A crash course on America’s 171 year history of anti-Asian racism

By Abby Ramirez

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide quarantine, Asian American communities have been under attack. These acts of hatred have become more and more prominent as the destruction of Asian-owned businesses, murders of elderly people, and hate speech continues to grow. 

In 2020 alone, acts of hate, discrimination, and racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States rose 150 percent, according to a recent analysis released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. 

Unfortunately, cases of racism, shunning, and hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are nothing new in the United States. 

America’s history of anti-Asian racism has deep roots, beginning in the 1800s with the emergence of the California Gold Rush. After China experienced extreme crop failure in the mid-19th Century, a mass exodus of almost 300,000 Chinese immigrants came to the United States in search of work and gold. Upon arrival, they worked as fishermen, miners, railroad builders, farmers, and factory hands for incredibly low rates, and by 1970, they made up 20 percent of San Francisco’s labor force. To protect the wages of Caucasian miners, the California Legislature passed the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850, which taxed non-white Californian miners, mosty Latinos and Chinese immigrants, 20 dollars per month for the right to mine in state. 

Within four years, anti-Asian sentiment continued to sink its teeth into the California state government. In the 1854 California Supreme Court case People v. Hall, a white man was accused of murder based on the testimony of a Chinese man who claimed he was a witness. At the time, a law stated that Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans did not have the right to testify against a Caucasian American. After the accused’s attorney used this policy as his defense, California Supreme Court justice John Murray declared the Chinese “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point” and who did not have the right “to swear away the life of a citizen” or participate “with us in administering the affairs of our Government.”

Diminished to subhuman status and unable to legally fight the acts of racism against them, the lives of Asian-Americans in the United States continued to grow increasingly difficult as anti-Asian sentiment spread in communities around the state. 

In 1871, 500 Caucasian men took to the streets to avenge Robert Thomson’s death after he was killed in a shootout between several Chinese men. In the span of one night, the mob killed 18 Chinese residents–10 percent of Los Angeles’ Chinese population. While eight rioters were brought to trial for murder, none of them were sent to jail on a technicality. 

Six years later in San Francisco, the Workingmen’s Party of California, a white labor union, became fearful of losing their jobs to the increasing number of Chinese immigrants in the country, and launched the “Chinese Must Go” movement. Men and women who participated in the movement attacked and burned down Chinese businesses, homes, and places of work all over the Bay Area. In an attempt to limit any new immigrants from entering San Francisco, they threatened to burn down wharves owned by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, a line used by Chinese immigrants. While they only burned down one wharf, the movement as a whole was very successful in pushing anti-Asian sentiment throughout the country and to the federal levels of government. 

After fights began to break out in mines across Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885, Caucasian miners murdered 28 Chinese coal miners, injured 15, and burned down Chinatown in what would later be known as the Rock Springs Massacre. 

One year later, the Supreme Court passed the Chinese Exclusion Act: a federal law limiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. This law not only halted Chinese immigration for ten years, but also declared them ineligible for naturalization. It was the first significant law that limited any immigration into the United States. 

Six years after it was signed into law, the Chinese Exclusion Act was revamped by the Geary Act of 1892, which extended the immigration ban another ten years and forced Chinese residents to carry special documentation with them at all time to avoid deportation or hard manual labor. They would also have to have a credible white witness to bail them out of jail. 

Another six years later, the United States banned immigration from China altogether. 

As a new wave of Filipino, Korean, Japanese, and Indian immigrants began flooding into America at the turn of the 20th century, an unfortunately corresponding surge of xenophobia spread across the country as well. Phrases such as “yellow peril,” “Hindu invasion,” and “tide of turbans” were used by anti-Asian groups to incite fear of Asian immigrants all over the country, portraying them as a virus that had to be stopped. 

The government took this literally. Starting in 1907, the U.S. and Japanese government signed the Gentleman’s Agreement: an agreement where the United States would not limit Japanese immigration in return for the Japanese government halting Japanese emigration by ceasing to issue passports to the continental U.S. Ten years later, the federal government passed the Immigration Act of 1917, which extended the same immigration limitation to a collective “Barred Zone,” consisting of China, Japan, Korea, India, and other countries across South and Southeast Asia. Soon, immigrants originating from these countries would also be denied citizenship, naturalization, and the rights to marry a Caucasian and own land. 

There was, however, one prominent country excluded from the “Barred Zone:” the Philippines. After the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States annexed the Philippines as an American territory. As a result, Filipinos were considered “U.S. nationalists,” and were allowed to immigrate into the country. Unfortunately, despite their ability to immigrate and classification as nationalists, Filipinos were not exempt from acts of racism once they arrived. Intimidated Americans identified them as a political and medical threat, saying that they would bring “unruliness and tropical diseases” to America. 

After years of discrimination and independence movements in the Philippines, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, which would establish the country’s independence over a ten year period, but also create an immigration quota of 50 persons per year. 

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in December of 1941, Americans across the country became increasingly fearful of the possible threat of another attack on U.S. soil, especially on the West Coast where businesses and communities were thought to be most vulnerable. Influenced by his political and military advisors, President Roosevelt addressed the nation’s fear by passing Executive Order 9066: an order which authorized a forced evacuation and incarceration of any American deemed a threat in hopes of creating “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.”

With total disregard for their jobs, familial history in the United States, and the lives they created in their communities, 120,000 Japanese, along with a handful of German and Italian Americans, were given six days notice to pack as many things as they could carry before being forced out of their homes; some had their homes searched by the FBI, who would seize anything they considered to be “contraband.” They would then be relocated to Assembly Centers, and later to permanent Relocation Centers where they would live in poor conditions until the end of the war. 

Concurrently, President Roosevelt lifted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, letting Chinese citizens immigrate to the United States for the first time in 41 years. 

Almost 80 years later, the United States as a whole still fails to properly address the unmistakable acts of racism being committed against Asian communities all over the country. By coining the terms “China virus” and “Kung Flu,” former President Trump set a precedent of harsh rhetoric blaming Asian Americans for the spread of the virus in all 50 states. 

“As I walked out of Eagle Rock Plaza, a woman said, ‘Oh my God! China brought the virus here!’ When I crossed her path to walk toward my car and to confirm if that comment was meant for me, she jumped back and nearly yelled, ‘Oh my God! Please don’t give me the virus!’” an anonymous Los Angeles resident reported to Stop APPI Hate, a report center that tracks acts of hate, discrimination, shunning, child bullying, violence, and harrassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. 

Out of the 2,583 cases reported from around the country to Stop APPI Hate between March 19 to October 8, 70.6 percent were said to be acts of verbal harassment or name calling.

Unfortunately, many cases of anti-Asian racism have taken a more extreme turn in the last few months as the anti-Asian climate continues. On January 31, the murder of a 91-year-old man in Oakland’s Chinatown was caught on camera and released to the public. It is believed that the same suspect attacked a 60-year-old man and 60-year-old woman the same day, USA Today reported. Since then, America has continued to witness a rise in violence towards Asian-Americans, including the brutal death of Angelo Quinto in the East Bay of San Francisco. 

To break the nearly 171 year old cycle of neglect towards acts of anti-Asian racism in America, the country as a collective must choose to change. The government must begin to not only speak out against those who bring about violence and hate, but pass laws that work to make such behaviors unacceptable. If the last year has taught the country anything, it is that actions speak louder than words. With that in mind, Americans at the community, state, and federal levels must begin to actively take steps towards putting an end to the anti-Asian atmosphere that has been created.