By Anne Hendershott
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).
While a growing number of media outlets are attempting to indict “white supremacists” for the dramatic increase in reported hate crimes against people of Asian descent, the reality is that for more than four decades Asian Americans in some of our largest cities have been the victims of violence and discrimination perpetrated by members of several racial and ethnic groups. And, although there has indeed been an uptick during the past year of hateful rhetoric and violent assaults against Asian Americans throughout the nation, which can likely be attributed to irrationally blaming them for the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the truth is that there has been an ugly history of violence and discrimination directed toward Asian Americans throughout much of our nation’s history.
To be sure, it was white nativism that drove the passage of the infamous 19th-century Chinese Exclusion Act—the xenophobic law that barred immigration solely based on race. And it was fear of possible Japanese-Americans’ complicity in the war, coupled with toxic envy over Japanese-American economic success in the United States, that led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to order the internment of Japanese Americans in detention camps in 1942.
Since the end of World War II, much of the hateful rhetoric and violence directed toward the Asian American community has emerged from those who have viewed their Asian American neighbors as competitors in a zero-sum game. Sadly, it became a competition that Asian Americans appeared to be winning. In the 1960s, the term “model minority” was adopted by the media to describe the admirable Asian American success. Unfortunately, the term was unfairly used against African Americans. As a recent article in The Guardian points out, “the model-minority discourse extols the virtues of Asian-Americans in stark contrast to the culture of poverty attributed to African-Americans. This racial wedge may be more relevant today with the sharpening of identity politics.”
Stereotyping Asian Americans as the “good minority” has contributed to growing resentment among members of other ethnic and racial groups who may not have achieved the level of economic success and educational attainment that Asian Americans have. With advantages like stable family life, a commitment to education, a strong work ethic, and an army of “tiger moms” dedicated to motivating their children, Asian Americans have achieved greater economic success than all other racial and ethnic groups. U.S. Census data revealed that, in 2019, Asian-American households had a median income of $98,174—more than double that of Black households, with a median income of $45,438, and significantly higher than non-Hispanic whites who have a median income of $76,057.
Such success has caused a form of toxic envy and resentment that has been creating divisions for decades. As my latest book The Politics of Envy (Crisis publications) points out, similar patterns of envious rage and frustration against Asian Americans were evident in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Korean-owned businesses were targeted for vandalism and destruction through arson during the riots that followed the Rodney King beating by white police officers. More than 1,700 Korean businesses were destroyed because the African American community in South Central opposed the widespread Korean ownership and control of real estate across South Central Los Angeles. African American and Latino rioters believed that they did not have the same entrepreneurial opportunities.
In the year leading up to the riots, rapper Ice Cube released an album, Death Certificate, that predicted “revolution” was inevitable. With releases like “Bird in the Hand” and “Black Korea,” Ice Cube spoke directly to the rage and frustration emerging from the envy that permeated the culture of the South Central Los Angeles community in the 1980s and ’90s. Many sociologists believe that this led directly to the riots. The hateful tension between African American youth and Korean storeowners is clear in the lyrics: “So pay respect to the black fist. Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp. And then we’ll see ya. ‘Cause can’t turn the ghetto into Black Korea.”
In the aftermath of the 1992 riots, some blamed the Korean storeowners themselves for causing African Americans in the neighborhood to envy them. An article in the Joong Ang Daily (reprinted in the Los Angeles Times) warned: “The Korean community in the United States should also take a closer look at its lifestyle and engage in self-reflection…. If we accumulate wealth, we must be prepared to share that wealth with other members of the community.”
Sociological theory on relative deprivation points out that “sharing the wealth” would not have diminished the envy of their neighbors nor inoculated the Asian community from the hostility that emerged from the adjacent Latino or African American population. Relative deprivation—and envy—emerges in all social classes when you begin to believe you are worse off than the people you compare yourself with.
This became clear most recently when Alexi McCammond, the recipient of the elite National Association of Black Journalists’ “Emerging Journalist of the Year in 2019” was forced to resign as the new editor in chief of Teen Vogue after her anti-Asian tweets were revealed. In one of her tweets, McCammond complained about a “stupid Asian” teaching assistant in her class. And in another, she complained about “being outdone” by an Asian student. Envy is a sin that cuts across all social classes—even among elites like Alexi McCammond.
Although the number of bias-related crimes against Asian Americans remains low, the current increase is alarming. New York City has had the largest increase in reported hate crimes against Asians last year, with 28 such incidents in 2020—up from three in 2019. Likewise, Boston saw a doubling of its reported hate crimes against Asian Americans in 2020, going from six to 14; and Cleveland, going from two to six reported hate crimes against Asian Americans. In order to address this problem of hate crimes against Asian Americans, we need reliable data on the race and ethnicity of the perpetrators. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the California State University of San Bernardino has an extensive database, but they have not yet published any information on offender demographics; neither has Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate (AAPI)—a group that claims that there have been 3,800 instances of hate crimes against Asian Americans this past year.
The narrative of the “white supremacist” perpetrator of violence against Asian Americans has gained ground in the aftermath of the murder of several Asian American female employees of Atlanta, Georgia, massage parlors. President Biden is promising to meet with the AAPI to discuss the event as a “hate crime,” even though there is no real evidence that race or ethnicity was a factor in the murders. The young white male perpetrator claimed that he was a “sex addict” who wanted to eradicate the temptation. We may never know his true motivation. But in order to stop the violence against Asian Americans, we need to truly understand the role that envious resentment plays in such violence.
Faithful Catholics understand the sin of envy better than others because we have been taught from our earliest days as Catholics of the ways in which the evil of envy has operated in the world. Those without faith are blind to the dangers of this toxic emotion.
In Anthony Esolen’s translation of Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio, the envious penitents were punished by having to wear penitential gray cloaks. Their eyes were sewn shut with iron wire because the truly envious are blind to the goodness, truth, and beauty around them. Dante warned that the envious are blind to reason and love, spending their days tormented by resentment toward those who possess that which they covet. It is enforced blindness so that the once envious souls can no longer look at others with envy and hatred. Those who envy do not even realize they are envious. They are blind to this emotion.
But Catholics have the advantage of Scripture and the long list of Church Fathers from Augustine and Aquinas to Gregory and beyond who warn us about envy. Envy is proscribed in the Ten Commandments as a warning against covetousness. We know from the book of Wisdom that it is “through the devil’s envy that death entered the world.” We know the story of Eve’s envious desire to have the wisdom of God, and we know the price that was paid from Cain’s envy of his brother’s more pleasing sacrifices to God. And, most importantly, we know the deadly costs of envy in our own lives—and we try to avoid those costs by rejecting emotions of envy.