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The History of Racism, Exclusion, and Prejudice Towards the Asian American Community in the U.S.

Updated: May 14

As we mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we took the challenge to dig deeper into the history of exclusion, racism, and hatred that were systemic within the United States. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were a number of executive orders and acts that specifically targeted persons of Asian descent, all born out of intrinsically xenophobic fears and nativist sentiments.

(Photo from National Park Service: NPS.gov)


Understanding and acknowledging this difficult history is vital in order to comprehend the complex structures that our present-day attitudes and institutions are built upon. Contemporary immigration policies were built upon precedent, and xenophobic attitudes contain histories of prejudice, misunderstanding, and distrust. If we wish to be equipped to fight for justice, we need first to be armed with knowledge.


Our history starts with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and the thirst for inexpensive labor in the global market. As the African Slave Trade began to be abolished around the world, those who were used to wielding economic power gained from the advantage of human exploitation began looking for other solutions. In these circumstances, there began to be a market for Chinese labor, from those who were indebted and forced into a form of slave labor to pay off those debts. The conditions of these laborers were brutal and were often equal to the treatment of livestock (including degrading abuse by branding their backs).


In the United States, many impoverished Chinese men immigrated in order to work on the Trans-Continental railroad. Their cheap labor (born out of desperation to send money home to their families to pay off debts and in hopes of eventually being able to afford to send for their families) was exploited by the railroad companies and prompted an influx of Chinese immigrants.


The disproportionately male demographic of Chinese immigrants, as well as white men who converged on California camps during the gold rush, created a market for prostitution. This market in turn created a climate in which the crime of sex slavery of Chinese women became lucrative. Instead of caring for the well-being of the women who were being systematically abused, anti-Chinese sentiment pervasive throughout the United States prompted the government to change their border policy for the first time, in order to protect America’s “culture of monogamy” and the fear of white men being tainted by “diseases” they might catch from these prostitutes. Chinese family structures were very different in their homeland, with one man being married to multiple wives, and supporting concubines as well. These social structures were unfamiliar to Western conceptions of marriage, love, and social contracts, provoking distrust, intense fear, and xenophobia.


The Page Act of 1875 was the result of this social and political landscape and specifically targeted Chinese women hoping to immigrate into the United States. Extensive screenings, fees, red tape, multiple interviews resulted in a significant reduction in immigration numbers. In the aftermath of the implementation of the Page Act, not only were second wives, concubines and prostitutes blocked from immigration, but first wives and potential wives for workers were unable to immigrate as well, making it very difficult for Chinese men to create families at all.


An economic downturn heightened feelings of xenophobia in California, where at one point nearly a quarter of all wage-earners were of Chinese heritage. White residents started blaming their economic problems on the people in their community who comprised an “out” group, which made them an easy target. Headlines fueled the hatred and distrust, and a few years after the Page Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was born. This was the first and thankfully so far the only immigration law that specifically targeted one ethnic group.


It’s important to note that the Chinese Exclusion Act was a turning point in the United States policy, in that it veered away from open borders and our conception as a nation of immigrants towards “nativist” policies and attitudes, or ones that conceptualize the ideal United States Citizens as “native-born” (or in practice as white, male, land-owners). As different waves of immigrants came to the United States over the years, the in-group/out-group demographics shifted with the times, and who assimilated easily, for example, the Irish, Italians, Scandanavians, and Jewish immigrants were all viewed with distrust and hatred at different times. While many groups experienced distrust and prejudice over the years, when xenophobia is codified into policy and law, as it was with Asian immigrants, fear, and distrust become elevated into structural and institutional inequities.


In 1917, another Immigration Act was passed that targeted many groups of people, but specifically targeted those of Asian descent once again. On top of broad literacy exams, which again institutionalized nativist sentiments, there were specific provisions that prohibited immigration from a wide selection of Asian and Pacific Island countries including China, Thailand, Myanmar, most Polynesian islands, British India, the Malay States, the Soviet Union east of the Ural Mountains, The Dutch East Indies, Arabia, and Afghanistan.


In 1942, perhaps the best-known piece of Anti-Asian legislation was enacted when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered the internment of Japanese Americans. Japanese Americans had been under surveillance for some time due to the nature of Japan’s involvement in the Second World War, yet two separate investigations found no cause for concern that Japanese Americans posed any substantial threat to national security. These reports were ignored, and approximately 112,000 Japanese residents were evicted and relocated to incarceration camps across the United States. Approximately two-thirds of these were American citizens who had lived here for decades. In December of 1944, the Act was suspended due to a ruling by the United States Supreme Court, but the loss of liberty, property, savings, businesses, and dignity was overwhelming. The process of rebuilding their lives took many years, and no formal apology was issued until 1976 under President Gerald Ford.


The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, sought to undo many of the racist policies that influenced immigration up to that point. Immigration prior to this act favored immigration from white, Western-European countries that had an ethnic demographic that blended well with the conception of the United States as a white, Christian nation. The Hart-Celler Act removed many restrictions, and in its aftermath, the demographics of immigrants to the United States drastically shifted, to include overwhelmingly Latin or Hispanic American, Asian, and African countries. There were also provisions for people to seek asylum who were in imminent danger in their home country.


Throughout the history of these Acts, it’s easy to recognize themes of fear, exclusion, and targeted xenophobia that still shape the narratives around immigration in politics today. The scapegoating of immigrants around economic issues, the fear of some “white identity” or culture being lost to foreign invaders who don’t share our “values,” has been around since the founding of this nation. Our hope is that in learning about this history, in seeing other generation’s irrational fears and bigotry, that we can view our own shortcomings with a more perfect lens, and fight to prevent the same mistakes from happening again.

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