Spree of Anti-Asian Violence Has Long Roots — Including Terror in 1990s Philly

In response to thousands of reported bias incidents, the call and budding movement to #StopAsianHate has fostered an unprecedented wave of Asian American solidarity that has quickly spread nationwide following the Atlanta-area shootings. This has been heavily driven by a collective sense of fear and outrage that anyone in the community might be the next target. Videos of Asian elders being attacked and — in extreme cases — killed by much younger men have gone viral, but so has the video of American-born Koreans accosted by a middle-aged socialite and daughter of former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

This seemingly random quality of anti-Asian violence draws Asian Americans from diverse backgrounds together through a process that scholar Yen Le Espiritu has termed “reactive solidarity.”

One of the most oft-cited accounts of anti-Asian violence occurred near Detroit in 1982. Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, died after being beaten on the head with a baseball bat by a white man who witnesses said complained that Japanese competition was causing layoffs of American autoworkers.

Tragically, Chin’s murder is only one of many examples of Asian Americans being targeted by assailants who can’t tell us apart. In 1989, another Chinese American, Jim Ming Hai Loo, died after an attack by two white brothers who were heard railing about the Vietnam War. In 1996, Thien Minh Ly, a Vietnamese American, was stabbed to death by a neo-Nazi who proclaimed he had “killed a Jap.” Three years later, Joseph Ileto, a Filipino American postal worker, was shot and killed while delivering on his USPS postal route by a white supremacist who wanted him dead for being a Latino or Asian federal government employee. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, was killed by a white man seeking to “shoot some towel-heads.”

Certainly, the calls for unity that emerged in the wake of these attacks — as well as after the recent Atlanta-area murders — are important. However, it is also necessary to recognize the patterns of violence and social forces that render some members of the Asian American community far more vulnerable than others.

As we have seen with the Atlanta-area murders, the majority of the victims were Asian women, whom the shooter blamed for being sources of “temptation” whom he sought to “eliminate.” His words and actions were, in part, a product of the othering of Asian women by imperialism, heteropatriarchy, low-wage labor, and evangelical “purity culture.” Drawn from a Black feminist critique of how oppression operates on multiple scales, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of “intersectional vulnerabilities” can foster a broader understanding of systemic white supremacy, while opening our eyes to mutual interests for cross-racial solidarity. As Crenshaw wrote with the African American Policy Forum, “An intersectional frame allows us to surface Asian massage workers’ distinct vulnerability to violence and exploitation from non-state perpetrators as well as their criminalization at the hands of repressive laws and policing.”

To situate discussions of anti-Asian violence in proper historical and structural context, we need to recover the overlooked histories that are generally known (outside of their immediate time and place) only within small niches of Asian American scholars and activists. One such account took place in Southwest Philadelphia, when I began my graduate student research in Asian American Studies three decades ago after finishing college at the University of Pennsylvania. This story cuts against the concept of the “perfect victim” caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 1992, a group of white men boastfully reported of a crusade to beat up people they hatefully referred to as the “slant-eyes” in Southwest Philadelphia. They were targeting a Southeast Asian refugee community that had resettled into a city structured by redlining, anti-Blackness, biased policing, capital flight, and segregation by race and class. One of the white men described to a Philadelphia Magazine reporter in October 1992 how he and 14 others dragged Asian Americans at will off of local streetcars. “We’d kick the shit out of them,” he declared. “Really hurt them bad. When I felt the tire iron smashing his head, it really felt good.”

Those vigilantes saw themselves as shock troops in a neighborhood race war with an Asian community many simply referred to as “gooks.”

They saw themselves as delivering a collective punishment to the Asian community to avenge the death of 18-year-old David Reilly, a white youth killed in Southwest Philadelphia’s McCreesh Playground on August 4, 1991.

“I got one for David,” proclaimed the white man wielding the tire iron, in his interview with Philadelphia Magazine. “When I went to David’s funeral, I felt great. I thought I’d done something good.”

After Reilly’s death, local corporate media wasted no time concluding it was a “racially motivated” incident. Headlines portrayed it as a “gang slay” in a “white-Asian feud.”

The immediate framing of a so-called white-Asian feud marginalized the voices of Asian Americans and effaced a complex history. Dissecting the construction of this “feud” necessitates tracing back how white and Asian populations would up in the overlapping spaces of the neighborhood.

Tracing the Roots of Racial Segregation and White Supremacist Violence

The roots of white supremacist violence and vigilantism run deep in the City of Brotherly Love. As the co-authors of the book Philadelphia: Neighborhoods, Division, and Conflict in a Postindustrial City wrote, fraternal bonds of whiteness constructed “ghettoes of opportunity” surrounding bustling factories during the industrial era from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Meanwhile, most African Americans were left to fend for survival in “ghettoes of last resort.” The city’s Southwest side developed in the early 20th century as a streetcar suburb populated mainly by Irish and Italian Americans.

By the 1970s, however, automation and outsourcing caused multiple factories in the city’s Southwest to close, move or downsize. As Black areas of settlement expanded outward from the inner city, jobs and many white residents fled to the suburbs. Feeling left behind, some Philadelphia whites accustomed to segregation as the natural order grew resentful and violent. In 1979, two white men “looking for a [n-word] to shoot” climbed onto a factory roof and killed 13-year-old Tracey Chambers, the first African American who passed by. Some violent exchanges ensued between white and Black youths. In 1985, a mob of 400 whites demanded that a Black family vacate their home on a previously all-white block. The following month, arsonists burned it to the ground.

Refugees displaced by the Vietnam War, which also spread to Cambodia and Laos, were initially resettled in more impoverished, majority-Black sections of the city. As researcher Ellen Somekawa documented, slumlords had contracted with resettlement agencies to fill their vacant and deteriorating complexes with refugees given little to no choice in the matter. Redlining, troubled public schools and trickle-down economics led to Black and Asian residents being pitted against each other in a fight for scarce resources and neighborhood turf.

Many of these working-class Asians saw moving to the Southwest side as a relative step up. In the 1980s, the neighborhood’s core remained nearly all white. But the unwritten rule prohibiting sales to Black buyers accelerated the fall of housing prices. Seeing a new escape hatch, dozens of white families began selling unlisted homes to Southeast Asian refugees for $15,000 to $20,000, circumventing fair housing policies. Shocked by the rapid turnover, some whites began harassing and intimidating their new neighbors. When reporters surveyed white men and boys in the area in the early 1990s, they found many who proudly declared they were skinheads, neo-Nazis and members of white power gangs.

A Teenager Killed and a Community Under Siege

Such was the context for the events leading up to David Reilly’s untimely death. His friend said that an altercation began after two white men yelled, “Hey, there’s a couple gooks in the park.” They went to confront what was actually a group of Asians, who had been minding their own business. A prosecution witness said one of the pair threatened that his pit bull would bite them. The other warned he was carrying a loaded gun. Some of the Asians responded by leaving the park to retrieve kitchen knives.

Based on statements by Reilly’s friends, news outlets reported that he was caught in the fighting while attempting to act as a peacemaker. An autopsy concluded he died from multiple stab wounds. Before a murder weapon was determined, however, reporters repeatedly and sensationally wrote that he had been “hacked to death with a meat cleaver.” Although Reilly was justifiably the focus of the immediate tragedy, it soon became apparent that he and others were casualties of much broader social problems.

While Reilly’s parents disowned calls for violent retaliation, local reporters readily documented extreme racial tension in the days surrounding his death, starting with an aggressive grouping of white men and boys who did not hesitate to share their beliefs that Asians were an alien presence.

“This is our neighborhood,” said a white teenager, according to an article published on August 10, 1991, in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We were here first. We’re Americans.”

With “Vietnam” synonymous with war in the minds of the average American, one of his peers viewed this turf war as global in scope. “They go to war with us,” he argued, “and then they try to move into America.”

“They should be in gook town,” added another, as reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Linked with physical threats or attacks, such sentiments put terror in the hearts of Asians in the neighborhood.

“They’ve called me chink, gook,” said a 14-year-old Vietnamese American, who felt trapped in his house. “My mom’s scared. She wants to move.”

“We were afraid this kind of thing would happen sooner or later,” another Asian youth stated, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article published on August 7, 1991, “but we thought it would probably be one of us killed.”

When community organizers from the group Asian Americans United (AAU) investigated, Southeast Asian residents explained that they had been under siege during months of relentless racist harassment and assaults. Some believed the Asian youths accused of killing Reilly were likely acting in self-defense. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article published on August 4, 1991, police acknowledged a pattern of “ethnic clashes,” noting that two Asians had been shot several months prior to Reilly’s death. But the actions of the police in response to Reilly’s death exhibited a pattern of racist profiling and disparate treatment.

In the early morning hours immediately following Reilly’s death, restaurant worker Ty Truong was driving home from a movie theater in the suburbs. When he peeked out of his car to see what the commotion was, whites angered at Reilly’s death falsely named Truong as the killer. As the police arrested him, the crowd chanted, “Gook, get the gook,” according to an August 5, 1991, article in the Philadelphia Daily News. On the basis of nothing more than such dubious witness testimony, Truong was jailed for two months. He was only released as six other Southeast Asian refugees aged 19 to 21 were arrested in his place.

Deborah Wei, a founder of AAU, had taught five of the defendants in her English-as-a-second-language classes. These were “good kids” in her eyes. But there was no place for a “model minority” image of young Asian men when they were put on trial for an alleged gang slaying. The stereotype of faceless Viet Cong aggressors mercilessly killing Americans lurked just beneath the surface.

Police and prosecutors never determined who stabbed Reilly — only that it must have been one or more of the Asians. That didn’t matter, the prosecutor told the jury, because all were guilty of conspiracy to murder. Six defendants tried together were indeed convicted of conspiracy. Three of the six were also convicted of third-degree murder. Two received seven- to 20-year sentences, and the third was sentenced to 12 to 30 years imprisonment.

How does the McCreesh Playground case challenge our understanding of anti-Asian violence?

The most repeated stories of anti-Asian violence tend to highlight the innocence of the victims. The McCreesh Playground incident, on the other hand, challenges us to scrutinize a process of structural racism and criminalization that ended with the conviction of working-class refugees cast as “gang” members.

The campaign to build awareness to #StopAsianHate must eschew the quest for “model minority” victimhood. Some Asian Americans are stuck in situations where every choice is bad and where authority figures have exacerbated problems rather than aiding solutions. Sometimes, the best that community organizers like those in AAU can do is shine a light on the worst abuses and mitigate the worst harm.

Still, what these grassroots organizers strive to do is uplift marginalized voices and concerns in order to get at the root causes of oppression. Their commitment to confronting anti-Asian racism and violence has thus led them to struggle against gentrification and police brutality and for the rights of immigrants, youth, workers and small business owners. In so doing, they have fostered new bases for multiracial coalitions and alliances.