History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States

Published on: Mar 25, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
History of Anti-Asian RacismGetty Images

In mid-March, a gunman killed eight people at three spas in or near Atlanta. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent. The news rattled the country, especially as major cities across the nation saw a nearly 150% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes last year. And one report found that there were about 3,800 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders between March 2020 and Feb 2021, with women being disproportionately impacted. All of this has sparked calls to "Stop Asian Hate" and Americans across the country are showing up to support the AAPI community.

Atlanta shooting crime scene
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One way to support is raising awareness of the long history of discrimination the AAPI community has faced in the United States to better understand their experience and what needs to change.

History of racism against AAPIs in the US

This is a Skimm of more than 150 years of history and not the complete story. Also worth noting that 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 large numbers (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. 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. The fear of these Chinese laborers taking over became known as “yellow peril” and helped stoke anti-Chinese rhetoric and violence. Including 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, with other Chinese people testifying 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. 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).

San Francisco Plague 1900
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San Francisco Plague Outbreak

From 1900-1904 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 Chinatown neighborhood – allowing white people to leave but kept Chinese people confined and vulnerable to contracting the disease. The city doubled down on these efforts by roping off the area and putting 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.

Japanese Internment Camp
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Japanese Internment Camps

In 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 – which authorized the removal of any person considered a threat to US security from the West Coast 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. And 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 citizens who were loyal to the US. The defendant was Mitsuye Endo – a 22-year-old American of Japanese ancestry. She worked as a typist for the Department of Motor Vehicles. 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.

Her lawyer argued that if you could ignore a section of the Constitution and detain people without charges or trials because of their nationality – then what stopped people from just doing away with the Constitution entirely? And in a move that seemed unlikely at the time (SCOTUS previously shot down three other cases about the camps prior to this), 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 took until 1976 for Executive Order 9066 to be officially repealed. Congress also issued a formal apology and gave 80,000 Japanese Americans $20,000 in reparations in 1988.

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 – which were designed to:

  • Raise taxes on adult immigrants

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

  • Expand the list of “undesirables” – who were banned from entering the country (such as the ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘political radicals’ or those with epilepsy).

  • And bar all immigrants from the Middle East to Southeast Asia from entering the U.S.

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

Lyndon B. Johnson
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1965 Immigration and Nationality Act

The quota system stayed put in the US until the 1960s. 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 – which essentially eliminated the quota laws. And created a merit-based immigration system, which focused on reuniting families, attracting skilled labor, and refugees suffering from violence and unrest. It also added caps to how many visas the US could issue annually 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 passed, 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.


First thing's first, it's important to establish that many Muslims live in or are from Asia, including places like Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. And in the aftermath of the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks, Americans of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent – including Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim like Sikhs and Hindus – faced racial profiling, hate crimes, and discrimination. These groups were used as scapegoats for the attacks that were carried out by the Islamic terror group al-Qaida. One 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. FBI data shows that in 2015, there were 257 hate crimes against Muslims – the highest number since 2001. And according to SAALT, 9/11 is cited as a reason why these communities are seen as a national security threat.

And stereotyping can create its own ripple effect through history, causing unprecedented harm to communities of color.

Enter the 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 an article published by The New York Times called “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” 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, this is a tactic 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 to help the AAPI community now…

President Biden condemned the March 16 attack and discrimination against the AAPI community, saying “our silence is complicity.” He also called on Congress to pass legislation that would help state and local govs improve hate crime reporting and make hate crime info more accessible to Asian Americans. But it’s not just up to Congress to take action to help the community – there are steps all of us can take (like calling your local representative and encouraging them to pass legislation to help the AAPI community). 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 (we’ve got tips for how to handle those here).

If you see something, say something. You can report a hate incident to Stop AAPI Hate. 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’s community’s history of discrimination important to understand the challenges and experiences they’ve dealt with. Check out PBS’s five-part series that goes more into the history. You can also take part in the Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s virtual bystander intervention training to learn how you can prevent xenophobic harassment. Another option: follow social media accounts like @WashTheHate, @HateIsAVirus, and @AntiRacismDaily 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 and the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association with your network.

Support local AAPI businesses. Chinatown businesses across the country have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Consider ordering food from or shopping at businesses that are AAPI-owned in your neighborhood.


Racism against Asians in the US began long before the pandemic and the recent Atlanta shootings. And as the US once again bears witness to an uptick in anti-Asian sentiments – it’s more important than ever before to be educated on the plight of this community and shed reckless stereotypes (like the model minority myth), while committing long-term to take action against racism.

Skimm'd by Maria Martinolich, Kamini Ramdeen, Niven McCall-Mazza

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