We are learning again that hate is not always Black and white.

For whatever reason, when we speak of hate crimes in this country, the most common examples are of white men and women (though let’s be honest, they are usually men) carrying out egregious acts on Black victims. Our nation’s sad legacy of slavery is ever with us. As the great Southern novelist William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In fact, our hatred of “the other” is alive and well and perpetrated against many groups. Ask Jews and Latinos and transgendered people — even people with the temerity to love whom they love regardless of gender.

Few people have known hatred in America any longer or more painfully than people of Asian descent. Barely paid Chinese laborers helped fuel California’s growth through the Gold Rush. Though they made up only .002 percent of the population at the time, Congress sought to curtail Chinese immigration in 1882 through the Chinese Exclusion Act. Fast-forward to World War II, when people of Japanese ancestry — including many Coastsiders — were imprisoned because their appearance made them suspect. Immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have been accepted only grudgingly in the wake of American military intervention in those countries.

Today, some Americans have a host of vague complaints about China that give cover to a familiar racism: They put this virus upon us, or they are stealing our technology, or they are taking seats in our prestigious colleges. Today, some of us are more interested in protecting the memory of Dr. Seuss, who during World War II perpetuated the worst stereotypes of Asian people, than we are in protecting the people he degraded.

Last week, a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, six of them Asian women. Whether that will be categorized as a hate crime might be a matter of legal definition, but ultimately our response to the crime defines us as Americans. We can argue about the nature of hate, or we can accept it and begin to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions about the kinds of work available to immigrant women, the way the West hypersexualizes Asian women, and just why it is that all types of crimes against Asian Americans have exploded in the last year.

Whatever the legal definition, we know hate when we see it. If we are to meet the promise of America, we must promise to do better.

— Clay Lambert

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