About a week and a half ago, someone started spraying graffiti in the Portola neighborhood of San Francisco — in the southeast of the city. The graffiti said, “NO MORE CHINESE.” This was done at six locations. I was pleased to see that people had painted over and crossed out the “NO” so the signs read “MORE CHINESE.” That’s a great response.
Last Tuesday, the police arrested John Schenone for the crimes. He’s a 62-year-old man whose photo makes him look like a prototypical angry old white man. On Friday, he pleaded “not guilty,” but was refused released because the acts are being considered a hate crime, and four guns were found at Schenone’s home. The bail was set high enough that it is likely he will stay in jail until his trial.
To people who don’t know the history of the Bay Area, this may seem bizarre. But the truth of the matter is that people of Chinese descent have long been targets of the local community. The Chinese Exclusion Act was largely the result of goings on in California. And after the law was passed, the state passed a number of even more extreme laws that were ultimately found to be unconstitutional. The first drug law in the United States was passed in San Francisco, which outlawed opium dens. The main target was not the drug but the Chinese population.
It reminds me of those old bumper stickers that we used to see up in Oregon, “Welcome to Oregon! Now go home.” With regard to the Chinese, it would have been, “Welcome to America! Do our most backbreaking work. Then go home.” The Chinese of the late 19th century were very much like the Mexicans of today. And we here exactly the same arguments: both cultural and economic. None of them are valid. But it is always so easy to blame all your problems on the weak instead of the strong.
Among most people, it has become totally unacceptable to say racist things about African Americans. That’s a good thing. But I’ve noticed something recently that really bothers me: people seem much more open about saying bigoted things about other minority groups. And I think that’s what’s going on here. Let’s assume that Schenone did this. Without this trend, he still would have hated his Chinese neighbors — but he would have been quiet about it. Instead, he felt that it was acceptable to express that hatred in such a public way. I think that’s why norms against using things like the n-word are important. Not having them normalizes hatred and thus makes public and private racism more common.
Schenone could not afford an attorney, so he was given a public defender. It’s hard for me not to see him as a victim too. That’s not to excuse these crimes. It’s more along the lines of molesters becoming molesters. If we had a society in which people were helped to find meaningful lives, maybe they wouldn’t be so eager to find scapegoats.