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Discussing the Legacy of America's Violent Anti-Asian History


Following the deadly shooting in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16, 2021, President Biden delivered remarks condemning the senseless violence, denouncing these acts as un-American. The president may have some kind of idyllic, utopian view of America in his mind, but the truth is that Asian-American hate has been a steadily ignored issue in this nation for decades. When the first Chinese immigrants arrived on the western coast of the United States during the California Gold Rush, they faced endless waves of racism and discrimination from their fellow citizens as well as the government. After the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that forcibly relocated Japanese Americans with the intent of preventing domestic espionage against the American government. The most recent form of racism that Asian-Americans have had to face was caused by President Biden’s predecessor, and his flagrant use of the term “China virus.” The United States has a long history of targeting and signaling out Asian-Americans not only as scapegoats, but also as invaders and undesirables; for President Biden to call the attack and recent increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans as “un-American,” he is ignoring the long history of hate and racism against this group in the United States.


The discovery of gold along the western coast of the United States in the 1850s led to a large movement of Americans as they pursued the possibility of striking it rich. This movement also caught the attention of Chinese who had been facing years of low wages and economic hardship following the Opium Wars. When the first Chinese arrived in San Francisco in 1848, there had already been a well established pattern of leaving China in search of better economic prospects.[1] As the gold rush continued, the Chinese began seeing the prosperity of their fellow countrymen in the United States, leading to a continual wave of immigrants arriving in cities like San Francisco. In 1852, after continued crop failure in China, over 20,000 Chinese arrived in San Francisco ready for a second chance. This was a 600% increase in the number of Chinese immigrants from the previous year, with an extremely high density remaining in California.


As the number of Chinese immigrants continued to increase through the 1850s, white Americans viewed these immigrants with a very similar attitude that we still see happening today. “Chinamen are getting to be altogether too plentiful in this country,” remarked one Yankee miner distastefully.[2] The steady waves of Chinese immigration into the United States became a consistent target for politicians and labor union’s vilification. The Chinese were blamed for decreased wages, unemployment, and a myriad of other problems that were caused by the unsteady American economy of the period. There was a large enough percentage of white Americans who opposed Chinese immigration that politicians and local leaders saw an opportunity to expose the weaknesses of the newly arrived immigrants; although many Chinese came to America in search of a better chance at economic prosperity, whites believed they were incompatible with American culture and society, therefore they believed they should be treated as the enemy.


By 1850, white Californians viewed the Chinese immigrants arriving during the gold rush as outsiders who did not belong in their country. One of the first pieces of legislation directly targeted at Chinese miners was the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850, which required a fee of twenty dollars to be paid each month for any miner who wished to legally work in the state of California. However, this tax was actually only collected from Chinese and Latino miners, with whites being able to dodge the tax altogether.[3] After the tax's racist underpinnings was realized, immigrant miners began protesting against the targeted attack by white legislators and were eventually able to get the tax reduced to four dollars in 1852. This was not the only legislation that was passed in California or the nation at large, with the Chinese continually being targeted by racist legislation.


The most egregious piece of legislation to be used against Chinese immigrants was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This was the first and only piece of federal legislation that completely barred a specific ethnic or social group from immigrating into the United States. The bill was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, with proponents of the bill advocating for its passage in an attempt at “maintaining white ‘racial purity.’”[4] There was widespread support for this bill, especially among white miners in the western states. One major supporter of the bill was Samuel Gompers, founder and president of the American Federation of Labor, and an outspoken individual against Chinese immigration. The exclusion act was written to only last for ten years, but was later renewed for another ten under the Geary Act; this new legislation extended the ban on Chinese immigration while adding even more contrarian requirements for Chinese-Americans. This included a rule that required all Chinese in the United States to carry a Certificate of Residence, which they had to register for; failure to follow these new laws could result in a fine, imprisonment, and even deportation.[5]


While municipal and federal legislation targeted Asian immigrants in the United States as a way to discourage further immigration, it was not the only way that white America opposed Asian-Americans. Western newspapers were often quick to denounce Chinese immigrants’ activities, whether it was organizing in opposition to racist legislation or attempting to lobby for higher wages. A methodist pastor named Otis Gibson was well known for his missionary work to the Chinese, and an advocate for their protection. In his book The Chinese in America, Gibson traces the strong, anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the 19th century in an effort to promote equality and reform. “The result has been that, for political purposes alone, the leaders of both political parties, and the secular press generally, have declared war upon the Chinamen.”[6]


Following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Geary Act in 1892, there was a period of increased violence towards Asian-Americans, often referred to as the “Driving Out” Period. This period included the violent assault and murders of dozens of Chinese in the United States, with local authorities often overlooking the murderers and begrudgingly paying for the damages incurred on Chinese property. Gibson notes that during this period, anti-Chinese sentiment was strong and continually garnering more support from xenophobic Americans. “The organization of Anti-Chinese clubs throughout the city and country were strongly recommended. The frantic cry was raised, ‘Organize, organize, organize.’ And organize they did.”[7] Gibson records some remarks that were given at a local gathering of one of the Anti-Chinese clubs that were forming during the period: “I’ve been wurruckin amongst these hathens as foremin and your head boss over some iv’em, and you bet your life I knocked ‘em down whiniver they tuk any airs on thimsilves wid me [sic].”[8] The assumed entitlement of white Americans over what they perceived were their jobs and their property was what led many of them to acts of violence.

As anti-Chinese sentiment grew and targeted opposition to their immigration gained traction through federal legislation, Chinese-Americans were not afforded many opportunities to fight back. In the 1854 Supreme Court Case People v. Hall, the Court ruled that the Chinese were not legally allowed to testify in court, thus barring Chinese from seeking out justice for the mistreatment and violence they constantly faced. Another Supreme Court case, Fong Yue Ting v. United States occurred in 1893 when three Chinese citizens residing in New York City were detained for failing to obtain residency certificates. Fong Yue Ting challenged the Geary Act and believed his writ of habeas corpus had been violated. The United States Supreme Court sided with the federal government, citing the Geary Act as constitutional. “...Every sovereign nation had the power to forbid the entrance of foreigners within its domains,” and that “Congress has the right to provide a system of registration and identification of any class of aliens within the country…”[9] These acts barring Chinese immigation would exist in some form until the 1940s, with their repeal not happening until 1943.


Americans had clearly not learned their lesson from the racist, anti-Chinese legislation of the 19th century, because following the United States entry into World War II after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order created military zones in California, Washington, and Oregon, areas with a high percentage of Japanese Americans.[10] Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was an increase in antagonism toward Japanese Americans specifically. Although there was a lack of any serious evidence, the U.S. War Department was suspicious of Japanese Americans and believed they could be acting as “saboteurs or espionage agents.”[11] The Department of Justice was opposed to moving innocent civilians, American citizens to be exact, but the War Department was able to strong arm the opposition and established the internment camps along the west coast. The executive order radically altered the lives of approximately 117,000 people, with the majority being American citizens.[12]



Executive Order 9066 did not allot much time for Japanese Americans to prepare for their forcible relocation, with many of them only allowed to bring a single suitcase. This meant that upstanding Americans were forced to leave behind their ordinary lives, leaving behind “cars, houses, pets, and businesses.”[13] The experience of being relocated against their wills was a traumatic experience that would leave a mark on a lot of young Japanese Americans. Fumi I. was one of the young children who was swept up in the commotion of it all, remembering “...my parents owned a hotel and beer parlor in downtown Los Angeles, which they worked very hard to get and establish. They had to leave their whole business, house, and lives that they made behind.”[14] President Roosevelt’s executive order was not the only way that Americans of non-European descent were targeted in the 1940s. The FBI became involved immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, arresting 1,291 Japanese community and religious leaders without a shred of evidence and detaining them, often sending them to the internment camps established by President Roosevelt.[15] A plan created by Lt. General John L. DeWitt laid out orders to not only round up Japanese Americans, but also Italians and Germans; the thought of violating the civil rights of Italians and Germans, however, was not as popular as it was for the Japanese residents. This highlights an important distinction, that during the war, non-white Ameriacns were a much easier target for blatant civil rights violations and targets of racist vitriol.


There is clearly a long and violent history of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, and the recent attacks in Atlanta only serve as a reminder that the nation has yet to address its bloody past. While President Biden may address the nation and tell us that this kind of violence is un-American, it seems to be pretty clear that anti-Asian racism has been around for nearly as long as the United States has been an independent country. While President Biden’s predecessor may claim that there is no correlation between using terms like “China virus” and “kung-flu” and the recent rise in hate crimes targeted towards Asian-Americans, the numbers tell a different story. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reports that anti-Asian American hate crimes increased nearly 149% between 2019 and 2020.[16] There is a very clear correlation between the usage of racist and derogatory terms for Covid-19 and the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans. With the United States’ lack of attention towards mending its injustices towards Asian-Americans, there must be a stronger response to address the nation’s misguided and racist errors throughout its history.

[1] “Chinese Immigrants and the Gold Rush,” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldrush-chinese-immigrants/. [2] “Chinese Immigrants and the Gold Rush,” PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldrush-chinese-immigrants/. [3] American Social History Project, Foreign Miners License, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1714#:~:text=In%201850%2C%20the%20California%20legislature,not%20forced%20to%20pay%20it.. [4] History.com staff, Chinese Exclusion Act (A&E Television Networks, August 24, 2018), https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/chinese-exclusion-act-1882. [5] Immigration History, Geary Act (1892) (Immigration and Ethnic History Society, University of Texas at Austin, Department of History, 2019), https://immigrationhistory.org/item/geary-act/. [6] Otis Gibson, The Chinese in America (Cincinnati: Hitchcock & Walden, 1877), 295. [7] Gibson, The Chinese in America, 297. [8] ibid [9]Law School Case Brief, Fong Yue Ting v. United States - 149 U.S. 698, 13 S. Ct. 1016 (1893), https://www.lexisnexis.com/community/casebrief/p/casebrief-fong-yue-ting-v-united-states. [10] History.com Editors, Japanese Internment Camps (February 21, 2020), https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/japanese-american-relocation. [11] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Japanese American Internment, https://www.britannica.com/event/Japanese-American-internment. [12] History.com Editors, Japanese Internment Camps, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/japanese-american-relocation. [13] Precious Yamaguchi, Experiences of Japanese American Women during and after World War II: Living in Internment Camps and Rebuilding Life Afterwards (Lanham: Lexington books, 2014), 46. [14] Yamaguchi, Experiences of Japanese American Women during and after World War II, 46. [15] History.com editors, Japanese Internment Camps. [16] Amy Sherman, Hate crimes against Asian Americans: What the numbers show, and don’t, Politifact, March 19, 2021, https://www.politifact.com/article/2021/mar/19/hate-crimes-against-asian-americans-what-numbers-s/.

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