Administrator Samantha Power on the History of Anti-Asian American Violence in the United States – And Why It Matters Today

Speeches Shim

Thursday, May 5, 2022

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good afternoon, everyone.

I just want to say how moved I am that everyone has gathered for this event—an important wake up call to rising tide of Anti-Asian American violence we are witnessing in our country—and how privileged I feel to add my voice to that of our ally and a champion for Asian Americans on Capitol Hill, Representative Grace Meng as well as Erika Moritsugu who has been a vocal advocate against Asian American hate at the highest levels of our government.

I also want to thank our Chief Diversity Officer, Neneh Diallo, who together with her new office is helping drive a more thoughtful, welcoming culture through many initiatives, including the development and support of events just like this one.

And of course I want to thank our own Asian Pacific American Employee Committee—employees who have gathered us today, and who have spent at least the past two years trying to do something that is nothing short of transformative: To take the pain that they have faced and the trauma they have borne, and use their experience to make this Agency, this government, this country, better.

That is a powerful story, but not a new one.

As Anh noted, Asian American history is as old as American history, with Filipino sailors settling in California and Louisiana before the Declaration of Independence was signed. In the case of Pacific Islanders, they inhabited Hawaiʻi centuries before the so-called “New World” was ever discovered.

And through centuries, their contributions have not just enriched and strengthened America, but what it means to be an American. They are this nation’s Nobel Prize winners and Olympic Athletes, our CEOs and civil rights advocates—and lest it go without saying, our former USAID Administrators and our current Vice President.

But as Representative Meng and others have pointed out today, they made this history against a backdrop of fear, discrimination, and hate.

In a week when the role of the judiciary and its ability to suddenly pull back rights and freedoms is alive in our minds, we should recall one of the oldest well-documented instances of Anti-Asian discrimination: People v. Hall. People v. Hall was a decision handed down in 1854 by California’s State Supreme Court. It was the case of a White man, George Hall who shot and killed a Chinese immigrant named Ling Sing. The murder was not in question—in fact there was an eyewitness. But the Court ruled that his testimony was inadmissible, because he was Chinese.

The decision was short, unsparing, and vile. The Chinese people represented a “race of people whom nature has marked as inferior,” and so were prohibited, along with “all other people not White” in being witnesses against White people.

The right deprived from some of our earliest Asian American pioneers was not the right to vote or the right to assemble, but something far more fundamental: the right to bear witness. To speak truth. To use their voice to hold people accountable and prevent further transgressions.

Still the court was not done. Not only did it restrict this right, it prohibited the “privilege of participating with us in administering the affairs of our Government.” It remained state law for 20 years before it was invalidated.

Obviously, much has changed in those intervening 160 years. Yet even today, we can feel the echoes of the Anti-Asian American sentiment present in that decision, with many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders still feeling under attack and that their truth is being denied.

I witnessed as a private citizen, as we all did, how officials operating the levers of power in this country embraced language during the COVID-19 pandemic to demean and insult Asian Americans. I saw how this xenophobic language was picked up on various media platforms and quickly coincided with a dramatic spike in horrifying acts of violence—not just in isolated incidents but in a statistical surge of the kind Paloma cited earlier. And I heard how people, including many in our foreign policy establishment and at this Agency, used careless language that conflated the actions of the PRC government—actions we should rightfully condemn and resist—with Chinese people and people of Asian descent.

I want to say, clearly, to our colleagues: I am so sorry for all that you’ve had to endure these past two years. To face not only the disruption and devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the insult of rhetoric that surrounded it and the fear of the targeted violence that arose out of it—I can only imagine how searing it must be.

Anti-Asian Hate and hate directed toward Pacific Island Americans has no place in our society, let alone in our workplace.

President Biden was clear last year in directing all Federal Agencies to abandon any language that might exhibit or contribute to racism, xenophobia, or intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and I am committed to enshrining that guidance in the policy documents that guide our work.

Words matter, but institutional change matters just as much if not more, and so we have to take steps that will outlast our service to this Agency to make it the inclusive place we know it to be.

And that is not a point I have to assert—it’s a point I have to thank our AAPI colleagues for making, not just through their words but through their actions. It was members of our Asian Pacific American Employee Committee, together with allies in our Policy Bureau, who led the charge on crafting a statement about countering anti-Asian American and anti-Pacific Island American rhetoric that has since become a model for other agencies throughout the federal government. It is they who have channeled their pain and frustration into efforts to raise awareness and inspire change.

It should not be their burden alone to make USAID a more inclusive place—but I can say it is a privilege to work alongside them in administering the affairs of a government that belongs to them as much as it belongs to any of us.

Steps like these can stop history from repeating, break cycles of hate, and, if not change the world, change the individual worlds of so many people touched by this Agency.

Once again, I want to thank all of you so much for creating the space for this event and for letting me speak.

Thank you so much.

Last updated: May 05, 2022

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