A Long History
By Stephen Tuttle | April 3, 2021
The media, and much of the public, have suddenly become aware of discrimination against Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants. This newfound awareness comes on the heels of a nightmarish massacre in Atlanta. Eight people, six of them Asian women, were gunned down in three separate locations by a man claiming the massage parlors in which they worked were a temptation to his self-diagnosed sex addiction.
It is not clear the victims were targeted for their racial heritage or just their place of employment. Either way, it brought renewed attention to the very old problem of our mistreatment of people of Asian origin, including damaging stereotypes of Asian women.
The first Asian immigrants, or visitors, of which we have some record arrived in 1587 in what is now California. Menial workers on Spanish galleons, they had started their lives in the Philippines. Some stayed and moved east, establishing their own settlement in New Orleans by 1763. Maritime trade brought additional immigrants from several other Asian countries, and by 1815 there were Chinese-owned and operated businesses in several U.S. cities. They were already facing boycotts and violence from English settlers.
It was the gold rush in California, and economic chaos in China, that brought a flood of new immigrants in the late 1840s and 1850s. Once the dreams of striking it rich faded, Asian immigrants, especially Chinese on the West Coast, became readily available, and willing to work hard and cheaply as farmhands, laundry workers, gardeners, and construction workers.
In the 1860s almost exclusively Chinese work crews built the transcontinental railroad nearly by hand, blasting tunnels through granite mountains, building dozens of trestles, and carving tracks over mountain and desert. It was remarkably difficult work and an equally remarkable human achievement. It didn't matter; the very people who had just done all that work were soon enough targets of legal discrimination.
The Panic of 1873 led to a depression that lasted until 1877. Jobs became extraordinarily scarce, and anti-immigrant and nativist attitudes increased dramatically. Chinese immigrants, easily identifiable and almost always willing to accept lower pay while undertaking the least desirable jobs, became easy targets. Anti-Chinese racism became so widespread that laws were passed.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (yup, that's actually what it was named) could not have been more overt. It banned Chinese immigration altogether and prohibited any Chinese national already here from becoming a U.S. citizen. It was replaced a decade later by the Geary Act, which even strengthened the restrictions. California took it a step further, making it illegal for any Chinese person to live, work, or even enter the state. In a practical sense, it became illegal to even be Chinese.
The Geary Act, which was shamefully upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, was finally repealed in 1943. We were already targeting a different group of Asian citizens by then.
In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt, in his worst moment as president, signed an executive order that rounded up more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry and herded them into what we euphemistically called internment camps. These “camps,” located in seven states, were much closer to concentration camps or prisons, surrounded by rows of barbed wire fencing and patrolled by armed military guards also stationed in watchtowers. Some 80,000 of those people were either natural-born or naturalized U.S. citizens but, we were told at the time, we couldn't be sure of their loyalties during World War II.
Americans of Japanese descent made easy targets identifiable by appearance, name, and language. Japan had recently bombed Pearl Harbor, we had declared war, and our anger was misdirected at Japanese-Americans. In addition to their imprisonment, we took their homes, businesses, farms, and bank accounts, which we never returned when the internment program ended in 1945.
Somewhat ironically, the Army's 442nd Infantry Regiment, comprised almost entirely of Japanese-American volunteers whose families were subject to internment, was the most decorated in World War II. They received eight Presidential Unit Citations and, incredibly, 21 unit members received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
(We ultimately apologized for the internment program and paid reparations to survivors who suffered through it.)
Things weren't quite as grim for Koreans during the mid-1950s since they represented both sides of that conflict, but Korean-Americans did not escape the animus of some.
Some of us have now decided, for reasons of ignorance, Asian-Americans are somehow responsible for the pandemic and all the grief it has brought with it. That sentiment was ably abetted by some politicians always searching for easy villains and easier answers. According to the FBI, violence against Asians and Asian-Americans has increased 150 percent in the last two years.
That increase in violence might be new, but the prejudice has a centuries-old history. Our bigots haven't been choosy; Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese ... we've targeted those with any Asian ancestry. Blaming anyone different is the American way.