Why Learning about Asian American History is Important Now

Volare | June 2021 Newsletter

“In a time of destruction, create something.”― Maxine Hong Kingston

Disclaimer: This is the first part out of three on this series of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. All views and opinions expressed in this series are solely those of the authors and may contain sensitive topics. If you feel triggered and need to stop reading, please do and if possible, let us know. In addition, we realize there are many events that has and continue to shape Asian American history and anti-Asian racism which we may not be able to cover all. We acknowledge they happen and should not be ignored.

Uncovering the Roots Behind Systemic Racism Toward Asian and Pacific Americans

The first Asian Pacific Heritage Month was signed into law on May 1990, but it wasn’t until 1992 when May was annually designated to Asian and Pacific Americans in honor of the first Japanese immigrants arriving to the U.S. (May 7th) as well as the completion of the transcontinental railroad (May 10th).

With the implications of COVID-19, it was made clear that racism against Asians and Pacific Islanders still exist today. The report from Stop AAPI Hate demonstrates that while Asians may be seen as the model minority, it doesn’t exclude them from experiencing different forms of discrimination due to race. The fight against anti-Asian racism was made more apparent after the March 16th, 2021 Atlanta spa shooting that left eight people dead, six of whom were of Asian descent.

To tie in the history and roots behind anti-Asian hate, we compiled eight of the major events that define Asian American history and their significance towards today’s society.

1840: The Opium Wars

The first Opium War (1839-1842) caused social, moral, and economic disruption leading to what China called a “Century of Humiliation,” when foreign powers forced the government to seek territory and sign unequal treaties.

It first started when China wanted to suppress opium trade because foreign merchants were illegally exporting opium from India to China and using their profits to purchase Chinese luxury goods such as porcelain, silk, and tea. As trade and demand grew, so did the addiction to opium in China. As a result, China destroyed about 1,400 tons of opium that were under foreign traders and caused Britain to enter Chinese territory. 

At the end, the first Opium War destroyed China’s view of themselves as a world power and was forced to open their ports and give Hong Kong to Britain.

The second war (1856-1860) was the result of France and Britain’s desire to gain more commercial privileges and concessions within China, including the legalization of opium trade. Still recovering from the impact of the First Opium War, this left China in debt and caused many citizens to leave and find work.

1854: People vs. Hall

Following the first opium war, the California Gold Rush of 1845-1855 was an opportunity for Chinese people to come to the U.S and find work. However, starting a new life made those people living in the U.S. feel like Chinese immigrants were arriving to steal their jobs.

In People vs. Hall, George Hall was a White man accused of shooting and killing Chinese immigrant Ling Sing. During this time, the court ruled that Chinese people could not testify against Whites and disqualified the majority of testimonies against Hall as they were not from credible White witnesses.

In the end, the case was appealed and reaffirmed White superiority, where Chinese people were categorized alongside Native and African Americans who weren’t able to testify against Whites at the time. It was the beginning of them escaping punishment for any involvement in anti-Asian violence.

1882: Chinese Exclusion Act (US)

In the 1960s, anti-Chinese sentiment grew as more Americans saw Chinese immigrants as competition for jobs, even though Chinese immigrants were already working in harsher conditions and receiving lower pay, which seemed undesirable to many Americans. 

When the Chinese Exclusion Act got signed into law, it halted immigration for at least 10 years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. It was the first law to enforce preventive measures of a specific ethnic or national group from entering the U.S.

What followed after the act was a “driving out” period where anti-Chinese Americans forced existing Chinese communities to leave. It culminated for at least two massacres in 1885 and 1887 where Chinese people were brutally killed and/or robbed. With the ruling that they could not testify against Whites, many of the attackers weren’t held accountable.

1892: Geary Act (US)

It extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for another 10 years and added provisions to enforce immigration laws. Chinese people had to carry a Certification of Residence to demonstrate legal entry into the U.S. and those without one were at risk for deportation. 

Residents immediately challenged this notion in Fong Yue Ting vs. the United States, claiming these laws were used to further exclude Chinese people from their American counterparts. However, the case was lost and the law was upheld until 1943. 

1898: United States vs. Wong Kim Ark

Wong Kim Ark was a Chinese American who visited China in 1895 but upon returning, he was denied re-entry due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Birthright citizenship was introduced by the 14th Amendment, where those born or naturalized in the states were considered American citizens regardless of race. With this, the court ruled that Wong should be allowed entry into the U.S. as the Chinese Exclusion Act didn’t apply to him.

By upholding the principle of birthright citizenship, it meant that U.S-born Asian Americans could obtain citizenship when foreign-born Asians were experiencing racial exclusion. 

1924: Immigration Act (US)

The Immigration Act continued to build upon the 1917 act, where immigration was open only to those with college degrees or special talents. It excluded entry to people living within the “Asiatic Barred Zone” except for Japanese and Filipinas/os and implemented a literacy exam to test the reading comprehension of immigrants in any language.

As the Philippines were a U.S. colony, many Filipinas/os were considered U.S. nationals and started coming to the states in large numbers. Realizing the literacy test wasn’t enough to limit the number of immigrants, the U.S. government reclassified Filipinas/os as aliens to control the large movement of resettlement. A national origins quota was also established where the U.S. could provide visas for up to 3% (later to 2%) of the total number of people in each nationality. 

While Japanese immigrants weren’t excluded from entry, the Japanese government was actively limiting immigration due to the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907. Chinese immigrants were still denied entry at the time because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. 

1943: War Relocation Authority (WRA)

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entering World War II, tens of thousands of innocent Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps for fear they were aiding the enemy. These camps were situated in deserts far from the coast, surrounded by barbed wires. Soldiers stood guard in watchtowers, shooting those who tried to escape. Many families were crammed in small living arrangements, and diseases spread easily due to bad sanitization and heat.

During and after the war, there were programs throughout the U.S. to help Japanese Americans transition back into normal life. The Chicago WRA field office convinced locals to connect Japanese Americans with housing and job opportunities pre-screened for citizenship, language, racial barriers, and any available training. In turn, those who resettled shaped the process as they became part of the staff and boards for these services. It demonstrated a model of inclusion that shined in the midst of events that took place against Asian Americans.

1982: Vincent Chin

Anti-Japanese sentiment grew in the auto industry when American car brands experienced lay-offs because of competition from Japanese import cars. Vincent Chin was a Chinese American who was attacked and later died because his attackers, who were recently laid off as auto workers, mistook him as a Japanese resident. 

When the killers of Chin were given probation, Asian Americans across the country came together in a national civil rights movement with Detroit as its center. While there have been Asian American movements since the 1960s, Chin’s death served as an awakening that these hate crimes could happen to any one and united Asian ethnic communities to stand against racial attacks. 

There are many more events that have contributed to Asian American history and anti-Asian racism. The demonstrations and violence happening today stem from the ways in which Asian and Pacific Americans have been experienced and endured in the past. As we wrap up the first part of this series, if you are interested in reading more, feel free to check out the following links:

∙ The History of Anti-Asian-American Violence
∙ Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different
∙ The history of anti-Asian racism in the US
∙ Making the Moment Matter

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