Reckoning with Asian America

Jennifer Lee

Jennifer Lee,  PhD
Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Social Sciences
https://sociology.columbia.edu/content/jennifer-lee

It took the mass murder of six Asian women in Atlanta on March 16 to draw national attention to what Asian Americans have been warning about since the wake of Covid-19: a surge in anti-Asian violence and hate. Since the onset of the coronavirus, 1 in 8 Asian American adults experienced a hate incident, and 1 in 7 Asian American women worry all the time about being victimized, revealing scars born from a legacy of anti-Asian violence, bigotry, and misogyny that date back more than 150 years. This under-recognized history continues to haunt the present, yet is overlooked in favor of the reigning narrative that Asian American suffer from a new form a discrimination—as victims of affirmative action. In Reckoning with Asian America, I meet the moment and situate the rise in anti-Asian violence amidst the new culture war on affirmative action. The central question that motivates this project is how can Asian Americans simultaneously occupy polar status positions as morally depraved vectors of disease on the one hand and as morally deserving, hyper-competent minorities on the other? Spanning disciplinary boundaries, I approach this question in two parts. First, I focus on the role of science and medicine in linking ethnicity and gender to disease in order to justify the legal exclusion of Chinese women with the 1875 Page Act. Second, I turn to the change in U.S. immigration law in 1965 that legally engineered a new wave of highly educated, highly skilled Asian immigrants, thereby leading to the racial mobility of Asians in the American imagination. By linking the past to the present, I show how U.S. law, science, and medicine do more than reflect social constructions of race, merit, moral deservingness; they also produce and reproduce them.