by Ellen Isaacs

Although no form of racism in the US can compare to the barbarism of black chattel slavery and its consequences that persist to the present, racist practices and ideas have cruelly affected other groups. One such is Asians, whose immigrant history is little known today. Moreover, there is a prevalent notion that Asian-Americans no longer suffer discrimination, and that they in fact fare better than many whites.

Although there are stories of a few Asians in the colonial US from the 1600s, probably from India, the first large group of Asians immigrated in the mid 19th century. The US government became directly involved in transpacific commerce in the 1840s, and the goals of empire stimulated building the transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal. Chinese workers began to arrive in 1849-50, recruited as contract workers and anxious to flee war and poverty at home.  They were needed to work as gold miners, railroad builders, and factory and farm workers. Indeed, a foreign miners’ tax became an important source of US government revenue.

Naturalization was not possible for these workers because Congress, in 1790, had limited citizenship to “free white persons” of “good character.” The 14th Amendment of 1868 granted citizenship to newly freed slaves and the Dawes Act of 1887 did the same for Native Americans, but Asians remained excluded by the Burlingame Amendment. Unable to become citizens, Asians could not aim to become permanent settlers, own property, or seek any legal redress. Many anti-Chinese statues were passed in California, although often struck down by the courts. Thus the immigrants tended to group together and not learn English or adopt American culture. They were stigmatized as backward, as much of Asia was a colonized and impoverished region in the 1800s.

Over 12,000 Chinese workers made up 80-90% of workers on the early transcontinental rail lines, the first of which was completed in 1869. The work was difficult and dangerous, involving roadbeds over uneven ground and blasting tunnels through rock. Besides earning low ages, Chinese workers were required to pay for their own lodging, food and tools and were whipped if they walked off the job.  In 1867, 5,000 workers staged the era’s largest strike, which was broken by cutting off all their food and supplies.  And yet the ceremony to celebrate the driving of the final spike included no Chinese.

Chinese people made up 20% of California’s workforce by 1870. Until then, a chronic labor shortage made immigrant labor necessary, but as westward expansion ended and the urban population and labor pool increased, immigrant workers were feared as a source of competition for scarce jobs, and the Depression of 1876 increased anti-Chinese sentiment. Unions, rather than welcoming immigrants, opposed immigration in order to “protect” American workers. Attacks on the Chinese increased. One of the worst was in 1873 in Los Angeles when 500 vigilantes, including the chief of police, killed 19 Chinese immigrants and destroyed their homes and businesses.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which restricted Chinese immigration for 60 years. Over the next few years, Japanese and smaller numbers of Korean and Indian laborers began replacing the Chinese workers in low-paid jobs in railroads, farming and fishing until Japanese immigration was also restricted in 1907.

By 1924, all Asians were denied citizenship and were barred from marrying Caucasians or owning land. Some Indians who had already been naturalized after having been deemed “white,” as opposed to Asian, were reclassified on the basis of a Supreme Court decision in 1923 and stripped of their citizenship – 65 in all. The cheap labor gap was next filled by Filipinos, who came in large numbers in the 1920s and could not be excluded because the US had annexed the Philippines in 1898. Nonetheless, Congress passed restrictions on their entry in 1935 as a response to the next depression.

During World War II, over 120,000 Japanese were interned in camps, supposedly because they posed a threat to national security, although German and Italian immigrants were not similarly treated. In reality much of the motivation was that Japanese farmers had become very successful and practically controlled the market in some fruits and vegetables. Despite a State Department report which was seen by President Roosevelt that concluded that there was no internal Japanese threat, internment proceeded on the basis of racism and profit The Supreme Court upheld the racial expulsions. John DeWitt, the Army general in command of the coast said: “A Jap’s a Jap. They are a dangerous element, whether loyal or not.”

The Japanese were housed in primitive camps in the remote West or Arkansas, surrounded by barbed wire and guards. Young men were then enlisted to fight in Europe, and 300 who refused were sent to federal prison. When allowed to leave the camps, internees were forbidden to return to the West Coast until a court case overturned the law in 1945. A redress movement began in the 1970s and 1988 finally brought a presidential apology and $20,000 payments to surviving detainees.

World War II had a very different effect on Chinese immigrants, as China had become a US ally against the Japanese. There was again a shortage of workers, and by 1943, 15% of all California shipyard workers were Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in late 1943, and 22% of Chinese men in America served in the military.

Racist views of Asians were pivotal to lack of American success in subsequent wars. General MacArthur, leader of American troops in the Korean War could not believe that North Koreans or the Chinese, who had just won their communist revolution could possibly stand up to US military might. He described Asians as “dutiful, primitive and childlike.” Likewise it was inconceivable to US leaders that North Vietnamese peasants using guerilla tactics could defeat the mighty American military.

It was not until 1965, during the civil rights movement, that quotas of 20,000 immigrants per country were established, which allowed Asian immigration to resume. Engineers and scientists were favored due to the technological competition of the Cold War.

Asians began to be touted as “model minority” in the 1960s, in the era when blacks had begun protesting against racism in large numbers. The claim that one minority had flourished or even surpassed whites, was useful to pin racism against blacks on their own individual failings and let racism off the hook. However a survey of Asian-Americans reported that 30% had endured discrimination in the workplace, as opposed to 26% of blacks. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that employees of East Asian descent, generally Chinese, Japanese and Korean, were stereotyped as high in competence but low in warmth and dominance, perpetuating “the idea that East Asians are ideal as subordinate employees, suited for technical competence positions, but are unqualified to be leaders and managers.” In general, all Asians were lumped together, despite coming from a wide variety of countries, and all attributed with similar characteristics, such as passivity and remoteness, even if intelligent.

After 1965, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos also began immigrating, in response to the misery caused by the US sponsored wars in those countries. By 2012, Asian immigrants had surpassed those from Latin America in numbers. Many, especially from India and China, came from rapidly developing economies with a surplus of educated labor. Thus many were able to obtain employment-based visas for highly skilled immigrants, and Asians make up only 10% of unauthorized immigrants.

New Asian immigrants who came with less education, such as the Vietnamese and Koreans, have a higher rate of poverty than the general population, The success of the wealthier and better educated Asian immigrants has led to the myth that they are all “model” and successful immigrants and not held back by racism. This is not only untrue, but has continued to be useful in denying the significance of racism against black and Latin Americans, who can now more easily be blamed for failing to make it as opposed to being victimized by institutional racism.

Recent Anti-Asian Racism

        A particularly disturbing case is that of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was murdered in 1982 by two white men in Detroit who thought he was Japanese and represented Japanese automakers whose competition was threatening their jobs. At the killers’ first trial, only for manslaughter, they received probation and a $3700 fine.  At a second trial, one actually received a long sentence for a civil rights violation, but at a third trial both were acquitted. In 1999, Wen Ho Lee, a prominent physicist, was accused of selling secrets to China and put in solitary confinement for nine months.  Even the New York Times wrote articles condemning him without investigation, but it turned out that the charges against him were false. In colleges where Asians make up 15-50% of students, frequent racist attacks are reported, which have increased as Trump has upped the verbal attacks on and trade war with China. However, competition with China will endure way beyond this president as it represents the main ongoing imperialist rivalry in the world today, and anti-Asian racism can be expected to increase.

         There is a very widespread belief that Asian-Americans are even better off than white Americans, a story that hides a very different reality. The wealth gap amongst Asians is actually larger than that for whites, somewhat higher than income inequality.  Although wealthy Asians have more wealth than wealthy whites, there is greater economic diversity. The ratio of wealth for the top 10% to the bottom 20% was 168.4 for Asians compared to 121.3 for whites in 2010-13. In 2015, the poverty rate for Asians was 11.4% as compared to 9.1% for whites.

Anti-Asian racism, like many other forms of racism, is a potent weapon in winning the population to support wars. The enemy is demonized as were the Vietnamese during the war on that country, when soldiers were recruited and trained to kill “gooks”.  After 9/11, all Muslims became branded as evil, resulting in attacks on many Asians as well as Middle Easterners. Soldiers being trained to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan were indoctrinated to kill “ragheads.”

In the last year, the cases of affirmative action for black and Latin students at selective New York City high schools and at Harvard have been used to make Asian students appear to be the villains in excluding these groups. The usual myths are floated to exploit this divide. One is that all Asians are successful and smart, the “model minority” who have earned their place high in the hierarchy and should not be threatened. This narrative, once again, is used to blame the victims of anti-black and anti-Latin racism for their own lower attainment. It also assumes that the resources for an excellent high school or college education are inherently limited. But why should there be only a handful of excellent high schools in New York City? Why should there be so few lower schools that adequately prepare students for competitive high schools? Why are there not enough seats at excellent universities that are affordable for all and so few high schools that adequately prepare their students to flourish in college?

Another common source of friction is between Asian small business owners and shoppers in poor black communities. There are many stories of mistreatment of black customers, who are looked on with more suspicion and afforded less courtesy than white customers. Once again, two struggling communities are poised to blame each other for their economic difficulties, while corporate America reaps profits and is spared the anger of united workers.

The wedges that are driven between Asians and all other groups competing for scarce resources distract the society at large from dealing with the lack of adequate schools and social programs for all working people. The lack of unity between white workers and black, Latin, Asian and undocumented workers causes all of us to be certain losers in the battle for a better life. In fact, a united multiracial struggle is the only way that we can win the struggle for the resources we all need. That is why racist stereotypes are perpetuated in the media, the speeches of politicians, the classrooms and the churches. Let us embrace each other and join ranks in our fight for an egalitarian society.


Two Faces of Exclusion, the untold history of anti-Asian racism in the United States, Lou Kurashige, University of North Carolina Press, 2016

The Rise of Asian Americans

Wealth Inequality Among Asian Americans Greater Than Among Whites

Wealth Inequality Among Asian Americans Greater Than Among Whites

The Rise of Asian Americans

Wealth Inequality Among Asian Americans Greater Than Among Whites

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