CREJ Hosts Critical Conversations About Anti-AAPI Violence

After six Asian women were murdered in Atlanta in March 2021, there was a wave of public outcry that resulted in awareness-raising solidarity campaigns, bystander trainings, and even federal legislation to address the issue of anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) violence. Meanwhile, UC Law SF professors Alina Ball and Shauna Marshall, who serve as co-directors of the school’s Center for Racial and Economic Justice (CREJ), started asking how the center might use its resources and networks to put the surge of anti-AAPI hate crimes in deeper context.

“While immediate responses and crisis management were necessary, we wanted to think through how we could address the root causes of violence,” says Ball. “We needed to highlight the role of the law in systems of racial discrimination and connect the dots between these not-at-all random acts of violence.”

Since CREJ launched in February 2020, it has convened influential legal scholars to discuss critical issues such as police violence, economic injustice, and affirmative action in California. Earlier this month, Ball and Marshall collaborated with UC Law SF Professor Emerita Carol Izumi to give the issue of anti-AAPI violence that same thoughtful treatment, hosting a one-day virtual conference called “Connecting the Threads that Bind: Contextualizing Legalized Violence Against Asian Americans.” Recognizing the interdisciplinary nature of advocacy work, they invited activists, movement lawyers, critical race theorists, and other legal scholars to the table.

In the first panel, moderated by Izumi, the conversation focused on the history of legalized discriminatory treatment against AAPIs and the narratives that have “legitimized”their disenfranchisement. The panelists were:

Omi, who co-authored the groundbreaking book Racial Formation in the United States, said race cannot be defined with any precision as a biological or genetic category of human variation. He argued that races are instead social concepts, fluid and constructed. The history of Asian Americans, Omi said, is a “history of exclusion.” He referenced the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first piece of major legislation to restrict U.S. immigration, and the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, the first to abolish racial restrictions in that system.

Omi noted that Asian Americans have suffered from legalized racism at the federal, state, and city levels. He highlighted the 1854 case People v. Hall, in which the California Supreme Court determined that Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants did not have the right to testify against white citizens in a court of law. When bubonic plague struck San Francisco in 1900, Chinese residents were blamed—and housing segregation was enforced even more strictly.

“Despite being here for several generations,” Omi said, “Asian Americans are continually seen as perpetual foreigners, whose citizenship and allegiance to the United States is always in question.”

In the second panel, moderated by UC Law SF Visiting Professor Ming Hsu Chen, participants examined the effects of resurgent white nationalism on AAPIs. The panelists were:

  • Deepa Iyer (Building Movement Project and Solidarity Is)
  • Bill Tamayo (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)
  • Eunice Lee (University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law)
  • Stephen Lee (University of California, Irvine School of Law)

Deepa Iyer described how the Sept. 11 attacks were used to justify increased state surveillance of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities. She spoke about the importance of solidarity practices among communities of color, emphasizing the need “to be vigilant in stopping these policies in their tracks because they will certainly be repackaged, replicated, and used against other communities.” For instance, she said, the government has used the surveillance technologies developed or authorized after Sept. 11 to surveil Black activists and Chinese scholars.

In the third panel, moderated by UC Law SF Adjunct Professor Michael Chang, the conversation centered on the future of AAPI-led advocacy and policy reforms. The panelists were:

Cynthia Choi said she has never seen national interest in the country’s diverse AAPI communities. While the March attacks shone a spotlight on AAPIs, she said there has been an outsize focus on East Asians and interpersonal attacks, and that it’s fallen to advocates to underscore the linkages to institutional forms of oppression. Widespread resistance to an honest conversation about critical race theory has been an attempt to derail AAPIs from understanding their history — and “the fact that discrimination, bias, vilification, dehumanization of our community, even the construct of the model minority, was intentional, used against us, and has defined our experience.”

Former UC Law SF Chancellor and Dean Frank Wu gave the closing remarks, calling attention to the black-white paradigm, the model minority myth, and the concept of the perpetual foreigner. An influential legal scholar, Wu currently serves as president of Queens College, City University of New York.

Wu spoke about the ways Asian Americans have been repeatedly written out of American history. He said, however, that AAPIs are demanding recognition. In spring 2021, for example, he attended a rally where he saw hundreds of AAPIs “standing up and speaking out, exercising their rights, fulfilling their responsibilities, saying ‘we are members of the body politic; we are not sojourners; we are here to stay.’”

Wu also mentioned that W.E.B. DuBois included AAPIs in his racial analysis; that Japanese Americans journeyed to Washington D.C. to support the civil rights movement; and that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other influential leaders wore leis, delivered by a Hawaiian clergy member, while marching in Selma. “Asian Americans and African Americans have always worked together,” he said. “It’s just not something we have seen fit to publicize.”

Poets Russell C. Leong and Julian Aguon punctuated the conference with creative work. “Nikki and Me,” the poem Aguon presented, centers on an experience of harassment, but ends on a hopeful note: “Clearest of all is what I learned that day, about what happens when we stand up for each other. We find our friends. And our way home.” His lines nodded to the conference’s dual themes: struggle and solidarity.

On a similar note, Lorraine Banai said in the first session, “While the history of Asian Americans in this country is a dark one, it is also essential to see within it the continued efforts to fight back. Asian Americans did assert their rights and continue to assert their rights.”

The conference was co-sponsored by Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly (CLQ), Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, Pilipinx American Law Society (PALS), Sikh Law Students Association (Sikh LSA), South Asian Law Student Association (SALSA), UC Law SF La Raza Law Students Association (La Raza), and Vietnamese American Law Society (VALS).

CREJ’s next event, “Canceling Critical Race Theory and the ‘Woke’ Agenda: Mapping Racist Backlash Attacks,” will be held on Oct. 7. This event, which will explore critical race theory as a mode of legal analysis, is cosponsored with the Center for Race and Gender and the Center on Race, Sexuality, and Culture at UC Berkeley Law.