Among the many appalling consequences of covid-19 has been an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Verbal harassment has been common, but acts of violence are on the upswing as well. In Texas, a man allegedly tried to kill an Asian family in a grocery store (which included stabbing a 2-year-old child.)
Although the increasing harassment has been widely condemned, some voices have also suggested that the virus represents an opportunity for Asian Americans to prove themselves as good and patriotic Americans, and thus help eradicate such racial animosity. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang recently argued in The Washington Post that Asian Americans “need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before . . . We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.” History, however, suggests that such an effort is not only unlikely to succeed but runs the risk of generating a backlash that might exacerbate violence.
Almost exactly a century ago, African Americans faced similar calls to prove themselves in the midst of a war, a pandemic and an economic recession. The black community was not blamed for starting World War I in the way that Asian Americans have been blamed for the coronavirus. They were, however, disproportionately singled out as potential traitors, since their standing as second-class citizens allegedly made them particularly susceptible to offers to betray their country.
This suspicion exposed African Americans to intense scrutiny and hostility. Government officials warned the black press against any sign of disloyalty, and editors came under suspicion and harassment. The editor of the San Antonio Inquirer was sentenced to two years in prison for publishing an article supporting a group of African American soldiers on trial for their part in a race riot.
Black citizens faced worse treatment at the hands of suspicious white neighbors. When a troublemaking student in a local black school falsely claimed that his teachers were encouraging disloyalty, the white community in Lake Village, Ark., formed a “home guard” of vigilantes to put down the nonexistent threat of a revolt. The result was terrifying for the black community. In the words of one vigilante, through their “prompt and vigorous manner” Lake Village’s white citizens made clear to the black community “that at all times they will be kept under strict surveillance” and “the first one that fails to obey the injunction of the president . . . will be dealt with accordingly.” The vigilante quoted was the town’s deputy prosecuting attorney.
In response to such threats, African Americans embraced the war as an opportunity to prove their American-ness. “The colored man,” wrote the principal of the African American Hampton Institute in 1917, “is going to secure recognition not by demanding his rights, but by deserving them . . . We are all Americans together and must stand shoulder to shoulder in this crisis.” The same week, 350 African Americans in Hartsville, Tenn., met in their segregated school to swear an oath pledging “our loyalty to the Stars and Stripes, the government under which we live, to our president and our governor, that we stand ready now to play our part in any way that the honor, dignity, integrity of this nation of ours might be defended.”
African American actions matched their rhetoric. Many rushed to fight in the war, even though, at first, there was little room for them in the segregated military. The exigencies of the war, however, soon forced a revision of such policies. In the end, more than 2 million registered for the draft and more than 360,000 served, with 42,000 seeing combat. Most served in labor units but two segregated combat divisions fought in France, generally performing with honor and distinction. The 369th infantry regiment spent more time on the front lines than any other American unit, and 171 of its members received the Croix de Guerre medal from the French government.
Although African Americans fought for numerous reasons, the war’s promise as an opportunity to earn their rightful status at home was a critical part. One soldier enlisted despite being too old to be drafted, and was soon sent to fight overseas. “Now is our opportunity to prove what we can do,” he explained. “If we can do things on the front, if we make ourselves felt . . . then I am sure it will be the biggest possible step toward our equalization as citizens.”
These hopes soon proved misguided. If anything, such beliefs actually made the racial climate back home even worse. Racists resented this assertion of “Americanness,” and worried that those returning from the front lines might demand an end to the traditional social order as a reward for their sacrifices. “If Negroes of the present generation could be taught the limitations of race and the condition of servitude as their forebears knew and recognized,” lamented the Little Rock Daily News in 1918, “there need never be ill-feelings between the races.” This sentiment prompted efforts to remind African Americans of their subordinate place.
When a black soldier in Kansas was ejected from a movie theater because of his race, his commanding officer acknowledged that the soldier was “strictly within his legal rights” but still faulted him for being “guilty of the greater wrong in doing anything, no matter how legally correct, that will provoke race animosity.” Black soldiers should not demand their rights as full citizens, he warned.
Civilians, too, suffered under America’s racial hierarchy. More than 100 African Americans were slaughtered by white residents of East St. Louis in 1917 in a stunning explosion of racial hostility. Yet, a local postal worker was frustrated because more didn’t die. He fumed, “The only trouble with the mob was it didn’t get [African Americans] enough . . . You wait and see what we do to the rest when the soldiers go. We’ll get every last one of them.”
Racial violence continued to increase during and immediately after the war years. Lynchings grew from 64 in 1918 to 83 in 1919, and violence against African American veterans, even some still in their uniforms, became a regular occurrence. Soon, NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson would dub 1919 the year of “red summer,” because of the blood shed by African Americans.
Although numerous factors contributed to this explosion of racial violence, the assertion of African American rights as rooted in their wartime service lay at its heart. More violence “may be expected in the future as more of the Negro soldiery return to civil life,” explained one newspaper, in an editorial titled “Nip it in the Bud.” Their wartime service had likely “given these men more exalted ideas of their station in life than really exists.” That perception would fuel acts of “self-assertion, arrogance, and insolence” which would be met by consequences “more or less painful” to them. The editorial asserted “This is the right time to show them what will and what will not be permitted, and thus save them much trouble in future.”
The hatred being spewed at Asian Americans today hasn’t reached the scale of that which terrorized African Americans a century ago. Nevertheless, the story of the African Americans and WWI offers a stark reminder that espousing patriotism in a time of crisis is not only an unlikely path to full citizenship but also risks sparking a painful backlash that increases racist violence rather than ameliorating it. The reality of American society, then and now, is that the responsibility for shattering racial hierarchies falls not on those at the bottom of that hierarchy but on those at the top.
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Lerner is associate professor of history and director of the Institute for Korean Studies at the Ohio State University. He is also associate editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations.