Anti-Asian rhetoric has deep historical roots, professor says


Allyship is critical when it comes to addressing the recent spike of anti-Asian violence throughout the United States, a Pitt professor said the “Allyship and Advocacy: Responses to Xenophobia and Hate Crimes Targeting the Asian Community” on May 11.

Sheila Vélez Martínez, co-director of the Center for Civil Rights and Racial Justice and director of the Immigration Law Clinic at Pitt’s School of Law, discussed xenophobia, U.S. immigration policy, and the history of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. leading to the present-day spike in violence. 

The Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion hosted the event, and Katie Pope, associate vice chancellor for Civil Rights and Title IX, moderated the discussion.

Martínez said she has been an ally for the Asian-American and Pacific Islanders community for more than 20 years as an attorney for immigrants and refugees.

She said that to have a strong grasp of the issues affecting these groups, it’s necessary to understand the nature of white supremacy and the history of the systems of oppression in the U.S. And because these systems are so pervasive, they affect all of us and color our perceptions of each other.

“We all participate in one way or another in the systems of oppression. So we are racist, we are all racist,” Martínez said. “Because we all participate in these systems, we cannot extract ourselves from it. We have been taught and we have been groomed and socialized, in one way or another, to seek to participate to this proximity of whiteness, and perform in proximity of whiteness and benefit from it.”

These systems of oppression reinforce themselves, she said, which can foster anti-Asian xenophobia throughout other marginalized and oppressed groups in the U.S. People in these systems of oppression must challenge the behaviors that keep these systems going, Martínez said.

“And that means including members of the AAPI community, and their relationship to other marginalized groups, even within their own AAPI community, because there is not a monolithic Asian American or Pacific Islander personality,” she said. “There’s multiplicity there, multiplicity of identity, intersectional identities that have their own systems within those systems of oppression.”

A report from the Stop AAPI Hate nonprofit group found a nearly 150 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans throughout 2020. Asian women, in particular, have been disproportionately affected by the increase in violence.

Martínez attributed the spike in violence, in part, to racist and xenophobic rhetoric from former President Donald Trump’s administration, which frequently referred to COVID-19 as “the China virus.”

This rhetoric has deep historical roots, Martínez said, with popular discourse throughout the U.S. in the late 18th century into the 19th century referring to Chinese people as “disease vectors and perpetually foreign.”

The relationship between the U.S. and Asian immigrants has generally been one of exclusion, she said, and inclusion only in the sense of how immigrants could serve U.S. interests in the gold rush or the building of the transcontinental railroad for example.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was one of the first major pieces of federal immigration law in the U.S. This legislation and future exclusion laws restricted the flow of Asian immigrants into the U.S. and prevented Asian immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. They also helped spread xenophobic sentiments throughout the country.

But knowledge is only one part of allyship, she said. Allies must take concrete steps toward addressing injustices.

Allies and organizations can help by amplifying the concerns and voices of the AAPI community and help create safe spaces to help combat the effects of microaggressions, she added.

For example, this can be done by creating confidential email accounts or hotlines where people can report instances of xenophobia and racism

Solidarity between marginalized and oppressed groups also is necessary to help combat these issues, she said.

“For us to be able to address pandemic-era xenophobia and hate, we need cross-racial solidarity,” Martínez said. “We need all of us and we need all of us to understand the role that we play in this.”

To view the rest of the presentation, visit the Pitt Diversity YouTube page.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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