Ours is a History of Resistance

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.

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Chinese Exclusion, and the Dangerous Islamophobia of Donald Trump

Trump-Octopus
In the late 19th and early 20th century, racist fears of an impending Yellow Peril swept America and other Western nations, as often representatively depicted by the classic “Mongolian Octopus” political cartoon first published in an Australian newspaper in 1886. Today, the same xenophobia once again rears its ugly head in the form of Islamophobia, yet many of the same racist stereotypes remain. But what if it is those who are whipping up the race-baiting hysteria who pose the real threat? (Photo credit: Modified from “Mongolian Octopus”, Wikimedia)

Yesterday, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump announced his most extremist position to-date. Coincident with the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbour which led to unprecedented mass imprisonment of thousands of American citizens based on race, Trump’s presidential campaign released a press statement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. In a press statement that is thin on specifics as to what exactly Trump means by this suggested policy, he says:

“[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.

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UC Davis students push to license Chinese American attorney 124y after denial due to racism

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Hong Yeng Chang’s case is obscure to laypeople, but well-known to students of the law.

Chang was among the many Chinese students who migrated to the United States in the 19th century to pursue an education. He obtained his undergraduate degree at Yale University and went on to receive his law degree from Columbia University in 1886 (just years after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act and at a time when anti-Asian sentiment was high throughout the country), as one of the nation’s first Asian American Ivy Leaguers.

Upon graduation, Chang applied to take the New York state bar exam, and was initially refused due to his race. However, after receiving special permission from the state Legislature, he took and passed the bar exam being — according to the New York Times reports of the era — the first Chinese immigrant to be licensed to practice law in the United States.

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132 years ago today, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed | #APAHM2014

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.

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