Asian American protesters at an anti-war march in 1972. (Photo credit: Asian Pacific American Photographic Collection, Visual Communications Archive via LA Times)
By: Karin Wang (@naragirl), Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Since we launched “Write Back, Fight Back” two months ago, we have witnessed the power of words to name our struggles, reclaim our identities, and voice our power. We close out our series by centering the story of Asian immigrants challenging racism through the courts and in many cases, winning and changing the course of American history.
No current narrative of Asian Americans is more closely tied to white supremacy and historic white nativist policies than the model minority myth. First coined and promulgated in the mid-1960s by white Americans, the term referred to Japanese and Chinese Americans, focusing obsessively on their seeming success in the face of discrimination. The model minority myth gets denounced on a regular basis lately, and many journalists, writers, and activists have analyzed and challenged the economic and class implications of the myth and the damage it does less privileged Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
But there’s another insidious side to the model minority myth that needs the same unpacking and deconstructing: the narrative of the quiet and obedient Asian – the one who works twice as hard and neither complains nor challenges authority. The myth was born at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, deliberately juxtaposing Asians against other racial minorities. It’s an image used not only to keep Asian Americans in their place but one that upholds white supremacy.
“[I]t is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.
In later interviews, Trump has failed to make it clear whether he plans to restrict travel for all Muslims, including foreign visitors and tourists, or if his plan focuses on immigration. Trump has not specified how his proposal would impact Muslim American citizens who leave the United States with the intent to re-enter their country of citizenship. He has also not elaborated on how he would implement his policy — a religious litmus test for freedom of movement — except to have border agents interrogate all incoming travelers with regard to their religious affiliation and to turn away all who self-identify as Muslim.
It is also worth noting that Islam is the world’s second largest religious group, and one quarter of the world’s Muslims are South and Southeast Asian. A ban on all Muslim travel would have significant impact on the AAPI community, including (among others) Pakistani-, Bangladeshi-, Indonesian-, and Malaysian American people.
Sadly, the Asian American community is already all too painfully familiar with this kind of identity-based policy of national exclusion. In 1882, the federal government passed its first immigration law banning the travel of members of an entire race of people based solely on our shared identity. We called it the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The first Asians to arrive in the Americas are believed to be Filipino sailors who landed in North America as far back as the late 1500’s, and who famously established a small settlement in Louisiana in the 1700’s. However, one of the largest influx of Asian migrants to America in the 19th century was comprised of Chinese labourers, merchants and students who starting in the 1820’s with the establishment of trade between the US and Asia embarked on the dangerous journey from China to the western shores of the Americas.
Chinese labourers — predominantly men — traveled to the United States throughout the 19th century, in addition to labourers from Japan, Korea and the Phillipinnes; all were enticed to make the dangerous ocean journey by promises of jobs or education in what the Chinese dubbed the Gold Mountain. In truth, these Asian labourers, or “coolies” as they were pejoratively called, were brought in under exploitative contracts as indentured labourers and found themselves working for bare subsistence wages as part of the manual workforce that sustained the economies of Hawaii and the Southwest. As a cheap source of labour, they worked in sugar plantations and in other agricultural positions, and were essential in completion of the western lines of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Despite early excitement that greeted Asian American immigrants, for most of the 19th century, Asian American labourers found themselves despised as invaders that threatened to erode American culture and economic opportunities, and thus targeted by laws designed to minimize their integration into American society. Starting in 1862, California imposed a monthly head tax on every Chinese in the state, and other laws excluded Chinese residents from living in most residential areas, resulting in the formation of Chinatown ethnic enclaves. Chinese immigrants, as well as other Asian immigrants, were also routinely victimized by vigilante mobs; they were run out of their homes, robbed, and even murdered.
By May 6, 1882, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, an immigration law that codified Yellow Peril fears by functionally banning all further immigration from China. This law stood for nearly 60 years.