History of Anti-Asian American Racism

The front line of Sunday's Stop Asian Hate march, headed by organizers and community leaders and elders.

By Ray Hom

A survey conducted between March 29 – April 14th , commissioned by the nonprofit Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change, polled 2,766 American adults across the country. It’s one of the first national surveys in two decades to assess public attitudes toward Asian Americans, the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S.

When asked to name a famous Asian American, 42 percent of respondents answered “don’t know.” The next most popular choices were martial arts legends Jackie Chan (11 percent), who’s from Hong Kong, and Bruce Lee (9 percent), who died nearly a half-century ago. The results were similar across racial groups: Among Black, white and Latino Americans, “don’t know” was the most common answer.

“This just shows that even when we’re in the news, people are not really soaking in the presence of Asian Americans in our country,” Norman Chen, the co-founder and chief executive of LAAUNCH, told NBC Asian America.

Interestingly, other findings from the survey include about 25%  of white Americans don’t consider anti-Asian racism a problem that needs to be addressed. In addition, about 80 percent of Asian Americans said they face discrimination, compared with 90 percent of Black Americans and 73 percent of Latinos.

The survey also found that fewer than 1 in 4 Asian Americans feel respected in this country, and more Americans get their information about Asian Americans through movies, TV and music than friends or colleagues.

As we close out Asian American Pacific Islanders Heritage month in May, it would not serve it justice unless historic highlights are shared as it’s worthwhile to provide some context and history as part of bringing awareness to the anti-Asian racism that occurred throughout our history…

History of Anti-Asian Racism and Scapegoating

Racism against the Asian American community is not new.  Matter of fact, it runs deep as it includes many historical events dating back to the 1800’s, many of which are not known by many today because they are not included in our education curriculum.

California’s 1848–55 gold rush had swelled the population more than 25-fold. By 1867, Chinese immigrants made up 90% of the workforce building the transcontinental railway. By 1880, some 16% of the population of San Francisco were Chinese.

The Chinese massacre of 1871 was a racial massacre that occurred on October 24, 1871, in Los Angeles, California, when a mob of around 500 White and Hispanic persons entered Old Chinatown and attacked, bullied, robbed, and murdered 17 Chinese men and boys. Another incident during this time involved San Jose’s Chinatown being burned and destroyed.

In the late 19th century, U.S. federal law openly targeted Chinese immigrants who faced animosity and segregation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for 10 years, and was renewed by the Geary Act, which additionally required immigrants from China to carry permits at all times or face possible deportation. It was not until more than 60 years later, in 1943, that Congress repealed the exclusion which only allowed only 105 Chinese people to enter the country each year. Acts of Violence was common towards those who did not make it to the US.

Chinatown became San Francisco’s most congested and impoverished district. In March 1900, the first suspected San Francisco plague victim died in Chinatown. That first case panicked San Francisco’s authorities and they quarantined Chinatown, preventing any movement of food in, or of its inhabitants out. It eventually became a game of politics acknowledging the plague and lifting the quarantine, sounding similar to the current pandemic.

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 during WWII, about 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry lived on the US mainland, mostly along the Pacific Coast. About two thirds were full citizens, born and raised in the United States. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, however, a wave of anti-Japanese suspicion and fear led the Roosevelt administration to adopt a drastic policy toward these residents, alien and citizen alike. Known as the Japanese American Incarceration, virtually all Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and property and live in concentration camps for most of the war.

In the early 1980’s, the automobile industry in the US was overtaken by Japan as the largest automobile producer in the world. This caused great animosity towards the Japanese in the US due to loss of jobs by Japanese auto makers, especially in Detroit. On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death by two white men who assumed he was Japanese. At the trial, the men only received a $3,000 fine and no prison sentences.  The light sentencing sparked national outrage and fueled a movement for Asian American civil rights.

Muslims were the appointed scapegoats of the 9/11 attacks. Citizens who felt threatened and traumatized were struggling to rationalize the suffering caused by these events thus, misplaced the blame and focused their anger towards minorities who were perceived to share common attributes with the group who carried out the attacks. Muslims felt the effects of verbal harassment, threats, profiled and denied civil liberties that were  granted to their fellow U.S. citizens.

Most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, government leaders have fueled Anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. Ex-President Trump and his senior leaders have directly or indirectly encouraged hate crimes, racism or xenophobia by using anti-Chinese rhetoric including calling the virus the “Chinese” virus or Kung Flu. 

History of Asian American Activism

Over the course of these challenging times for the Asian American community, there were some bright spots involving pockets of activism.

In 1885, Tape vs. Hurley was a landmark court case in the California Supreme Court in which the Court found the exclusion of a Chinese American student from public school based on her ancestry unlawful.

What many people do not know is that in 1927, a Chinese immigrant family led the first fight for desegregation in the Jim Crow South. Unfortunately, in the Lum v. Rice case, the Lum family lost the case which set a precedent for segregation for years to come.

In 1965, the Delano grape strike was launched by Filipino migrants which would eventually lead to the formation of the United Farm Workers and change the face of American labor.

The judgement in the murder of Vincent Chin took the country by storm, sparking protests across the nation. The injustice galvanized the Asian American community and was the turning point in the civil rights movement for Asian Americans. Groups around the country protested the sentencing and petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Vincent Chin’s murder as a civil rights violation—which it did.

In 1990, AAPI labor activists approached the AFL-CIO with a historic proposal to form a national Asian American and Pacific Islander labor group.  In 1992, over 500 AAPI labor activists from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C. for the founding convention of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA).

Moments of Solidarity

There were also moments of solidarity in our history. These included Frederick Douglass’ opposition to restrictions on Chinese immigration, Asian American women activists’ work in abolition and Black liberation, the Third World Liberation Front in 1968, the Koreatown Peach March after 1992’s LA unrest, and the #StopAsianHate movement in 2020/2021.

Path Forward

If history has taught us anything, it is to realize that if any community is discriminated against in today’s modern era, we will unite and become stronger. The Stop AAPI Hate movement has once again galvanized the community.  Rallies and marches have inspired the AAPI community to raise their voices to be heard and no longer be silent to ensure that anti-Asian history does not repeat itself.