History Repeats Itself in San Francisco: Asian Americans Are Targeted Once More For Abuse

The rumor took hold and spread: the Chinese were to blame for the disease threatening San Francisco. Pressure mounted for steps to be taken to isolate the Chinese of the city from those of Western European descent. Threats against Asian Americans multiplied as suspicion turned to blame and blame turned to hate.

The year was 1900. A lethal strain of bubonic plague now thought to have originated from an American-Australian ship bound from Hawaii to the port of San Francisco claimed as its first victim a Chinese-American shopowner. 

A lily vendor
A lily vendor in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1896 (Photo by Arnold Genthe/Picryl.com)

The single fatality prompted a quarantine of Chinatown with all those of Chinese or Asian descent forbidden under penalty of law from leaving or entering. (Whites were allowed to travel freely in and out of the community.) As in our time, officials charged with preserving domestic tranquility too often only stoked the flames of division. San Francisco mayor, James D. Phelan, pushed to segregate Asian Americans from whites, proclaiming that they were unclean, filthy, and “a constant menace to the public health.” Adding to the disinformation campaign was the notion, promoted by “certain American experts,” that the Asian rice-based diet provided less resistance to the plague than the traditional European meat-based diet.

History, unfortunately, repeats itself. Preliminary data from the San Francisco Police Department shows an extraordinary 567 percent increase in hate crimes perpetrated against Asian Americans in the past year. While hate crimes overall increased in the city, the surge of criminal incidents against Asian Americans far eclipses the next highest rates—antisemitic incidents (60 percent increase), anti-LGBTQ+ incidents (50 percent increase) and anti-Black (27 percent increase).

The 2013 Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown

That the alarming spike in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans coincided with the spread of the pandemic and the execrable nicknames spread by officials and influencers is beyond question. The cost of bigotry-inspired violence in dollars and cents cannot be quantified, but the increased burden on law enforcement and prevention can. Both San Francisco’s mayor and its police chief have pledged more protection, more officers on duty, more stringent law enforcement against those who would put Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in their crosshairs.

It may not be enough. Last month, an elderly Asian American who was beaten by a baseball bat and terrorized by two men filed a lawsuit against the San Francisco District Attorney claiming that the suspects, who were initially facing felony charges, were allowed to get off on a much-reduced misdemeanor battery thanks to the DA’s office.

Until Asian-American rights are accorded the same respect and defended as vigorously as those of the majority, all of us both in and beyond the boundaries of San Francisco are at risk.

John Evans
John Evans has written for theater and the big screen. His essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in several publications on the East and West Coasts.