Often times, when people think of minorities, Asian Americans are left off the list due to the model minority myth. The model minority myth suggests that Asian Americans, due to their own efforts, have been able to overcome barriers as immigrants due to their bootstrapping efforts and hard work. Therefore, they have become inordinately successful. This myth is then used to divide the minority population by poking blame at other minority groups who have not, for a variety of reasons, met with the same success. While generally speaking, Asian Americans as a whole do not suffer from the same opportunity gaps in the K-12 setting as their Hispanic and African American counterparts, and some Asian American groups have the highest median income in the country, this glosses over the struggles that Asian Americans have endured and continue to endure. Asian Americans have been at the receiving end of biases and in the middle of Civil Rights battles since the 1800s and continue to experience many of the same struggles as other minority groups. While no racial or ethnic group’s history should be presented as nothing but struggle, it is important, especially as promoters of sociocultural competence, to recognize that in spite of common rhetoric, Asian Americans have indeed faced racial discrimination and continue to do so. In this post, we will trace some of the historical racism that Asian Americans have faced throughout American history.
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
The United States had an open immigration policy during the first 100 years. The greatest deterrent from immigrating was the treacherous passage to the United States, not the actual politics in the fledgling country. However, Americans were shook to the core when an influx of Chinese immigrants landed on the west coast after a crop failure during the 1850s. This immigration was was not dissimilar to the influx of Irish immigrants after the Irish Potato Famine of 1845; however, in addition to the typical resistance to immigration faced by all groups, fears of “the other” grew exponentially in the face of a culture that varied greatly from the Judeo-Christian European culture. Suddenly, racial purity seemed threatened. Violence against Chinese immigrants began. In May 1852, California imposed a Foreign Miners Tax, targeting Chinese workers. In 1854, the Supreme Court denied Chinese immigrants and their eventual descendants from being able to testify in Court due to their nonWhite status, thus, allowing White citizens and immigrants to target Asian Americans with impunity. These discriminatory acts culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred further Chinese immigration. While this act was initially meant to last for 10 years, it was not until the 1940s when the exclusion act was traded for a highly restrictive quota and 1965 when Chinese and other Asian immigrants were allowed at large scale back in the United States that the exclusion act was fully dismantled.
Like other immigrants before them, during the late 1800s, Indians, mostly from the Punjab region, immigrated to Washington State, seeking better economic opportunities that were denied to them under the British colonial rule. By the early 1900s, lumber mills in Bellingham, Washington employed about 500 Indians, much to the dismay of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) Unions, which aligned themselves with the National Asiatic Exclusion League. The unions claimed that “dark-skinned” immigrants were taking White jobs. That, along with the claim that Indian men had gathered on the sidewalk, thereby “forcing” White women to walk in the streets, led to White men going house to house and mill to mill, destroying property and chasing Indians permanently out of town.
Supreme Court Cases of the 1920s
Asian immigrants were denied naturalization on the grounds that they were not White. The Supreme Court, twice, upheld these denials, the second time contradicting their own rulings. In Ozawa v. United States (1922), the courts ruled that although Takao Ozawa, a fair-skinned Japanese American had a White skin color, he could not be White because he was Mongoloid and not Caucasian, and to be White, one must be classified “scientifically” as Caucasian. A year later, when Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian immigrant, who according to racial theories of the time, was classified as Caucasian as were all upper caste Indians, appealed a ruling denying him citizenship, the same Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling on account of the fact that although Thind was Caucasian, the “common man” would not accept him as White.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, immense hatred and fear against Asian Americans began. Artists, such as the famed children’s author Dr. Seuss, began propaganda against Japanese Americans. Eventually Japanese Americans of all ages were interned in concentration camps known as “relocation centers”. While these camps were not as bad as the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, Japanese Americans were deprived of their liberty, forced to stay in animal stables, in the desert heat. They were given limited foods in large mess halls that did not reflect the Japanese diets. Families were not allowed to dine together. Children received a subpar education. Bathrooms did not afford the Japanese any privacy. Japanese Americans essentially became prisoners of war in their own country. And when they were released, most of their property, homes, and businesses had been usurped by White Americans (Krull, 115-132).
As proponents of Emergent Bilingual Education, we are familiar with the fact that the law requires us to provide programming for Emergent Bilinguals to help them attain proficiency in English and access the curriculum. This law emerged from a class action suit against the San Francisco Unified School District on behalf of 1,800 students of Chinese descent who did not speak English and were denied any additional services. While lower courts declared that because the disadvantages Emergent Bilinguals brought to their educational experience were not created by the school system, the school system did not have to address them. The Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on race, color, or national origin by any institution receiving federal funding.
In 2017, following the institution of harsh immigration restrictions by President Trump, a White man shot and killed an Indian tech immigrant, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was conversing in Telegu with a friend at a local sports bar in Kansas. The killer, Adam Purinton, demanded they get out of his country before proceeding to shoot them. Purinton also shot Srinivas’s friend Alok Madasani and a white man, Ian Grillot, who had tried to intervene on behalf of the South Asian patrons. Fortunately, Madasani and Grillot survived. The killings sparked a feeling of terror among members of the Indian community. There was also an accusation against the media for covering violence against Asian Americans at lower levels than violence against White citizens and immigrants.
In a lawsuit stating that Harvard University discriminates in the college admissions process against Asian Americans, it was found in 2018 that while Asian Americans scored higher on grades, extracurriculars, and test scores than other racial groups, they consistently were rated lower on “personality,” likability, and being “widely respected.” Harvard, itself, in an internal investigation in 2013, found systematic biases against Asian Americans. A group, Students for Fair Admissions, claim that this personality ranking is a way of keeping admissions rates of Asian Americans artificially low, similar to a practice Harvard engaged in during the 1920s to reduce Jewish acceptance rates. Harvard University denies these claims. Many worry that this lawsuit could end affirmative action, which is a way of ensuring that students who have opportunity gaps have greater opportunities for higher education. This is an ongoing lawsuit that has advanced to the Supreme Court.
Because the original strain of Covid-19 was first reported in China, East Asians have been heavily targeted by White agitators. Examples reported by BBC include:
An elderly Thai immigrant dies after being shoved to the ground. A Filipino-American is slashed in the face with a box cutter. A Chinese woman is slapped and then set on fire. Eight people are killed in a shooting rampage across three Asian spas in one night.
Asian Americans and allies have launched the campaign, “Stop Asian Hate,” and have taken to the streets to protest this hate. President Biden has also signed a law to stop hatred and discrimination against Asian Americans.
While Asian Americans’ history in the United States have been rife with struggles, there have been successes as well, and in no way, do I want to ignore those successes or make Asian American Month only about the struggles. However, it’s important to note that Asian Americans are a part of American history, that they have struggled, and that they are a part of the fight for Civil Rights.