By DANA Y. NAKANO, Ph.D.
Anti-Asian hate has existed for as long as Asian people have been in the United States. While Asian Americans are viewed as recent immigrants and forever foreigners, Asian people have been in the territory that is now the U.S. long before the nation’s independence.
Filipinos were the first Asians in the U.S., landing as crewmen aboard Spanish trade ships in what is now California since the mid-1500s. However, Chinese laborers made up the first significant Asian population arriving in the mid-1800s to both Hawai’i and the U.S. mainland.
The very recruitment of Chinese and other Asian immigrants as cheap, expendable labor — particularly for the California Gold Rush and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad — is among the first instances of anti-Asian hate.
In another early instance, the California Supreme Court ruled in the 1854 case People v. Hall that the Chinese — along with Black, mixed-race, and indigenous people — were not allowed to testify against a white man in legal proceedings. This ruling made it nearly impossible to prosecute anti-Chinese violence.
Beginning in the 1850s, white mobs in towns from California to Wyoming terrorized and forcibly removed Chinese Americans. A similar mob drove Sikh Americans out of Bellingham, Wash. in 1907. In 1871, one of the worst mass lynchings in U.S. history saw the death of 17 Chinese American men in Los Angeles.
This vitriol against the Chinese ultimately led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the first law to explicitly exclude a group of people from entering the U.S. on the basis of race. However, the intersections of race and gender produced an earlier exclusion. The 1875 Page Act barred the entry of persons from “oriental countries” for “lewd and immoral purposes.” As all Asian women were assumed to be prostitutes, this law gave free license to immigration officers to deny entry to any Asian woman.
The Chinese Exclusion Act also defined Chinese immigrants as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” meaning they could not naturalize as U.S. citizens. However, it remained unclear whether other Asian immigrants could naturalize. Between 1878-1923, the U.S. Supreme Court denied all 25 cases regarding the eligibility of different Asian ethnicities. Asian immigrants would not receive the right to naturalize until 1952.
The presence of Asians in the U.S. and the accompanying anti-Asian violence have always been tied to the movement and interests of the U.S. empire abroad. The Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60), fought to stop Western importation of opium, led to Chinese economic instability that spurred emigration to the U.S. Japanese immigration might not have occurred if the U.S. had not forcibly opened Japan to trade with an armed armada in 1853.
The formal U.S. territorial empire began in 1898 when the Philippines and other islands were ceded by Spain in the Spanish-American War. The U.S. quashed Filipino independence movements in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), allowing for U.S. colonization of the archipelago until World War II. This violent colonial (and post-colonial) relationship is central to understanding Filipinos in the U.S.
While I do not want to subsume the distinct histories and experiences of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders under the Asian umbrella, I find it important to note the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and Hawai’i’s subsequent annexation in 1898 as related examples of U.S. imperial violence.
In 1906, the San Francisco School Board required that all Japanese children attend the segregated Oriental Public School, upsetting the Japanese government. Recognizing Japan as a rising world power, the U.S. sought a diplomatic rather than legislative solution, the Gentlemen’s Agreement. Japan agreed to end labor emigration. The U.S. allowed existing Japanese immigrants to stay and allowed the immigration of their wives, children, and parents. Japanese American children were no longer segregated in California schools. Ultimately, the Gentlemen’s Agreement allowed for a robust multigenerational Japanese American population that was not possible for other early Asian immigrants.
Despite diplomatic overtures, the Immigration Act of 1924 explicitly and fully excluded immigration from Japan. Aside from China, Japan, and the Philippines, the remainder of Asian nations had been excluded from sending immigrants in 1917 with the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone — extending from the Middle East, across South and Southeast Asia, and into the Pacific Islands.
In 1924, the Philippines became the last part of Asia still allowed to send emigrants to the U.S. as a colony of the U.S. empire. This would not change until the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which granted independence to the Philippines within ten years (it took 12) but also immediately reclassified Filipinos (in the U.S. and in the Philippines) as aliens and excluded them from immigration.
From 1910-40, Asian immigrants still allowed to enter the U.S. did so through Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Unlike its East Coast counterpart, Ellis Island, which quickly processed primarily European immigrants, the mostly Asian immigrants coming through Angel Island were often held for weeks, months, or even years and were far more likely to be denied entry.
Responding to their exclusion and the undue hardships of authorized entry, Asian immigrants also explored unauthorized options. Early growth of what we now think of as “border patrol” and “immigration enforcement” along our land borders with Mexico and Canada was meant to stop unauthorized border crossings by Asian immigrants.
Legal restrictions at the state level also impacted Asian Americans. Since the late 1800s, 38 states passed anti-miscegenation laws outlawing interracial marriages. Such laws had a particular impact on Asian Americans as the population at this time was predominantly men. Due to the Expatriation Act of 1907, any U.S.-born Asian American woman would lose her citizenship if she married an Asian immigrant and she would not have the right to re-naturalize.
Mere interactions between Asian American men and white women often came with the risk of violence. In 1933, a group of Filipino American men in Watsonville, Calif. were attacked by a white mob after being seen dancing with white women.
Beginning in 1913, 15 states from California to Louisiana passed Alien Land Laws, which prohibited the purchase, and later leasing, of property by “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” targeting Japanese and other Asian immigrants. Oregon’s 1859 Constitution explicitly included the prohibition of property ownership by “a Chinaman.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these laws in 1923, but ultimately overturned them in 1952.
The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the Second World War. Japanese Americans were blamed for this attack and saw their communities and businesses become targets for violence and destruction. Due to racial lumping and mistaken identity, other Asian Americans often found themselves as targets as well. Ultimately, Japanese Americans, regardless of citizenship, were reclassified as enemy aliens. All mainland Japanese Americans in the armed services were discharged or reassigned and disarmed. Japanese Americans in Hawaii were segregated into the 100th Battalion. At first, Japanese Americans were excluded from the draft and deemed “not acceptable to the armed forces because of nationality or ancestry.”
120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from the West Coast into concentration camps, which took social, physical, mental, and financial tolls on individuals, families, and the broader community. In 1943, Japanese Americans were allowed to volunteer for military service and become part of the Army’s segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In 1944, the draft was reinstated for Japanese Americans while they sat behind barbed wire. Japanese Americans remained excluded from the Navy until after the war.
Following World War II, the U.S. found itself in the Cold War of “democracy vs. communism.” But this war was, in fact, not so cold in Asia, where both the Korean War and the Vietnam War were hot sites for the imperialist U.S. policy of containment. War, even a cold one, is always violent. U.S. military action on the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam — as well as in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — demonstrate a particular dehumanization and disregard for Asian life.
Outside of combat, the U.S. military presence in Asia brought a particular violence against Asian women, who were sexually exploited and assaulted by military personnel. These wars exacerbated the hypersexualization and violence against Asian women in the U.S. and abroad.
The devaluing of Asian life was also central in the brutal 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit. Chin was murdered by two white auto workers. The rise of Japan as global economic competition led to a rise in anti-Japanese animosity and the scapegoating of Asian Americans. Chin, a Chinese American, was mistaken for Japanese and targeted. While Chin’s murderers pleaded guilty, they served no jail time. The legal system deemed Chin’s life only worth a minimal fine.
In 1999, Dr. Wen-Ho Lee, a Taiwanese American scientist, was arrested and accused of providing nuclear secrets to China. Dr. Lee was jailed in solitary confinement for nine months without bail despite no evidence against him. The FBI admitted Dr. Lee came under suspicion as an “overseas ethnic Chinese.”
Such racial profiling practices continued within federal law enforcement. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice launched the “China Initiative,” which made little effort to hide the fact that it regarded all Asian American scientists with any relationships to people in China as suspects. Numerous Asian American scientists, mostly Chinese Americans, have been falsely accused and jailed under this initiative.
In the 21st century, spikes in anti-Asian hate crimes were often connected to racial scapegoating. Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. saw a sharp rise in hate against Muslims and people of Arab or Middle Eastern ancestry. Indian Americans — particularly of the Sikh faith — also found themselves as targets. As part of their religious practice, many Sikh Americans wrap their hair in a turban. This practice is confused with Muslim stereotypes perpetuated by racist media portrayals.
Sikh American Balibar Singh Sodhi was shot in Mesa, Ariz. days after 9/11. In 2012, a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. was the site of a mass shooting that killed seven people and wounded four others.
During the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020, news media and elected officials — including President Trump — repeated racist rhetoric that led to the targeting of Asian Americans as spreaders of the virus. From 2020-22, nearly 11,500 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate. In total, this constitutes a 339% increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans compared to before the pandemic.
In January 2021, Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai American grandfather, died from head injuries sustained during a racist attack in San Francisco. Numerous other pandemic-related hate crimes included stabbings, assaults, and verbal abuse from across the U.S. — predominantly against women.
Violence against women is another recurring theme in Asian American history. In 2021, a white gunman opened fire at two massage parlors in Atlanta, killing six Asian American women (Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue) and two others (Delaina Gonzalez and Paul Michels). Sex addiction and misogyny against Asian women were reported as motives for the shooting, mirroring the hypersexualization and dehumanization of Asian women seen in the 1875 Page Act and continuing U.S. military interventions throughout Asia.
As Asian Americans today are most often discussed as the model minority, it is easy to forget that we were not always seen this way. The mantle of the model minority is fickle and its protective capacities are provided at the whim of white supremacist benevolence.
The persistent visible racial difference of Asian Americans and its associated assumptions of forever foreignness, disloyalty, and non-belonging can so easily become an outward trigger for violence and hate at any moment. Anti-Asian sentiment and violence are racism. Knowing our history helps put this into perspective.
Dana Nakano is an associate professor of sociology at CSU Stanislaus. He is co-editor of “Japanese American Millennials: Rethinking Generation, Community, and Diversity” (Temple University Press 2019) with Dr. Michael Omi and Jeffrey Yamashita. His forthcoming book is titled “Japanese Americans and the Racial Uniform: Citizenship, Belonging, and the Limits of Assimilation” (New York University Press) and will be released in spring 2023.
This project was supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library