This essay was adapted from a sermon preached at University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, on May 2, 2021. It was originally published for Sojourners.
I grew up in the decades after the United States fought in three wars in three subsequent decades with three Asian countries: Japan, Korea, and then Vietnam. Seared on the American conscience was the belief that Asians represented a “yellow peril,” cementing a century-old feeling that we weren’t, no matter how long we lived here or how much we loved this country, “real Americans”; we were perpetually foreigners. Therefore, what happens to us in the United States of America matters less.
Perhaps this can provide some historical context for the spike in anti-Asian American racism that was encouraged by former President Donald Trump when he repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “the China virus” or “kung flu.” Comments like these were a prelude to the Atlanta spa shootings where a man shot and killed six women of Asian descent. A few weeks later, a former employee killed four South Asians at an Indianapolis FedEx center. Anti-Asian crime is on the rise throughout the country. Just in Orange County, Calif., anti-Asian hate incidents are up by 1,200 percent.
The perpetrators follow patterns of xenophobia that have gone on for over 150 years. Workers from China, Japan, Southeast Asia, and the Asian subcontinent have been coming to the Americas since the 19th century. Like many Europeans, they came here as contract workers as the early U.S. economy experimented with indentured servants and slave laborers. The United States used these laborers when it suited their purposes and scapegoated them when it didn’t. None of this excuses the recent spike in anti-Asian violence, but it does contextualize it. It has been brutish, cruel, and awful. But like much that is evil, it has not been particularly original.
Yet it is hard for U.S. citizens to see the spike in anti-Asian American violence for what it is. Most people simply don’t believe Asian Americans suffer racism.
There are numerous reasons for this, but one is that we barely have enough bandwidth to begin facing up to what this country has done to African Americans. We haven’t even scratched the surface on what we did to the Indigenous peoples who lived here long before European Christians spread death and disease across the Americas.
These are hard histories and painful stories, but if we want to be honest about ourselves, we have to acknowledge how we got here.
For most people, this feels like simply too much to ask. As Heather McGhee writes in The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs All of Us and How We Can Prosper Together, centuries of racism have cemented a racialized, white mindset that granting anything to Black people necessarily takes something away from white people. McGhee demonstrates how white people would rather keep basic social services from white people just to make sure Black people don’t get them. McGhee argues that this zero-sum thinking certainly hurts Black people, but it also hurts white people, and, just in terms of aggregate numbers, hurts white people more. Wendell Berry refered to the conjoined reality of U.S. anti-Black racism and the white denial of its existence as “the hidden wound” every white person now bears.
If we ignore the harms we’ve done to Black people and Indigenous people, what hope do we have to come to terms with anti-Asian American violence? Many white Americans would prefer to think of Asian Americans as model minorities since it comes with the suggestion that at least some racial minorities can achieve the “American Dream.” But sweeping the history of anti-Asian American racism under the rug just follows the general pattern of sweeping everything under the rug to make for a tidy-looking house.
Those of us who want to address the United States’ racist past and present face another problem. We find ourselves worrying that paying attention to Asian American lives distracts from African American lives — that the former mattering will take away from the latter mattering. It has taken centuries to get people to admit, at least in words, that Black lives matter to all in this country. We still have a long way to go before we come to terms with the structural and systemic effects of what Saidiya Hartman calls the afterlives of chattel slavery. Can we afford to give any attention to other oppressed groups?
But notice how this thinking proves McGhee’s point: We find ourselves stuck in zero-sum ways of thinking — as if the only way we can think about racial groups is to think about them in competitive terms.
The question is: How do we broaden our bandwidth for advocating with our African American brothers and sisters while also bringing into view what is happening to Asian Americans in this moment? How does this moment continue the entire history of anti-Asian American racism? How can we expose the ways “racial capitalism” has sought to turn “non-white” races against each other? We should ask similar questions not only about Indigenous peoples but also Latinx communities, including those children currently detained on the Southern border. How are all of these stories connected?
We can bring these things collectively into view if we imagine the histories of different racial communities as a larger, single-story of the United States. And then we must understand that narrative of the United States as just a small part of a cosmic story — or the story Christians call “the divine economy.”
The story of the United States is a story of a people working their way toward “goodness” while stuck in the deadly catastrophes of their sinful condition. Committed to goodness while disconnected from God, we unleash onto the world endless destruction, crushing others under the weight of our pretensions and their many justifications.
The gospel story Christians call the divine economy begins with the fact that sin runs deep, through every connection holding creation together. Social scientists refer to these connections as “structures and systems.”
Structures and systems are those relationships between persons and families, communities, and institutions that exist in time and space. But the larger cosmic story doesn’t end there, for as deep as sin runs, God runs deeper. As the Psalm says, “Even if I make my home in Sheol, there you are” (Psalm 139:8). God’s justice and mercy, which are nothing less than God in Christ translated into the context of sin, repair creation, structures, and systems through God’s Spirit.
As an Asian American, one way I participate in the U.S. story is as a victim of this historical violence. I am also a war refugee, and part of that story includes growing up at a time when racism against people like me was accepted and expected. I also participate in the story of anti-Blackness by forms of anti-Black racism that Asian Americans sometimes perpetuate on the way to becoming “real Americans.” And finally, I participate in the larger story of the United States by participating, often passively and sometimes actively, in being a people drawn toward “goodness” while making a mess of things on the way there.
I participate in these stories because I am no less a citizen of this country than any other U.S. citizen who has been blessed by this country and has suffered its disastrous pretensions. To participate and honor this story is to acknowledge and tell its history as honestly and accurately as I can.
Thankfully, I participate not only in the story of the United States but also in the cosmic story of God’s saving economy. In God’s infinite grace, God pulls humans into the cosmic story of justice and mercy while simultaneously making this story ultimately and entirely about God. God’s story, unlike the story of this country’s racism, is non-competitive and non-binary. God comes into view as humanity comes into view, and vice versa. Justice and mercy are natural to our world because justice and mercy are natural to God. To participate with God and God’s divine economy then is to tell that story and to live lives of justice and mercy.