When we as civil legal aid and other advocacy organizations discuss housing and rent affordability, we must include the plight of the AAPI community.

When we discuss the need to secure and extend public benefits like SNAP (food stamps), we must include the impact of these programs on the AAPI community in our narrative.

When we discuss wage theft, a form of wealth stealing, we must include the AAPI community in campaigns.

Stop Asian Hate is the baseline.

We must demand our institutions provide resources for those who are limited English proficient when we champion access to justice.

Stop Asian Hate is the baseline.

Holding our systems and institutions accountable for their historical and continued discrimination and violence against the AAPI community is the next call to action. That is the role civil legal aid and advocacy organizations must play.

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