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Racism, Sexism Must be Considered in Atlanta Case, Experts Say

The beliefs have been shaped by legal code, America's history of imperialism and the prevailing culture, said historian Ellen Wu, the author of "The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority." One factor that helps explain the toxic environment for Asian women is the type of labor they were relegated to in the U.S. beginning in the 19th century, she said.

The Gold Rush ushered in a new age of immigration, with many people from China coming to work in the American West, Wu said. The majority were men; however, a small number were women, including sex workers. By the late 1860s, white Americans had begun to form opinions or impressions about Asian or Chinese women, in particular, and legislators sought to banish or regulate their entry into the U.S. Wu said one of the first exclusionary policies was the Page Act of 1875, which banned importing women "for the purpose of prostitution."

According to research published in The Modern American, the legislation may have been intended to mitigate prostitution, but immigration officers often weaponized it to keep any Asian woman from entering the country, granting them the authority to determine whether a woman was of "high moral character."

"Fast-forward, then, through the 20th century. These associations that Americans already have of Asian women being engaged in this 'lewd and immoral' type of behavior gets amplified as the United States begins a series of imperial excursions, essentially, or wars in the Asia Pacific region," Wu said.

As the U.S. indulged in its imperial ambitions and fought wars in the Philippines, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, local communities bore the brunt of the devastation, and women suffered heavy losses, Wu said. To deal with U.S. militarization and the havoc wreaked by war, some women resorted to sex work, as many think of it in the traditional sense, in exchange for money, but they also cohabitated with American GI boyfriends, for example.

"Really, by that time, really all the capital they have is their bodies," Wu said.

Popular culture continued to confirm many dehumanizing perceptions of Asian women, Wu said. Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film, "Full Metal Jacket," perpetuates the stereotype of women as sexual deviants with a scene featuring a Vietnamese sex worker exclaiming, "Me so horny." And jokes like "me love you long time" persist to this day, giving the impression that Asian women are "just good for those certain things."

"Maybe because we know this history, it's hard not to connect it to this other pattern, which is the United States' fighting these terrible wars in the Asia Pacific and really treating Asian lives as if they're completely disposable," Wu said, saying the gunman in Georgia "considered these women, these people's lives disposable."

Read entire article at NBC