The experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are diverse and different groups have experienced different intergroup consequences. For example, the experiences for some groups is best explained by genocide, such as with Cambodian Americans, as the civil war in their home country in the 1970s led many to their migration to the United States as refugees, fleeing oppression and death. In contrast, to survive and thrive in U.S. society, many Asian Americans formed ethnic enclaves which is a form of separatism and others advocate for pan-Asianism to challenge oppressive and discriminatory practices.
Patterns of Intergroup Relations: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
- Extermination/Genocide: The deliberate, systematic killing of an entire people or nation (e.g. Cambodian genocide).
- Expulsion/ Population Transfer: The dominant group expels the marginalized group (e.g. refugees from Viet Nam).
- Internal Colonialism: The dominant group exploits the marginalized group (e.g. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).
- Segregation: The dominant group structures physical, unequal separation of two groups in residence, workplace & social functions (e.g. prison camps during WWII).
- Sepratism: The marginalized group desires physical separation of two groups in residence, workplace & social functions (e.g. ethnic enclaves).
- Fusion/ Amalgamation: Race-ethnic groups combine to form a new group (e.g. Hapa).
- Assimilation: The process by which a marginalized individual or group takes on the characteristics of the dominant group (e.g. Asian immigrants changing names to sound more “American”).
- Pluralism/ Multiculturalism: Various race-ethnic groups in a society have mutual respect for one another, without prejudice or discrimination (e.g. pan-Asianism).
History of Intergroup Relations
After slavery was abolished in the U.S., plantation owners needed workers to work on the land since Blacks were no longer forced to work for them. Latin America became a hotspot for indentured labor from Asia, and in particular Chinese and Indian workers. These indentured laborers who worked under contract were called Coolies. Women workers from India came later but only if they were deemed “moral” such as being “widowed” or “married” because “single women” were said to cause strife between male workers who would compete to have sex with them (Lee, 2015, p.4). Lee writes, “The first group of 396 Asian indentured laborers arrived in May of 1838… After reports of abuse of workers surfaced, the experiment ended the next year, but the system resumed in 1844, and from 1838 to 1917, 429,623 South Asians and 17,904 Chinese went to the British West Indies as indentured laborers” (2015, p. 3 ebook). Some of the places the laborers went included: British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, Peru, Panama, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, and more.
Coolies was a term used in Latin America and especially in the United States to depict workers who were seen as job-stealing competition (Lee, 2015, p.1). Coolie labor was related to the slavery system as they were often mistreated like slaves (Lee, 2015, p.5) and sometimes held against their will. Some laborers under the coolie system were forcibly sent to work in Latin America and even tricked into doing so (Lee, 2015, pp.4-5). Lee documents instances where sometimes they were forced into labor even years after their contract ended (Lee, 2015, p.5).
Many Chinese men had been recruited by the railroad companies to work on the Transcontinental Railroad—a vast, complex, engineering feat to span the continent and link the entire expanse of the middle of North America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. By 1887, the project was completed and many of the Chinese workers, having saved the majority of their pay, returned home, or, conversely, began to send for their families—parents, siblings, wives and children, sweethearts, cousins—beginning a steady migration stream from China to the United States. Many of these former railroad workers settled along the West Coast and began to compete, economically, with the white population of the region. Feeling serious economic pressure from the Chinese immigrants, whites on the West Coast petitioned Congress to stop migration from China.
Immigration and Exclusion
Chinese immigration came to an abrupt end with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act was a result of anti-Chinese sentiment burgeoned by a depressed economy and loss of jobs. White workers blamed Chinese migrants for taking jobs, and the passage of the Act meant the number of Chinese workers decreased. Chinese men did not have the funds to return to China or to bring their families to the United States, so they remained physically and culturally segregated in the Chinatowns of large cities.
The Page Act of 1875 is the first law created to exclude people on the basis of race, where Chinese women were forbidden from immigrating to the United States if they were deemed prostitutes. In practice, this was applied to all Chinese women and by extension all Asian women, whether they were sex workers or not. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is a part of the group of first exclusionary acts on the basis of race, but this time banning all Chinese laborers due to the fears that they were taking over the country, and that they were taking jobs away from whites. Lee (2002) calls the 1882 act to be the first to function as a gatekeeper. Lee analyzes historical documents to connect how the 1882 Act paved the way for larger systemic gatekeeping through immigration. She claims this act served as "Precursors to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, United States passports, 'green cards,' illegal immigration and deportation policies can all be traced back to the Chinese Exclusion Act" (Lee, 2002, p. 37).
Later legislation, the Immigration Act of 1924, further curtailed Chinese immigration. The Act included the race-based National Origins Act, which was aimed at keeping U.S. ethnic stock as undiluted as possible by reducing “undesirable” immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is an example of internal colonialism because the Chinese workers were economically exploited while in the United States. It was not until after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that Chinese immigration again increased, and many Chinese families were reunited.
Since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, there have been laws enacted that correspond with anti-Asian sentiments.
- In the early 1900s, there were anti-Japanese sentiments and the fear of Japanese immigrants (Lee, 2015). This led to the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement Act that restricted Japanese laborers from immigrating.
- In 1907, South Asian immigrants had to flee Bellingham, Washington when they were attacked without much warning (Lee, 2015). Ultimately the Asiatic Barred Zone in 1917 restricted Indians and others from immigrating.
- In the 1930s, Filipinx farmworkers were attacked in what was called the Watsonville Riots. Like some of the other Asian laborers, Filipinxs were seen as competition with white workers. Further, these white workers and community members didn’t like the way that Filipinx men had relationships with white women. Anti-miscegenation laws strictly prohibited interracial marriage and sexual relations between whites and non-whites. California didn’t overturn this law until 1948 and the last anti-miscegenation law to be struck down was through the Loving vs. Virginia case in 1967.
While many of the Asian laborers were seen as competition, Chinese and Japanese immigrants were specifically feared based on the idea that China and Japan, and by extension Chinese and Japanese immigrants, were taking over the U.S. This is seen as “yellow peril.” Yellow peril emphasizes the perceived foreignness and fear of invasion, getting rid of “American morals.”
Expansion of Asian Exclusion
From the 15th century through the 19th century, Japan was a xenophobic, feudal society, ostensibly governed by a God-Emperor, but in reality ruled by ruthless, powerful Shoguns. Japan’s society changed little during the four centuries of samurai culture, and it was cut off from the rest of the world in self-imposed isolation, trading only with the Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Chinese, and then not with all of them at once, often using one group as middlemen to another group. In the mid-19th century, (1854), the United States government became interested in trading directly with Japan in order to open up new export markets and to import Japanese goods at low prices uninflated by middleman add-ons. Commodore Matthew Perry was assigned to open trade between the United States and Japan. With a flotilla of war ships, Perry crossed the Pacific and berthed his ships off the coast of the Japanese capital. Perry sent letters to the emperor that were diplomatic but insistent. Perry had been ordered not to take no for an answer, and when the emperor sent Perry a negative response to the letters, Perry maneuvered his warships into positions that would allow them to fire upon the major cities of Japan. The Japanese had no armaments or ships that could compete with the Americans, and so, capitulated to Perry. Within thirty years, Japan was almost as modernized as its European counterparts. They went from feudalism to industrialism almost over night.
Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907
The Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907 (日米紳士協約, Nichibei Shinshi Kyōyaku) was an informal agreement between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan whereby the United States would not impose restrictions on Japanese immigration and Japan would not allow further emigration to the United States. The goal was to reduce tensions between the two Pacific nations.
Chinese immigration to California boomed during the Gold Rush of 1852, but the strict Japanese government practiced policies of isolation that thwarted Japanese emigration. It was not until 1868 that the Japanese government lessened restrictions and that Japanese immigration to the United States began. Anti-Chinese sentiment motivated American entrepreneurs to recruit Japanese laborers. In 1885, the first Japanese workers arrived in the Kingdom of Hawaii, which was then independent.
Most Japanese immigrants wanted to reside in America permanently and came in family groups, in contrast to the Chinese immigration of young men, most of whom soon returned to China. They assimilated to American social norms, such as on clothing. Many joined Methodist and Presbyterian churches.
As the Japanese population in California grew, they were seen with suspicion as an entering wedge by Japan. By 1905, anti-Japanese rhetoric filled the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Japanese Americans did not live only in Chinatown but throughout the city. In 1905, the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was established and promoted four policies:
- Extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act to include Japanese and Koreans
- Exclusion by League members of Japanese employees and the hiring of firms that employ Japanese
- Initiation of pressure the School Board to segregate Japanese from white children
- Initiation of a propaganda campaign to inform Congress and the President of that "menace".
Tensions had been rising in San Francisco, and since the 1905 decisive Japanese victory against Russia, Japan demanded treatment as an equal. The result was a series of six notes communicated between Japan and the United States from late 1907 to early 1908. The immediate cause of the Agreement was anti-Japanese nativism in California. In 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education passed a regulation whereby children of Japanese descent would be required to attend separate, segregated schools. At the time, Japanese immigrants made up approximately 1% of the population of California, many of whom had immigrated under a treaty in 1894 that had assured free immigration from Japan.
In the Agreement, Japan agreed not to issue passports for Japanese citizens wishing to work in the Continental United States, thus effectively eliminating new Japanese immigration to the United States. In exchange, the United States agreed to accept the presence of Japanese immigrants already residing there; to permit the immigration of wives, children, and parents; and to avoid legal discrimination against Japanese American children in California schools. However, Japanese women didn’t always meet their husbands before immigration and sometimes took part as “picture brides.” As picture brides, families arranged single Japanese women with the help of go-betweens to find Japanese men in the United States to marry (Lee, 2015 p. 234). Thus, Japanese women would send pictures of themselves and they would have an arranged marriage. This became a more common way for Japanese women to immigrate during this time, as 20,000 Japanese “picture brides” between 1908 and 1920 emigrated to Hawai’i and to the U.S. (Lee, 2015).
There was also a strong desire on the part of the Japanese government to resist being treated as inferiors. Japan did not want the United States to pass any such legislation as had happened to the Chinese under the Chinese Exclusion Act. US President Theodore Roosevelt, who had a positive opinion of Japan, accepted the Agreement as proposed by Japan to avoid more formal immigration restrictions. The agreement was never ratified by the United States Congress and was superseded by the Immigration Act of 1924.
In 1924, anti-minority sentiment in the United States was so strong that the Ku Klux Klan had four million, proud, openly racist members thousands of whom were involved in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, that was watched by thousands of Klan supporters, and other Americans. Their definition of who should qualify as American was largely reflected the United States Supreme Court rulings on questions of naturalization, which largely excluded East and South Asian immigrants until the 1940s. For example, in 1922 the Supreme Court ruled in Ozawa v. United States that Takao Ozawa who was born in Japan but had live in the United States for 20 years, was not considered Caucasian which meant he did not fit the popular definition of a "free white person" as the Naturalization Act of 1906 specified. Within three months, Justice George Sutherland authored a similarly unfavorable ruling in a Supreme Court case concerning the petition for naturalization of a Sikh immigrant from the Punjab region in British India, who identified himself as "a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood" in his petition, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. The upshot of this ruling was that like the Japanese, "high-caste Hindus, of full Indian blood" were not "free white persons" and were racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship. To support this conclusion, Justice Sutherland reiterated Ozawa's holding that the words "white person" in the naturalization act were "synonymous with the word 'Caucasian' only as that word is popularly understood".
Halting and Starting Immigration
The Asiatic Barred Zone halted immigration of Indians in the 1920s. The Immigration Act of 1924 then completely terminated immigration from all of Asia. It wasn’t until the Immigration Act of 1965 that Indians began immigrating again and many “had high human capital and worked as doctors and engineers” (Basu, 2017, p. 5). Later, "the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act 1975 gave Vietnamese war refugees special status and Congress granted them relocation aid" (Basu, 2017, p. 5).
World War II and Anti-Japanese Policies
On December 7, 1941, at 7:55 A.M. local time the Japanese fleet in the South Pacific launched 600 hundred aircraft in a surprise attack against U.S. Naval forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Within four hours, 2, 400 people, mostly military personnel had been killed, including the 1,100 men who will be entombed forever in the wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona when it capsized during the attack. Although this was a military target, the United States was not at war when the attack occurred.
The U.S. response to the attack was segregation wherein the dominant group structures physical separation of two groups, in this case Japanese, German and Italian-descended Americans and everyone else. Within 3 months, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed and issue Executive Order 9066 which authorized the secretary of war to prescribe certain areas as military zones, clearing the way for the incarceration of these groups in U.S. concentration camps. As a result, approximately 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were evicted from the West Coast of the United States and held in American concentration camps and other confinement sites across the country. Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not incarcerated in the same way, despite the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although the Japanese American population in Hawaii was nearly 40% of the population of Hawaii itself, only a few thousand people were detained there, supporting the eventual finding that their mass removal on the West Coast was motivated by reasons other than "military necessity" (U.S. Department of State). The fact is that the labor of Japanese Americans in Hawaii was crucial to the economic health of Hawaii which protected them from internment in the prison camps.
In less than six months after the attack, Congress passed the Japanese Relocation Act. Below, is reproduced the order that was posted in San Francisco.
The Japanese American Relocation Order
THE JAPANESE AMERICAN RELOCATION ORDER
WESTERN DEFENSE COMMAND AND FOURTH ARMY
WARTIME CIVIL CONTROL ADMINISTRATION
Presidio of San Francisco, California
May 3, 1942
INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY
Living in the Following Area:
All of that portion of the City of Los Angeles, State of California, within that boundary beginning at the point at which North Figueroa Street meets a line following the middle of the Los Angeles River; thence southerly and following the said line to East First Street; thence westerly on East First Street to Alameda Street; thence southerly on Alameda Street to East Third Street; thence northwesterly on East Third Street to Main Street; thence northerly on Main Street to First Street; thence north-westerly on First Street to Figueroa Street; thence northeasterly on Figueroa Street to the point of beginning.
Pursuant to the provisions of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 33, this Headquarters, dated May 3, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o'clock noon, P. W. T., Saturday, May 9, 1942.
No Japanese person living in the above area will be permitted to change residence after 12 o'clock noon, P. W. T., Sunday, May 3, 1942, without obtaining special permission from the representative of the Commanding General, Southern California Sector, at the Civil Control Station located at
Japanese Union Church,
120 North San Pedro Street,
Los Angeles, California
SEE CIVILIAN EXCLUSION ORDER NO. 33
Such permits will only be granted for the purpose of uniting members of a family, or in cases of grave emergency.
The Civil Control Station is equipped to assist the Japanese population affected by this evacuation in the following ways:
1. Give advice and instructions on the evacuation.
2. Provide services with respect to the management, leasing, sale, storage or other disposition of most kinds of property, such as real estate, business and professional equipment, household goods, boats, automobiles and livestock.
3. Provide temporary residence elsewhere for all Japanese in family groups.
4. Transport persons and a limited amount of clothing and equipment to their new residence.
The Following Instructions Must Be Observed:
1. A responsible member of each family, preferably the head of the family, or the person in whose name most of the property is held, and each individual living alone, will report to the Civil Control Station to receive further instructions. This must be done between 8:00 A. M. and 5:00 P. M. on Monday, May 4, 1942, or between 8:00 A. M. and 5:00 P. M. on Tuesday, May 5, 1942.
2. Evacuees must carry with them on departure for the Assembly Center, the following property:
(a) Bedding and linens (no mattress) for each member of the family;
(b) Toilet articles for each member of the family;
(c) Extra clothing for each member of the family;
(d) Sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls and cups for each member of the family;
(e) Essential personal effects for each member of the family.
All items carried will be securely packaged, tied and plainly marked with the name of the owner and numbered in accordance with instructions obtained at the Civil Control Station. The size and number of packages is limited to that which can be carried by the individual or family group.
3. No pets of any kind will be permitted.
4. No personal items and no household goods will be shipped to the Assembly Center.
5. The United States Government through its agencies will provide for the storage, at the sole risk of the owner, of the more substantial household items, such as iceboxes, washing machines, pianos and other heavy furniture. Cooking utensils and other small items will be accepted for storage if crated, packed and plainly marked with the name and address of the owner. Only one name and address will be used by a given family.
6. Each family, and individual living alone will be furnished transportation to the Assembly Center or will be authorized to travel by private automobile in a supervised group. All instructions pertaining to the movement will be obtained at the Civil Control Station.
Go to the Civil Control Station between the hours of 8:00 A. M. and 5:00 P. M., Monday, May 4, 1942, or between the hours of
8:00 A. M. and 5:00 P. M.,
Tuesday, May 5, 1942, to receive further instructions.
Lieutenant General, U. S. Army
This map shows the location of the American concentration camps where Japanese Americans were interned during WWII.
In 1943, Fred Korematsu, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit in federal court arguing that it was unconstitutional to deprive American citizens of the their civil rights without due process of law. The Supreme Court of the United States decided that, in times of great national strife, it was Constitutional to deprive one specific segment of the population of their civil rights because of the potential for harm by that specific group. You might be interested to know that this decision has never been overturned, which means that it is still the law of the land. A similar case Hirabayashi v. United States, (1943), was a case in which the United States Supreme Court held that the application of curfews against members of a people of color were constitutional when the nation was at war with the country from which that group's ancestors originated.
Although Japanese Americans have deep, long-reaching roots in the United States, their history here has not always been smooth. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 was aimed at them and other Asian immigrants, and it prohibited aliens from owning land. An even uglier action was the Japanese internment camps of World War II, discussed earlier as an illustration of expulsion.
1965 Immigration Act
The 1965 Immigration Act went into effect in 1969 (Lobo and Salvo, 739, 1998). The law created immigration preference categories for family reunification and professional skills, allotted “170,000 immigrant visas” for the “Eastern Hemisphere” which was “Asia, Europe, Africa, and Oceania” and allowed only 20,000 visas per country (Lobo and Salvo, 1998, p. 742). Lobo and Salvo (1998) state that “besides physicians, a large number of Asian nurses, dentists, and pharmacists, scientists, and engineers entered during this period” (Lobo & Salvo, 1998, pp. 740 and 741).
Sidebar: A Closer look at the 1965 Immigration Act
From the period of 1972-1977, Asian immigration totaled an average of 136,827 yearly while the total of all immigrants yearly average was about 405,000 (Lobo & Salvo, 1998).
For the types of visas, China’s highest percent of immigration visas were allocated through employment preferences for the last period of 1992-1994 with about 53% (p. 743). India had their highest percent immigration visas in family during 1978-1991 with about 60% and highest for employment in 1972-1977 with 57%. The Philippines had their highest percentage of visas allocated from the immediate relatives category. Finally, Vietnam in 1972-1977 had the highest percent yearly allocations in the refugee category.
The 1965 Immigration Act ended the Immigration Act of 1924 “quota” based system that severely restricted immigration and therefore redirected immigration to include more Asian and other people of color immigrants unlike before (Basu, 2017, p.1). Basu (2017) writes, “Preference categories for admissions were created based on family ties, critical skills, diversity, and refugee status” (pg.5). The initial Asian immigrants who came following this act “were employed in high-skill, high-wage occupations” (Basu, 2017, p. 2). Chinese people, Indians, and Filipinx people are the largest Asian groups in the U.S.
Anti-Asian Racism & Violence
Ever since the first Asians arrived in America, there has been anti-Asian racism. This includes prejudice and acts of discrimination. For more than 200 years, Asian Americans have been denied equal rights, subjected to harassment and hostility, had their rights revoked and imprisoned for no justifiable reason, physically attacked, and murdered.
Ethnic Competition Leads to Violence
As the section on Asian American history discussed, numerous acts of discrimination against Chinese immigrants culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the first and so far only time in American history, an entire ethnic group was singled out and forbidden to step foot on American soil. Although this was not the first such anti-Asian incident, it symbolizes the legacy of racism directed against our community.
It was followed by numerous denials of justice against Chinese and Japanese immigrants seeking to claim equal treatment to land ownership, citizenship, and other rights in state and federal court in the early 1900s. Many times, Asians were not even allowed to testify in court. Perhaps the most infamous episode of anti-Asian racism was the unjustified imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II -- done solely on the basis of their ethnic ancestry.
One may think that as the Asian American population becomes larger and more integrated into the mainstream American social and political institutions that incidents of anti-Asian racism would occur less often. In fact, the opposite has been true. The last 20 years or so has seen Asian Americans become the fastest-growing targets for hate crimes and violence.
It seems that whenever there are problems in American society, political or economic, there always seems to be the need for a scapegoat -- someone or a group of people who is/are singled out, unjustifiably blamed, and targeted with severe hostility. Combined with the cultural stereotype of Asian Americans as quiet, weak, and powerless, more and more Asian Americans are victimized, solely on the basis of being an Asian American.
Vincent Chin and the pan-Asian American Movement of the 1980s
The 1982 murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin in Detroit, Michigan, is considered an important landmark in Asian American history and panethnic political identity development. Asian Americans protested the fact that two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, were sentenced to probation and a small fine with no prison time for their manslaughter conviction. The case led to the development of a nationwide consciousness around Anti-Asian hate, and established some groundwork for continued civil rights and social justice campaigns (Tajima-Peña, 2014, p. 185).
License to Commit Murder = $3,700
Perhaps the most graphic and shocking incident that illustrates this process was the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Vincent was beaten to death by two white men (Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz) who called him a "jap" (even though he was Chinese American) and blamed him and Japanese automakers for the current recession and the fact that they were about to lose their jobs. After a brief scuffle inside a local bar/night club, Vincent tried to run for his life until he was cornered nearby, held down by Nitz while Ebens repeatedly smashed his skull and bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat.
Journalist and activist Helen Zia witnessed the collapse of the auto industry in Detroit, with hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and also white working class auto workers left to fend for themselves. Described as “a city in crisis,” people in Detroit lost their jobs, homes and cars, and “gloom turned to anger as they searched for the cause of their miseries” (2010, p. 36). Japan made an easy target. First, the oil crisis of 1978 essentially “killed the market for heavy, eight-cylinder dinosaurs made in Detroit,” leading to massive layoffs. Meanwhile, Japan’s auto industry was beginning to grow, meeting the demand for inexpensive and fuel-efficient vehicles. Zia continued, “They were easy to hate. Anything Japanese, or presumed to be Japanese, became a potential target” (p. 37). Unions sponsored events where they sledge-hammered Japanese cars. Zia reflected that living in Detroit at the time, “It felt dangerous to have an Asian face” (p. 37).
On March 18, 1983, it was reported that the two killers were charged for Vincent’s slaying. They pleaded guilty and no contest to beating Vincent to death, yet each received three years of probation and $3,780 in fines. The judge defended these sentences by stating that his job was to fit the punishment not just to the crime, but also to the perpetrators. In this case, as he argued, both Ebens and Nitz had no prior criminal record and were both employed at the time of the incident. Therefore, the judge reasoned that neither man represented a threat to society stating, “These aren't the kind of men you send to jail” (Zia, 2010, p. 39). However, others had a different interpretation of the light sentences. They argued that what the judge was basically saying was that as long as you have no prior criminal record and have a job, you could buy a license to commit murder for $3,700.
People were enraged and called out this obvious example of systemic racism, where the lives of two violent killers were valued above the life of an Asian American hate crime and murder victim, Vincent Chin. As more and more Asian Americans heard about Chin’s slaying and the “slap-on-the-wrist” sentencing, they began to demand justice. They felt that what Vincent experienced could have happened to them and to anyone who “looked” Japanese. This was the start of another panethnic Asian American movement. Over 100 people came together to form a pan-Asian organization that could seek civil rights justice for Chin’s murder. They were called American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), and news on the efforts of ACJ spread across the country due to lobbying and press coverage. “It was the first time that an Asian American–initiated issue was considered significant national news,” wrote Zia (2010, p. 48). ACJ was naming anti-Asian violence as “present-day phenomenon” and they helped to create an organizing framework for Asian Americans.
In a second trial, the Justice Department convicted Ebens (the one who actually swung the bat) of violating Vincent's civil rights and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Nitz (the one who held Vincent down) was acquitted. However, these verdicts were thrown out on appeal due to a technicality and a new trial was ordered by a federal appeals court. However, because of "overwhelming publicity" about the case, the new trial was moved all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio.
At this retrial, whose jury consisted almost entirely of white blue-collar men, both men were acquitted of all charges. Mrs. Chin did manage to win a civil suit against Ebens and Nitz for $1.5 million but received very little of that money, since Ebens stopped making payments in 1989. Mrs. Chin eventually became so distraught over these incidents of injustice that she left the U.S. and moved back to China. To this day, neither man has served any jail time for murdering Vincent Chin and only recently has Ebens expressed regret for his actions.
As many scholars argue, the events surrounding Vincent Chin's murder and the acquittal of his killer sadly represents another example of how Asian Americans are seen as not being "real" Americans and therefore worthy of the same rights and privileges that so many other Americans take for granted. Further, the lenient treatment that his killers received echoes similar incidents in the late 1800s in which Chinese miners were not allowed to testify against whites who attacked them or murdered their friends. In other words, Vincent's murder was another example of how the life of an Asian American is systematically devalued in relation to that of a "real" American.
Zia wrote that losing its first national campaign didn’t devastate the Asian American community, “instead, it had been transformed” (2010, p. 53). The legacy of the Vincent Chin case lived on through award-winning documentaries and as author and Ethnic Studies professor Yen Le Espiritu pointed out, as a result, Asian Americans are more willing to speak on anti-Asian racism, are better organized, and this era paved the way for building “pan-Asian unity.”
The Formation of Solidarity
Although justice was not served in this case, Vincent's murder galvanized the entire Asian American community like no other incident before it. As an example of pluralism/multiculturalism, it resulted in the formation of numerous Asian American community organizations and coalitions whose purpose was to monitor how Asian Americans were treated and to mobilize any and all resources available to fight for justice. (See section 9.5 for more on the importance of pan-Asianism) Asian Americans saw firsthand how anti-Asian prejudice and hostility operated, both at the personal physical level and at the institutional level.
Since then, groups have documented numerous incidents of hate crimes committed against Asian Americans. NAPALC's 1999 Audit of Violence Against Asian Pacific Americans points out that there was a 13% increase of reported anti-Asian incidents between 1998 and 1999. It found that South Asians were the most targeted among Asian Americans and that vandalism was the most common form of anti-Asian discrimination. This is reinforced by recent anti-Asian vandalism at Stanford University that included such threats as "rape all oriental bitches," "kill all gooks," and "I'm a real white american."
Similar incidents and anti-Asian threats have also occurred and continue to occur at college campuses all around the country. What makes the situation worse are the apathetic, half-hearted, and even insensitive responses on the part of the authorities, in this case university officials. Even in rare instances when they admit that racial tensions are a problem on their campus, university leaders are slow to respond appropriately. Administrators consistently fight efforts to mandate classes on multiculturalism for all students even though research shows that these classes promote increased understanding and respect among students.
Secondly, they resist students' efforts to promote or even establish Asian American and other racial/ethnic studies programs. This is despite the fact that at almost all major universities around the country, it's common for Asian American students to comprise 15%, 25%, or even 50% of their students (i.e., U.C. Irvine). Students at Wellesley College, regarded as one of the elite women's colleges in the country, recently planned to go on a hunger strike to demand that their administration fulfill its earlier promises of strengthening its Asian Americans studies program. At the last minute, Wellesley officials gave into the students' demands.
Incidents of anti-Asian intimidation and physical attacks are sickening by themselves. They are often made worse when the authorities in charge don't take the appropriate actions to address them.
“Asian American” Panethnicity and “Third World” Solidarity:
Inspired by various nationalist liberation movements of the 1960s such as the Black Power movement, second-generation Asian youth started to use the term “Asian American” to describe a panethnic identity rooted in solidarity. Asian Americans of diverse ethnic backgrounds attended a UCLA conference in the summer of 1968 to discuss issues of identity, power and the war in Vietnam. They rejected the term “Oriental” since it “smacks of European colonialism and imperialism,” noting that Asia is only east in relationship to Europe (Espiritu, 1992, p. 32). This forced students to consider Asian American as an alternative to “Yellow” and “Oriental” and the first organization to apply this term was the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) at UC Berkeley in 1969 (p. 33). Yen Le Espiritu, Ethnic Studies Professor at UC San Diego, wrote on pan-Asian ethnicity and explained how Asian Americans were also inspired by the success of anticolonial revolutions and “Third World” solidarity between Africa, Asia, and Latin America (such as “Afro-Asia” solidarity displayed at the Bandung conference in 1955).
Instead of cultural bonds, panethnic identity is a result of political and social processes. Espiritu emphasizes the political nature of the development of a panethnic identity for Asian Americans, with the purpose of struggling for power and resources (1992, p. 14). As Asian American Studies professor Diane Fujino, UC Santa Barbara, notes, this was a political strategy “to contest racial oppression” (2014, p. 1104).
The Asian American Movement focused on solidarity with Asia, and both global and internal Third World communities. Activist Amy Uyematsu wrote that the movement rejected their parents’ assimilationist goals and “turned the racial order on its head by asking Asian Americans to see a shared oppression with black Americans and to challenge the anti-black racism harbored by many Asian Americans” (2014, p. 1105). AAPA was anti-imperialist and organized the Third World Liberation Front strike at San Francisco State (1968) and UC Berkeley (1969), standing in unity with other students of color to demand Ethnic Studies in the longest and most violent student struggle in the U.S.
Espiritu adds that the development of Asian American Studies was perhaps the most important outcome of the Asian American Movement and the discipline continues to build on an Asian American heritage. Asian American Studies curriculum expresses both similarities and differences across diverse Asian American communities and helps Asian American students understand who they are (1992, p. 36). Standing in solidarity with other oppressed groups also highlighted the view “that their own liberation was intricately linked to the liberation of peoples everywhere” (Fujino, 2014, p. 1106).
Since these movements of the 1960s and 1980s, we’ve witnessed and participated in the development of Asian American Studies, panethnic non-profits, conferences, news, film festivals, political campaigns and voter drives that organize for better political representation across diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander groups.
Sidebar: Richard Aoki: an Asian American Black Panther
Richard Masato Aoki (1938-2009) was only 3 years old when he and his family were incarcerated at Topaz, Utah during World War II for being Japanese. Afterwards, his family moved to West Oakland and Richard grew up in a segregated Black neighborhood, which he shared was “one of the best experiences I ever had” because he was immersed in African American society (Wang and Cheng, 2009, 11:54 - 12:03). He knew both the co-founders of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP), Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. Newton asked Richard to join the party, as they were both politically engaged, and he became an early member. Richard shared that when Newton approached him, he replied, “Wait a minute now…I don’t look exactly Black.” Newton responded, “the struggle for freedom, justice and equality transcends racial and ethnic barriers” (01:22 - 01:51). As a “Field Marshall,” Richard became the only Asian American panther member who had a leadership position.
As the call for freedom and self-determination were some of the core principles of the panther’s 10-point platform, so was the right to self-defense. Richard Aoki helped to supply and trained party members on how to clean and break down guns. BPP leader Kathleen Cleaver strongly affirmed that Richard helped to start the organization because he witnessed “people being subjected to unfair, racist domination…and he knew it was wrong and so he was quite willing to help his friends fight against this” (Wang and Cheng, 2009, 44:10 - 44:24).
In 1968, Richard was a student at UC Berkeley and the chair of the Asian American Political Alliance. He helped organize the 3-month strike in 1969 with the Third World Liberation Front, helping to establish Ethnic Studies at the university. He was on the frontline being beaten by police, getting arrested, and physically fighting back. Richard became one of the first coordinators of Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley. Afterwards, he worked for the community college system and Diane Fujino noted that he would “go to bat” for first-generation college students, often students of color from working class and/or immigrant backgrounds. Fujino, who was also Richard’s biographer, stated, “He would try to get them scholarships…try to encourage them to take certain classes…encourage them to stay in school” (Wang and Cheng, 2009, 1:20:20-1:20:33).
Later in life, he unofficially mentored various youth activists, college students, and community organizers, including author, Kay Fischer. Richard also spoke regularly at various campus and community events about his life as an activist and social change agent. He supported and advised the Ethnic Studies strike of 1999 at UC Berkeley.
Due to serious illness, Richard ended up taking his own life in 2009. Four years after his death, journalist Seth Rosenfeld came out with a book titled, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power. He claimed that Richard was an FBI informant, and although his book mostly focused on the FBI’s covert operations on student movements during the 1960s, Rosenfeld benefited from sensationalist press coverage right before the release of his book that explicitly focused on outing Richard Aoki, a well-known activist. Progressives in the Bay Area were divided on the issue of whether they believed Rosenfeld’s claim, or felt that there wasn’t strong enough evidence. Fujino questioned the timing of the release of these documents and pointed out how revealing the identity of an informant was a “serious breach of FBI protocol” (Gonzales, 2012). She also stated that after reading Rosenfeld’s book, she was surprised to find that there was very little information on Rosenfeld’s claim, and simply put, the evidence was not substantial. Fujino continues that after evaluating the FBI documents herself, it’s not clear whether he was an informant or the one being observed (Democracy Now!, 2012).
Many of Richard’s friends and life-long activists have also come out to defend Richard’s legacy and integrity. The impact of Richard’s revolutionary commitment to liberty and justice is not lost. Richard’s narrative of fighting for Black Liberation and for Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley was an important demonstration of interracial solidarity. Musician, writer and activist, Fred Ho, also wrote to rebut claims about Richard, stating that he must have been a “piss-poor” informant as he ultimately shaped the Third World movements of the 1960s. Richard’s commitment to change continued into the 1990s and 2000s as he mentored and inspired the next generation of activists. Those who knew Richard remembered him as forward thinking, generous, principled, for the people, and consistent. As Ho pointed out, Richard “remained a revolutionary for life” (Ho, 2012).
Anti-Asian Racism in the time of COVID-19
In early 2020, reports started circulating about a new infectious respiratory disease that seems to have originated in Wuhan, China. Similar in nature to previous "Severe acute respiratory syndromes," this strain eventually became known as COVID-19 (for "Coronavirus Disease 2019"), also referred to as the "Coronavirus." Eventually, COVID-19 became a pandemic that has spread around the world and as of June 2020, there has been almost 7 million cases reported acoss 188 countries, resulting in more than 400,000 deaths.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in widespread racist and xenophobic rhetoric (such as using terms like "Chinese virus," "Wuhan virus," or "Kung-flu"), along with mis/disinformation, and conspiracy theories spread through various media outlets. In turn, these have led to suspicion, hostility, hate, and even violence against anyone perceived to be Chinese or more generally, Asian, Pacific Islander and/or Asian American. From March of 2020-March of 2021 there were over 3,000 self-reported instances of anti-Asian violence including stabbings, beatings, verbal harassment, bullying and being spit on. Of course being spit on is offensive enough, but during a global pandemic that spreads mostly through droplets, it can also be deadly (Lee and Huang, 2021). These hateful acts have forced Asian Americans into a constant state of hyper-awareness and vigilance when they are in public, taking a huge emotional toll. According to Jennifer Lee and Tiffany Huang (2021), the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey indicated that more than three out of four Asian Americans are concerned about harassment, discrimination, and hate crimes due to COVID-19.
Sadly, these forms of anti-Asian prejudice and discrimination are part of a longer history of racist and xenophobic "Yellow Peril" stereotypes that associate Asians, especially Chinese, and Asian Americans with disease and more generally, being economic, cultural, and/or physical threats to U.S. society. These forms of ignorance and bigotry have been targeted at people of Asian descent in the U.S. for over 150 years. They flare up whenever the U.S. faces any kind of crisis that involves China or some other Asian country, and are exacerbated by political leaders who seek to scapegoat Asians and/or Asian Americans as a way to misdirect anxiety during such times and whose actions implicitly or explicitly embolden acts of anti-Asian hate.
Stop AAPI Hate was established on March 19, 2020 by three Asian American organizers and professors after they were denied support from the California Attorney General’s office in creating an anti-Asian discrimination reporting center. They launched their own reporting center titled Stop AAPI Hate, which helped track and analyze anti-Asian hate at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, Catherine Ceniza Choy pointed out that the swift thinking and coordination of the reporting center, “emerged from a legacy of six decades of Asian American activism as well as a response to contemporary anti-Asian violence” (2022, p. 19). A political infrastructure already existed. Asian Americanists and Asian American organizers grew concerned about the backlash that could be faced by the Chinese and Asian American communities when it was reported that the coronavirus spread in China, especially since president Donald Trump publicly referred to it as the “Chinese virus.” They were right. Stop AAPI Hate received around 100 anti-Asian incidents a day in its first week alone (p. 20).
Professor Choy pointed out that while the more disturbing examples of anti-Asian violence made it to the news, less sensational incidents were still reported to Stop AAPI Hate, including: people being prevented from utilizing public transportation; being coughed at; being verbally harassed or harassed online; and vandalism (2022, p. 21). The data analysis also showed that Asian American women experienced discrimination at over twice the rate of men. They reported that although Chinese were the most targeted, 60% of respondents were of other ethnicities, including Korean, Vietnamese, Filipinx, Japanese, Taiwanese, Hmong, Thai, Lao, Cambodian, and those of mixed ethnicities, proving “the significance of ‘Asian American’ as a panethnic category” (p. 22). Often, the racialization of Asian Americans doesn't make distinctions between ethnicities, and Choy brings up the importance of collecting both aggregated and disaggregated data that helped to express the shared experiences among Asian Americans and distinct experiences of Asian ethnic groups.
Many Americans found anti-Asian hate during the pandemic as unexpected or surprising, but anti-Asian violence is not new in the United States. Historian, Dr. Erika Lee testified before Congress on the topic of “Discrimination and Violence Against Asian Americans” on March 18, 2021. She started out by affirming the rate of anti-Asian violence rising in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic that started in late 2019, early 2020. Lee testified,
As shocking as these incidents are, it is so vital to understand that they are not random acts perpetrated by deranged individuals. They are an expression of our country’s long history of systemic racism targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We’ve heard in the past 24 hours many describe anti-Asian discrimination and racial violence as unAmerican. Unfortunately, it is very American. This history, this American history, is over 150 years old (House Committee on the Judiciary, 2021, 01:22:48 - 01:23:25).
Lee informed the committee of one of the largest mass lynchings by a mob in U.S. history, happening in 1871 when seventeen Chinese men were lynched by a white mob of 500 in Los Angeles. She also shared that in 1886 a mob forced out all of Seattle’s Chinese residents; similarly South Asian immigrants were attacked and driven out of their homes, and Japanese and Filipinx people were subject to beatings and other racially motivated attacks. She brought up the brutal 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, and the wave of anti-Asian violence in the 1980s that targeted Korean shopkeepers and Southeast Asian refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. She reminded the committee that in the weeks after September 11, 2001, hate crimes against Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities increased by 1,600 percent. Lee continued, “As these incidents reveal, Asian Americans have been terrorized, we’ve been treated as enemies, we’ve been discriminated against. Today we are still viewed as foreigners, rather than U.S. citizens” (House Committee on the Judiciary, 2021, 01:24:17 - 01:24:31).
These historical and contemporary events are often not taught in our schools. Even our Asian American students often end up internalizing the “model minority” myth; that Asian Americans are successful and don’t face racism, and even that Asian Americans are "honorary whites." We’ve read many essays by Asian American students who’ll write that they’ve never faced racism, but follow up with examples of racial discrimination. Deceptively “positive,” the “model minority” myth only works to divide people of color and ignore the long legacy of systemic racism and racially motivated violence against Asian Americans. The most recent expression of anti-Asian discrimination and hate is simply an extension of this legacy.
Of course, such incidents of anti-Asian hate are connected to all forms of structural racism and other examples of inequality and injustice. These incidents have also shattered the optimism that many Asian Americans had that U.S. society was making progress in reducing racism and moving toward greater inclusion and equity (optimistically symbolized by the growing popularity and success of such Asian- and Asian American-centered media/cultural products such as Crazy Rich Asians or K-Pop/BTS, etc.). Instead, these examples of anti-Asian discrimination have illuminated how Asian Americans are still considered as "perpetual foreigners" and that our fight for cultural citizenship (i.e. not just legal rights, but full and complete integration and equity into the fundamental fabric of U.S. society, from its social institutions down to everyday interpersonal interactions) continues. A recent video by Angela Nguyen posted on social media has called attention to this issue which mainstream U.S. press has largely ignore - which resulted in more recent coverage.
Contributors and Attributions
Content on this page has multiple licenses. Everything is CC BY-NC-ND other than Introduction to Sociology 2e, Relocation and Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II, and The Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907 which are CC BY-SA.
- Tsuhako, Joy. (Cerritos College)
- Gutierrez, Erika. (Santiago Canyon College)
- Asian Nation (Le) (CC BY-NC-ND) adapted with permission
- Introduction to Sociology 2e (OpenStax) (CC BY 4.0)
- Relocation and Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II (Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA)/University of California) (CC BY 4.0)
- The Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907 (Wikipedia) (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Content for this page comes from
- 9.2: Intergroup Relations by Erika Gutierrez, Janét Hund, Shaheen Johnson, Carlos Ramos, Lisette Rodriguez, & Joy Tsuhako is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
- 5.3: Immigration and Exclusion by Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges is licensed CC BY-NC 4.0.
- 5.2: Who are Asian Americans? by Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges is licensed CC BY-NC 4.0.