Discrimination Against Asians in the United States
By Fanny Wong, Chinese American author, New York.
In May, we celebrate the resilience, legacy and culture of Asians, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders in the United States. As you may know, the last few years have been very difficult for Asian Americans. We were aghast at the March 2021 mass murder of eight people in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the victims were Korean women. Asian Americans were already targeted for being “Asian” since the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic. Between March 2020 and February 2021, almost 4,000 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported throughout the country. Verbal abuse and physical attacks were recorded on surveillance cameras. Violence could be spitting, hitting, and shoving that led to injuries. In February 2021, an 84-year-old Thai man died after he was shoved to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown in California.
Since the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the 1850s, the United States has had a long history of viewing Asians as “The Other.” The early immigrants worked in gold mines and helped build railroads in the American West. They sent their hard-earned money to China to support their families, and repaid loans of their passage to America. They had little choice but to work for whatever wages they could. American laborers generally could bargain for higher wages, but they feared being squeezed out of their jobs by the Chinese immigrants.
As with most immigrants, the Chinese settled in their own neighborhoods. The stories of crime and decadence in Chinatowns, some of which were true, so alarmed the public that the Chinese were called the Yellow Peril.
The Chinese Massacre of 1871 was the first in a series of riots and killings in California. Los Angeles was a small town then. The 200 Chinese men who lived there were farmers, laundry workers, laborers and vegetable vendors. This small population lived in a segregated area called Calles de los Negros, a very rough neighborhood where no one wanted to live. That was where the Chinese could afford to live.
On October 24, 1871, a dispute between two Chinese factions led to the accidental killing of a white bystander. People ran around saying the Chinese were killing White people. A mob of 500 white men descended on Chinatown killing 18, some of them by hanging. At the time, Chinese people were not permitted to testify against white people. Even so, a few of the perpetrators were tried and convicted. But they were released on a technicality. No one served a prison sentence, no one was held accountable.
In 1885, Chinese miners in Rock Spring, Wyoming, did not join a strike by white miners. This enraged the white miners so much that they stormed Chinatown, killing 28 Asians and injuring 15 more. Again, no one was held accountable. When news of the massacre spread, many people condemned the violence, but it also resulted in Chinese immigrants being driven away from some communities.
By then, Congress had already passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration of Chinese immigrants for ten years. This Act was the first in American history to place broad restrictions on immigration based on nationality. In 1892, Congress voted to renew the exclusion for another ten years, expanding the restriction to cover Hawaii and the Philippines as well. This Act was not repealed until the year 1943, when a law passed set a quota of 105 per year. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally abolished the National Origins Formula.
During WWII, some 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to ten Internment Camps (see my recent article on this topic) in the Western United States. German and Italian Americans were not interned, even though Germany and Italy were also fighting American soldiers in Europe.
Whenever there is economic hardship, someone becomes a scapegoat. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese young man, was mistaken for being Japanese. Japanese cars were selling very well, and many workers in American auto plants had lost their jobs. Vincent was bludgeoned to death by a laid-off autoworker and his stepfather, also a Detroit autoworker. His murderers never spent a day in jail. In this case as well, justice was not served. It was almost as if an Asian life was not worth anything.
But Asians, just like everyone else, are worthy. They have contributed greatly in music, performing arts, science, sports, literature, and politics as well as all other fields. Duke Kahananmoku, Hawaiian American, popularized surfing in the 1920s. Dalip Singh Saund was the first Indian American to be elected in 1956 to the House of Representatives. Yuji Ichioka, Japanese American, was a historian and civil rights advocate. Jerry Yang, Taiwanese American co-founded Yahoo. Tammy Ducksworth, Thai American, is a disabled Veteran and a senator. Sandra Oh, Korean American actress plays roles that are not stereotypes. Sunisa Lee, Hmong American gymnast, won a gold medal in the 2022 Olympics. The list goes on and on.
It is encouraging that movies made by Asians about Asians Americans are gaining popularity in the United States. The award-winning film “Minari” by Korean director Lee Isaac Chung tells the story of an American Korean family’s struggles and aspirations in rural Arkansas. Disputes between husband and wife, health issues of a child, generational differences and financial difficulties are familiar to those of white families. The more realistic Asian stories are told, the less they will be perceived as “The Other.”
In the past, Asians have survived racism by keeping their heads down. The younger generation is coming together and standing up for their parents and elders. It no longer believes that a nail that sticks out gets hammered down. ‘Head down and mouth shut’ is no longer an option. It is important to speak up about and work against injustices of racism.
Different languages as well as cultural traditions among the many different Asian communities in the nation can make it difficult for them to unite for Asian advocacy. But it is important that we unite and be active for the cause.
Let’s hope that as we celebrate the Asian American and Pacific Islander Month this May, we witness great strides being made to end racism in our nation.
By Fanny Wong, Chinese American author, New York.