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Why we must talk about the Asian-American story, too

Anti-Asian-American racism paints picture of a ‘model minority’

“Go back to China!”

That ugly exclamation rattled the ears of editor Michael Luo who, with family and friends in tow, headed to get lunch at a nearby Korean restaurant on the Upper East Side streets of Manhattan last month. Luo wrote an open letter in the New York Times to the white woman who roared it, telling her how such verbal daggers sever Asian-Americans from their citizenship. “Maybe you don’t know this,” he penned, “but the insults you hurled at my family get to the heart of the Asian-American experience. It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American.”

Upon reading Luo’s open letter, my mind stewed on an uncomfortable truth about people like me who care deeply about racial justice — we often fail at positioning the grievances of Asian-Americans against white supremacy at the heart of the fight. We shower sympathy on black and brown people; Asian-Americans experience but a sprinkle. This begs for amelioration. We must understand that a national conversation about racism that ignores the plight of Asian-Americans carries an unforgivable omission.

Many consider the Asian-American story as bearing relatively few withering marks of traumatic racial struggle, partially explaining why their grievances attract scant attention. But that’s false.

Racist laws, stereotypes at work from the start

The Asian-American story began with Capt. George Menefie, who brought “Tony, an East Indian” into colonial Virginia in the early 1620s as a headright, meaning Menefie received 50 acres of land for importing Tony into the colony, which desperately needed laborers to keep England’s colonial experiment afloat. Indians continued to be brought into the New World. The Virginia Gazette, in July 1776, for example, recorded the escape of a “Servant Man named John Newton, about 20 Years of Age, 5 feet 5 or 6 Inches high, slender made, is an Asiatic Indian by Birth, has been about twelve Months in Virginia, but lived ten Years (as he says) in England, in the Service of Sir Charles Whitworth.”

Some, like Tony and John, were indentured servants, but other Indians were slaves. Thomas F. Brown and Leah C. Sims, historians, reported that “there was a significant contingent of ‘East Indian’ slaves in the colonial Chesapeake.” Just like the sons and daughters of Africa who worked the same land, the bodies of descendants of India were tools to enrich white lives. This land was not meant for them either.

Chinese workers, in 1849-50, began to immigrate to the U.S. mainland, fleeing wars and economic turmoil. They generally planned to labor for three to five years and return to China, seeking to earn money while taking advantage of the California gold rush, the alluring tales of riches having enchanted them into taking a long voyage to a foreign continent.

Vintage illustration of Chinese immigrants and gold miners in San Francisco in 1849, with a saloon, hotel, and general store; lithograph, 1926.

Vintage illustration of Chinese immigrants and gold miners in San Francisco in 1849, with a saloon, hotel, and general store; lithograph, 1926.

GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

White Californians’ initial welcoming of these new immigrants as industrious members of the community faded into racial resentment, particularly among lower-class whites, who saw them as labor competition. Blacks who ventured North during the Great Migration in the early 20th century met a similar fate, showing how anti-Asian discrimination often presaged discrimination against other people of color. The state of California then began codifying racism in law, a fact punctuated when, in 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled in People v. Hall that the testimony of a Chinese man who witnessed a murder was inadmissible against a white criminal defendant, chiefly because, per popular thought, the Chinese were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point. …”

Cary Chow, a Chinese-American ESPN anchor, recently wrote about a bigoted television segment hosted by Jesse Watters of Fox News. Watters went to New York City’s Chinatown to conduct man-on-the-street-style interviews and trafficked in anti-Chinese stereotypes. He approached one Asian vendor and said, “I like these watches. Are they hot?” Chow contended that Watters felt comfortable in mocking his ethnic group because Watters likely believed Asians “would not fight back, because historically, Asians have not.”

Much historical data, though, supports the opposite conclusion. When the city of San Francisco passed ordinances to prevent Chinese immigrants from operating commercial laundries, an industry they dominated in the city, they resisted oppression. They sued the city. They took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. And they seized victory with Yick Wo v. Hopkins in 1886. “Indeed between 1880 to 1900,” wrote Charles J. McClain in In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America, “Chinese litigants carried some twenty appeals to the Supreme Court of the United States.” And way back in 1860, just a decade into their American journey, the Chinese community in San Anselmo, California, asked local white clergymen to hire a lobbyist to petition the state legislators to reject anti-Chinese bills under consideration. As McClain, a lecturer at University of California Berkeley Law School, found, “there is abundant evidence that the leaders of the nineteenth century Chinese community … were thoroughly familiar with American governmental institutions … and knew how to use those institutions to protect themselves. Far from being passive or docile in the face of official mistreatment, they reacted with indignation to it and more often than not sought redress in the courts.”

Black skin, in many ways, granted advantages over being of Asian descent. The Naturalization Act of 1870 granted perhaps the biggest such advantage. It extended naturalization rights to those of African ancestry, meaning foreign-born blacks, typically West Indians, could become naturalized citizens just like European whites. Asians, though, could not naturalize. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, made anyone born in America citizens. Yet, for Asian immigrants like Bhagat Singh Thind, the naturalization act ignited anguish.

Thind, born in India, came to America when he was 24 years old, in 1913. He applied for citizenship and was granted it on the theory that Indians were not “Mongolians” but rather “Caucasians,” in other words, white, and thus eligible for naturalization. The Supreme Court, however, reversed that ruling, holding he was not white because most white Americans would never consider him a member of the white race. After the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind decision in 1923, 64 other Indians who naturalized lost their American citizenship. Vaishno Das Bagai, one such man, killed himself, writing in his suicide note:

I came to America thinking, dreaming and hoping to make this land my home. Sold my properties and brought more than twenty-five thousand dollars (gold) to this country, established myself and tried my very best to give my children the best American education.

In year 1921 the Federal court at San Francisco accepted me as a naturalized citizen of the United States and issued to my name the final certificate, giving therein the name and description of my wife and three sons. In last 12 or 13 years we all made ourselves as much Americanized as possible.

But they now come to me and say, I am no longer an American citizen. They will not permit me to buy my home and, lo, they even shall not issue me a passport to go back to India. Now what am I? What have I made of myself and my children? We cannot exercise our rights, we cannot leave this country. Humility and insults, who is responsible for all this? Myself and American government.

I do not choose to live the life of an interned person; yes, I am in a free country and can move about where and when I wish inside the country. Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind.


One must also never forget the anti-Japanese World War II-era Supreme Court cases, Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States, two hideous decisions that debased the Supreme Court as an institution. In the Hirabayashi case, the court upheld the constitutionality of a curfew provision requiring that people of Japanese ancestry be in their “place of residence daily between the hours of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.” In the Korematsu case, the Supreme Court upheld the internment of folk of Japanese descent.

But some will maintain that this is all talk of the past, that this history says little about the present-day realities of Asian-Americans. They might note that in 1965 Congress rid racial discrimination from immigration and naturalization law. The convictions of Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, furthermore, were overturned in the 1980s and Japanese-Americans received reparations for internment around that same time. Racism barely scars the lives of Asian-Americans, these folk might insist, noting that America regards them as a so-called “model minority.”

The U.S. government provided hot meals for the first Japanese at the Santa Anita Race track reception center near Los Angeles, California April 3, 1942.

The U.S. government provided hot meals for the first Japanese internees at the Santa Anita Race track reception center near Los Angeles on April 3, 1942.

AP Photo

In the 1960s, when articulated grievances against anti-black bigotry roiled throughout the American landscape, some leading white intellectuals, through the mainstream media, championed the idea that Asian-Americans constituted a model minority. The model minority myth holds that Asian-Americans are an incredibly successful group generally because of their personal responsibility and law-abiding behavior.

In 1966, the U.S. News & World Report, for instance, wrote, “At a time when Americans are awash in worry over the plight of racial minorities — one such minority, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans, is winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work … Still being taught in Chinatown is the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts — not a welfare check—in order to reach America’s ‘promised land.’” The national press pumped out similar stories lauding Asian-Americans and indirectly scolding blacks, while scholarly work validating the model minority stereotype blanketed social science journals. Fifty years later, the model minority stereotype appears true both inside and outside the Asian-American population.

But the model minority stereotype is a myth that white supremacy devised partly to defend American society from the charges of racism leveled by black folk and those sympathetic to their complaints. A century before, Asians were defined as inferior, because doing so promoted the interests of whites. But in the 1960s, the claim suddenly became Asians even economically outpaced whites because of their exemplary attitude. Just as blacks achieved victories against segregation and racial discrimination, some whites trotted out the argument that another racial minority was flourishing without the help of government assistance, the implicit question being “why aren’t you?” The notion that one racial minority group was advancing by working hard, minding their own business, and not complaining about the system was a rhetorical tactic for those who sought to justify their inaction on civil rights.

The racial justice community often ignores the plight of Asian-Americans because their successful image is frequently thrown in black and brown faces to silence their cries for improved treatment. This isolates Asian-Americans from other minorities who otherwise would be allies in the battle against anti-Asian bigotry. White supremacy’s divide-and-conquer strategy has proven formidable.

The model minority myth, furthermore, convinces citizens and power holders that Asian-Americans harbor no real need for government assistance. “The portrayal of Asian Americans as successful,” Seattle University School of Law professor Robert S. Chang wrote, “permits the general public, government officials, and the judiciary to ignore or marginalize the contemporary needs of Asian Americans.”

We see, perhaps, the most harmful effects of this in educational contexts. Guofang Li, professor of Second Language and Literacy at Michigan State University, wrote that the model minority myth “misleads policy makers to overlook issues concerning Asian students and their needed services. Studies on instructional support for Asian English-as-a Second language students found that the model minority myth leads many to believe that Asian students will succeed with little support and without special programs and services. …” Li also noted that “the popular image of successful, high achieving ‘model minorities’ often prevents teachers and schools from recognizing the instructional needs and the psychological and emotional concerns of many underachieving Asian students.”

Active discrimination in the workplace

Besides this sort of neglect, Asian-Americans face active discrimination. Approximately 30 percent of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders reported that they had endured discrimination in the workplace, the highest reporting percentage of any racial group. Blacks were second at 26 percent.

The primary reason for this employment discrimination is that Asian-Americans are often deemed unsuited for high-ranking management positions. Researchers at the University of Toronto, Jennifer L. Berdahl and Ji-A Min, found that employees of East Asian descent, generally Chinese, Japanese and Korean, were stereotyped as high in competence but low in warmth and dominance, perpetuating “the idea that East Asians are ideal as subordinate employees, suited for technical competence positions, but are unqualified to be leaders and managers.

This — referred to as the “bamboo ceiling” — explains why college and advanced degrees hold less worth for Asian-Americans than for whites. As professor Chang noted, “Returns on education rather than educational level provide a [good] indicator of the existence of discrimination. Many Asian Americans have discovered that they, like other racial minorities, do not get the same return for their educational investment as do their white counterparts.

By not studying how racism impairs Asian-American lives, we underestimate and miss crucial intelligence on how white privilege sabotages the hopes and dreams of people of color. The Asian-American story differs from the black story which differs the Latino story, but each, along with the Native American story, must be examined and mastered. Each, when pieced together, form a puzzle that we must assess in all its troubling detail. The story that starts with “Tony, an East Indian” lays bare the fearsomeness and complexity of white supremacy.

Morality and wisdom dictate that we no longer discount the pain of our Asian-American brothers and sisters.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.