(part 1 of a 2 part series)
By: Kysasurina Adhikari, BS Political Science, The Ohio State University, Class of 2021
Asian Americans are diverse and the fastest-growing racial group in America. They can trace their roots to more than 20 origin groups in East, Southeast, and South Asia, each with unique cultures and histories. Asians have been in the United States for more than 160 years and have long been targets of violent bigotry. The history of Asian Americans is one of exclusion, violence, and dehumanization.
Asians have historically been considered a threat to a nation that promoted a whites-only immigration policy. Historically, anti-Asian racism has been fiercest during times of economic downturn, war, and disease.
In the 1850s, Chinese immigrants started coming to America in large numbers to work in mining and railroad construction. Almost immediately, “yellow peril”—fear of an Asian invasion and resentment of the cheap labor coming from China— sparked anti-Chinese sentiment. Yellow peril triggered anti-Chinese rhetoric and violence and led to incidents such as the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. After the death of a white civilian in Chinatown, white rioters lynched and killed more than a dozen Chinese men and boys. Eight people were convicted of manslaughter, but the convictions were later overturned because there were no legal repercussions for violence against Chinese people. This was in large part due to a dangerous precedent set by People v. Hall (1854) which stated that an Asian person can’t testify against a white person in a criminal proceeding.
Yellow peril paved the way for legislation such as the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Page Act of 1875 was an anti-immigration law targeted towards Chinese women because they were stereotyped as promiscuous and perceived as a sexual threat. While there were Chinese women in the sex industry, they were treated differently from their white counterparts; Chinese women were scapegoated, sexualized, and accused of carrying sexually transmitted diseases. The Page act of 1875 was used to prohibit Chinese women from migrating to the United States, which in turn prevented Chinese immigrants from starting families and settling down. In 1882, congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which legalized a 10-year ban on Chinese labor immigration.
Following the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was a rise in Indian immigration to the west coast to work in agriculture, lumber, and railroad industries. Like other Asian immigrants, Indians were seen as a threat to the industrial warfare of the white man and their arrival to the United States sparked hostility and violence. A Washington newspaper described the rise in Indian immigration as a “dusky peril” and referred to Indians as “Hindu hordes invading the state.” On September 4, 1907, in Bellingham, Washington, Indian immigrants, most of them Punjabi, were violently attacked. They were pulled from their work, had their property destroyed and were driven out of city limits. This led to the ethnic cleansing of Bellingham because within days, all the South Asians had left the city.
By 1924, except for people from the Philippines, all Asian immigrants, including those from China, Korea, Japan, and India were fully excluded by law, denied citizenship, and prevented from owning land. Filipinos began to migrate to the West Coast in large numbers to work in farms and canneries, filling the demand for cheap labor. Racism and economic competition, intensified by the Great Depression, led to severe anti-Filipino violence. For example, in 1930 in Watsonville, California, mobs of up to 500 white people attacked Filipino farmworkers and their property after Filipino men were seen dancing with white women at a local dance hall. In 1934, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act which placed an annual quota of fifty on Filipino migration—effectively excluding their entry as well. It wasn’t until the Immigration Act of 1965 that the race-specific barriers were removed.
The American government has a long history of using diseases to justify anti-Asian xenophobia, immigration policies, and violence. They have promoted the perception that Asians are uncivilized and dirty. Newly arrived Asian immigrants at Angel Island and Ellis Island were quarantined and given invasive medical examinations and interrogations at the facility without their consent or actual evidence of disease. Public health authorities, in turn, misrepresented Asians as diseased carriers of incurable afflictions to justify anti-immigration policy and to use Asian immigrants as a scapegoat.
Asians have been regularly scapegoated during times of national distress; we saw that with the forced internment of Japanese people during World War II. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered more than 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. Most of the Japanese Americans placed in internment camps were U.S. citizens and second or third-generation Americans.
After the Vietnam War, refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia resettled in the United States and were met with routine discrimination and hostility. In Texas, armed members of the Ku Klux Klan cruised Galveston Bay and tried to destroy the Vietnamese fishing businesses by burning their boats and threatening their lives. In Stockton, California an armed white man– obsessed with a hatred of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indians, and Pakistanis– targeted Southeast and South Asian school children at Cleveland Elementary School. Five Southeast Asian children were murdered.
In the 1980s, Japan’s auto industry was booming, during an economic downturn in America. In 1982, two white autoworkers in Detroit attacked and killed 27-year-old Vincent Chin. His killers were angry about the success of Japan’s auto industry and blamed their unemployment on East Asian people. They hit Chin with a baseball bat and called him racial slurs; Chin died four days later but his killers didn’t receive any jail time. Vincent was of Chinese descent.
Many Muslim Americans are from Asian countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. After 9/11, Muslim Asians and those perceived to be Muslim faced violence, racial profiling, and xenophobia; they were used as scapegoats for the attacks carried out by al-Qaida. There were many Asians attacked in post 9/11 hate crimes. On September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American man was killed outside of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. His killer mistook him for Muslim and killed him in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Recently, there has been an uptick in hate crimes towards Asian Americans, largely due to the severe anti-China rhetoric propagated by former President Donald Trump, combined with a much longer legacy of competition and conflict with China. The coalition Stop AAPI Hate has reported nearly 3,800 instances of discrimination against Asians in the past year – including verbal harassment, physical assault, civil rights violations, and online harassment. Many of the victims are elders and women, in fact, 68% of the reports are from women. Even today, we are seeing anti-Asian hate crimes. On March 16, 2021, a mass shooting occurred at three spas or massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. Eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women; the attacks were racially motivated. On April 17, 2021, a mass shooting claimed the lives of seven FedEx employees, four of whom were Sikhs.
It’s important to understand the current hate crimes aren’t exceptional. American history encompasses deeply rooted anti-Asian bigotry and racism. Anti-Asian racism has been used to scapegoat, demean and marginalize Asians, upholding oppressive systems of white supremacy. Asian Americans deserve to live in peace, dignity, and with freedom in this country. The next article in this series explores the recent uptick in AAPI hate crimes and harassment, why more policing is not the answer, and how we can take steps towards more inclusion for our AAPI neighbors.