From Criminalizing China to Criminalizing the Chinese

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Leo Yu, Assistant Clinical Professor of Legal Writing, Research and Advocacy, Southern Methodist University, Dedman School of Law.

Many scholars have studied the racialization of Asian Americans and found that perpetual foreignness stands at the core of their ascriptive identity. This identity was formed in the 19th century and is also closely related to the dominant society’s racial understanding of ‘the Chinese’—which refers, for the purposes of this Article, to people of actual or perceived Chinese descent in the United States. This Article investigates this racialization process, with a contemporary lens: What does perpetual foreignness mean to the Chinese in the 21st century? This Article argues that, for the Chinese, their foreignness in today’s United States means more than just otherness, inferiority, and inassimilability; instead, the Chinese foreignness has acquired an additional specific meaning: the unquestionable linkage to China, the United States’ most significant geopolitical challenger. This Article uses the U.S. Department of Justice’s failed China Initiative to investigate this new ascriptive identity of the Chinese and argues that the geopolitical tension between China and the United States plays a vital role in this change. As the United States’ most significant challenger in geopolitics, China has taken a central role in the racial understanding of the Chinese in the 21st century. To many non-Chinese Americans, the Chinese are more than just foreigners who are culturally associated with a far away, inferior oriental country as they were perceived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, they are a suspect race who possess an unbreakable linkage to China, the dangerous perpetrator in geopolitics. In short, today, the Chinese are not just foreign; they are foreign perpetrators. This new ascriptive identity of the Chinese resonates with the differential racialization tenet of the Critical Race Theory that the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times in response to shifting needs and interests. How the United States views China has a direct impact on how Americans views the Chinese. Since China will likely remain the United States’ geopolitical challenger, this Article predicts that the foreign perpetrator identity will be attached to the Chinese community in the foreseeable future.