News·13 min read

How Did The US's History of Anti-Asian Racism Start? It Goes Back Centuries

AAPI activists protesting anti-Asian hate crimes
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Apr 18, 2022

Over the past couple of years, the US has been forced to do some self-reflection on its history of racism. Including its relationship with the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. In 2021, anti-Asian hate crime skyrocketed — fueled by anger surrounding the origins of COVID-19. One study found that anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 339% last year. No, not a typo: 339%.

But this discrimination and violence against the AAPI community is nothing new. It dates back as far as the 1800s. But these staggering stats have helped spark calls to "Stop Asian Hate." Through raising awareness of this history — which can help people better understand the experience. And learning what needs to change.

America’s History of Racism Against AAPI Communities

Before diving in, some important context: This timeline is a Skimm of more than 150 years of history and is not the complete story. Also, the AAPI population is diverse and includes a number of origin groups with ancestries hailing from places like: China, Japan, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Macau, Samoa, Cambodia, Fiji, India, Taiwan, Pakistan, Korea, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Guam, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and many more.

"Yellow Peril" and the Chinese Massacre of 1871

In the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants started arriving and working in the US in droves (largely to the West Coast). And they played an important role in helping develop the country, including building the transcontinental railroad. Many of the jobs they took were dangerous with low pay. But Chinese immigrants would often take them because of financial pressures back home.

As more immigrants came to the US, resentment against them built up. That’s because Non-Asian workers saw Chinese laborers as a threat because they were willing to work at a cheaper rate. And might take jobs from them. This sentiment became known as “yellow peril” — and stoked anti-Chinese rhetoric and violence. Like the Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles in 1871. After a civilian was killed during a shootout between two Chinese groups, rioters lynched and killed more than a dozen Chinese men and boys — about 10% of the city’s Chinese population.

At the time, Asian immigrants weren’t always protected from violence. See: People v. Hall. The case focused on a white man who killed a Chinese immigrant. Other Chinese people testified as witnesses. But in 1854, California’s Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction. Ruling that people of Chinese descent can’t testify against a white person in court. And essentially giving a pass to white people responsible for anti-Asian violence.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act — the first major law that restricted immigration into the US. The law was extended multiple times. And wasn’t repealed until 1943. Here’s what it did: 

  • Banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the US for 10 years

  • Banned Chinese immigrants from becoming US citizens

  • Required Chinese people to obtain certification to re-enter the US if they left

The law caused the Chinese population in the US to sharply decline. With immigration reportedly dropping from 39,500 in 1882 to only 10 in 1887. And it made it more difficult for families to reunite or start new lives in the US.

After the Chinese Exclusion Act passed, other Asian immigrants came to the US. Including large numbers of Japanese immigrants who reportedly replaced Chinese workers. But in the decades to come, they would face similar resistance that Chinese workers did (think: anti-Asian legislation and propaganda).

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San Francisco Plague Outbreak

From 1900 to 1904, the US experienced its first-ever bubonic plague outbreak. The disease was likely carried by a rodent traveling on a ship that arrived at a US port. But San Francisco’s Chinatown was scapegoated for the epidemic since the first victim of the plague was a Chinese immigrant. 

Police officers segregated the neighborhood. Letting white people leave…but keeping Chinese people confined and vulnerable to contracting the disease. The city doubled down on these efforts by roping off the area. And put up barbed wire around its border so residents were forced to stay. Many times the homes of those infected would be burned down.

Later, many Asian immigrants were held at California’s Angel Island — for a number of reasons, including supposed health concerns. As the exclusion of Asians continued, the island was used to interrogate and detain Asian immigrants for months at a time.

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Japanese Internment Camps

In 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It authorized the removal of any person considered a threat to US security. Moving people from their homes to relocation centers that were further inland. This policy would have dire consequences for Japanese Americans. And would go on to affect more than 120,000 lives — many of whom were American citizens.

Military zones were set up in areas with high populations of Japanese Americans (like California, Oregon, and Washington). And as part of the order, Americans of Japanese descent were relocated to internment camps. 

Families were given a few days notice before they had to leave their homes and businesses to report to the camps. In total, there were 10 US internment camps. Multiple families lived together in army-style barracks that weren’t heated in the winters or cooled in the summers. And surrounded by guard towers and barbed wires. Some who tried to escape were shot and killed.

Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Endo v. United States that the US gov could not hold indefinitely citizens who were loyal to the US. The defendant: Mitsuye Endo — a 22-year-old American of Japanese ancestry. She worked as a typist for the DMV. One day she got a survey from the gov asking her questions about her heritage: ‘have you ever visited Japan? ‘Do you speak Japanese?’ She answered them and — like many other Japanese civil servants — was fired, then interned at a camp. 

  • The nitty-gritty: Her lawyer argued that if you could ignore a section of the Constitution and detain people without charges or trials because of their nationality…what stopped people from just doing away with the Constitution entirely? In a move that seemed unlikely at the time (SCOTUS previously shot down three other cases about the camps), the court unanimously ruled in Endo’s favor — effectively ending Japanese American internment. 

In 1948, lawmakers paid $38 million in reparations to Japanese Americans. But it wasn’t until 1976 that Executive Order 9066 was officially repealed. Congress also issued a formal apology. And in 1988, gave 80,000 Japanese Americans $20,000 each in reparations.

Asiatic Barred Zone Act

In 1917, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act took effect, alongside several of the most strict immigration laws ever passed at the time. The Immigration Act of 1917 — which was built upon previous acts like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — looked to curb how many citizens were allowed to enter the US. Congress bypassed several veto attempts by President Woodrow Wilson to pass the laws. These were designed to…

  • Raise taxes on adult immigrants

  • Introduce a literacy test for immigrants over the age of 16

  • Expand the list of “undesirables” — those who were banned from entering the country (such as the “feeble-minded” or “insane persons” or those with illnesses like epilepsy and tuberculosis).

  • Bar all immigrants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia from entering the US

In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed a quota system into law. The specifics: Each country would receive visas for up to 2% of the total number of each nationality already in the US. The law looked to keep the racial composition of the country mostly white. This system stayed in place until…

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1965 Immigration and Nationality Act

Spurred by the Civil Rights Movement, lawmakers started to debate the nation’s immigration laws. And in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act — essentially eliminating the quota laws. And creating a merit-based immigration system that was focused on reuniting families, attracting skilled labor, and assisting refugees suffering from violence and unrest. It also added caps to how many visas the US could issue every year. And how many visas could be issued per country.

This act changed the face of America. Prior to its passage, US immigration laws catered to those coming from Western European countries. But five years after the act was implemented, immigration patterns began to change. And people from countries that were previously excluded from entering the US like Vietnam and Cambodia (which were then also reeling from the effects of volatile US military campaigns — and still are) started to qualify for US entry.

Post-9/11

In the aftermath of the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks, Americans of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent faced racial profiling, hate crimes, and discrimination. This included Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, like Sikhs and Hindus. These groups were used as scapegoats for the attacks that were carried out by Islamic terror group al-Qaida. One stark example of the violence these groups faced is the death of Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was a Sikh American from India who was shot days after 9/11 by a white man who thought he was Muslim.

The stereotyping that came out of 9/11 is something that’s continued for years, with South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, and others continually being targeted as terrorists or threats. While FBI data shows that crimes against Muslims have decreased in recent years, it peaked between 2015 and 2016. Which is less than a decade ago. And according to South Asian Americans Leading Together, 9/11 is cited as a reason why these communities are still seen as a national security threat.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

In December 2019, COVID-19 was first detected in a seafood and poultry market in Wuhan, China. And as the virus spread throughout the globe, many people took their anger and confusion out on the AAPI community. With xenophobic monikers becoming popular, inaccurately referring to COVID as the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.” Drawing similarities to when the Chinese community was unfairly blamed for the bubonic plague in San Francisco's Chinatown.  

This unwarranted, racist association of coronavirus with people of Asian descent led to a spike in anti-Asian harassment and assault.  One report found that there were more than 10,900 hate incidents against Asian Americans from March 2020 to December 2021, with women being disproportionately impacted.  The uptick in attacks came to a head in March 2021 — when a gunman killed eight people at three spas around Atlanta. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent. 

The news shook the country, resulting in President Biden signing legislation that addressed the crimes. It directs the Justice Department to appoint someone to expedite reviews of COVID-19 hate crimes. And gives guidance for law enforcement agencies to create online reporting of hate crimes in multiple languages. It also offers best practices to stop pandemic-related racially discriminatory language. 

While these moves are a step in the right direction, anti-Asian crimes are still happening. Proving how stereotyping can cause long-term impacts harming communities of color. Which brings us to…

Model Minority Myth

The model minority myth is a way of pitting racial groups against each other in the US — specifically Asians against African Americans.

During the Civil Rights era, The New York Times published an article called “Success Story, Japanese-American Style.” And described Asian Americans as law-abiding, non-threatening, and intelligent. But only in contrast to other minority groups. 

This in part helped solidify the myth by conveniently painting a rosy picture of Asian Americans as hardworking, educated people who never complain. But cloaked the years of hatred and racism they suffered in the decades prior. It’s a harmful stereotype that lumps all Asians and Pacific Islanders together while keeping them ‘othered’ — or marked as different because of supposed unique abilities that are somehow inherent to their race.

This myth is routinely used to provide an example for other minority groups: ‘Look at what you can achieve if you play by the rules of the American system.’ But in reality, the tactic is used to downplay the impact of racism. And puts racial groups in competition with one another. Instead of joining together to work toward a fairer society for everyone.

How You Can Help the AAPI Community Today

President Biden’s legislation is a huge move. But action shouldn’t stop at Congress — there are steps all of us can take. Including… 

Check in with your friends and family. See how they’re feeling and if they need anything. Heads up: that may involve uncomfortable conversations around race. Here are some tips for how to handle that.

If you see something, say something. You can report a hate incident to Stop AAPI Hate, your local gov, and the FBI. And you can access more info (available in seven languages) on what’s considered a hate crime and how to report it here.

Consider donating money. There are a number of organizations that help support the AAPI community, from combatting racism to providing legal help.Some options:

...Oh and you can also find more orgs to support here.

Educate yourself. Learning about the AAPI community’s history of discrimination is important to understanding the challenges and experiences they’ve dealt with. Check out PBS’s five-part series that goes deeper into the history. You can also take part in the Right to Be bystander intervention training to learn how you can de-escalate moments of conflict. Or check out our guide on how to be an active bystander. Another option: follow social media accounts like @HateIsAVirus, @advancingjustice_aajc, and @stopaapihate that raise awareness and work to dismantle racism.

Share mental health resources. The American Psychological Association says Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services compared to white people. Spread the word about resources like the Asian Mental Health Collective, the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, and Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA) with your network. And check out our resources for maintaining your mental health. 

Support local AAPI businesses. Chinatown businesses across the country were hit especially hard by the pandemic. And are still trying to recover from initial losses. Consider ordering food from or shopping at businesses that are AAPI-owned in your neighborhood. To find businesses near you, Google 'AAPI-owned businesses in [your town/city].'

theSkimm

Racism against Asians in the US began long before the pandemic. And with Asian hate crimes spiking in recent years, it’s important for Americans to continue educating themselves on the plight of this community. And shed reckless stereotypes (like the model minority myth), while committing long-term to taking action against racism.

Updated on April 18...with the latest statistics and legislation.

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