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Asian American history is American history

Written by Yuuki Nishida

Courtesy - History.svg: ~DarKobra at Deviantart Klepsydra.svg: MARCIN N derivative work: Henrykus, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the CDC’s plans to end the Covid-19 public health emergency on May 11, Asian Americans continue to be plagued with the hate spawned from the pandemic.

AAPI Data, a reporting center on demographic data and policy research on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, published a report in February on the advancement of community wellbeing of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) in California. They found 1 in 4 Asian Americans in California reported having ever experienced a hate crime or hate incident.

Additionally, they found that a high proportion of Asian Americans in California experience some form of “everyday experience with discrimination,” ranging from being assumed they were not from the U.S. to being threatened or harassed. Chinese Americans were the main target of hateful rhetoric by government leaders blaming the virus on China. This rhetoric eventually spread to Asian Americans more broadly. Anti-Asian sentiments continue to surge today with the recent shooting down of the Chinese “spy” balloon and the government’s plans to ban TikTok.

President Joe Biden has come forward stating that such rhetoric and violence against Asian Americans is entirely “un-American.” But as Erika Lee, professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, puts it, “This violence follows the racist tradition that has defined the Asian American experience in the US: despite long histories and deep roots in America, Asian Americans are still viewed as racial others, outsiders, and foreigners; as enemies rather than citizens.”

A glimpse of the history of Asian hate

Asian Americans have long been victims of hate in American history.

  • In 1871, seventeen Chinese civilians in Los Angeles were lynched by a mob of 500 people in what became the largest mass lynching in U.S. history.

  • In 1907, South Asian lumber workers were blamed for lowering wages and driven out of their homes in Bellingham, Washington, by their white coworkers.

  • In 1930, the city of Watsonville attacked and rioted against Filipino farmworkers after they were seen dancing with white women at a dance hall.

Even reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic bore striking similarities to the 1900s San Francisco bubonic plague. On March 6, 1900, Wong Chut King became the first diagnosis of the plague in the U.S. Because the bacterial disease came from a Chinatown resident, the city sealed off and quarantined its nearly 20,000 occupants. Civilians were attacked, homes were ransacked and belongings were burned in an effort to sanitize the area. Non-Chinatown residents were able to freely enter and exit. Inflamed rhetoric by Mayor James D. Phelan scapegoated Chinese Americans as the cause of the plague, calling them a “constant menace to public health.”

For Connie Young Yu, activist and historian, Asian hate has been something she’s witnessed throughout her life. Young Yu, a descendent of Chinese railroad workers, was born in 1941, just two years before the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Growing up, Young Yu learned about her personal history through oral stories passed down by her parents. She learned about her grandfather’s immigration to San Jose in 1881, one year before the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted. There, he lived in the second largest Chinatown in California, which was later deliberately burned down in 1887.

"All these incidents that are now in history, I have oral history to go with it,” Young Yu  said. “And that tells you what really happened.”

When Young Yu moved to the Richmond district from Chinatown in the late 50s, her family became the first Chinese family to move in the neighborhood. Prior to moving there however, she learned about a petition circulating to prevent her family from buying a house. Buying the house was only made possible by her father’s friends, a German American officer of the same rank in the army.

The model minority ‘strategy’

There is a longstanding stereotype of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” a racial group that rose above prejudice and discrimination to become one of the nation’s most hardworking and highest-achieving demographics. This myth is rooted in our country’s historic mistreatment of Asian people and only aims to silence Asian American history.

“People talk about the Chinese being the silent generation, the silent model minority. Not that we were silent, but we were silenced,” Young Yu said. “Imagine the terror of having rocks thrown at your house, I’m talking about the people that were driven out of Chinatowns.”

Not only does the model minority silence the Asian American experience, but it makes Asian Americans believe their experiences exist in a vacuum.“A lot of the times we’ve noticed people talk about it, is just as stereotypes,” said Tom Izu, local historian and activist of San Jose’s Japantown. Izu and his wife, Susan Hayase, call it the model minority strategy aimed at individualizing Asian Americans’ incidents with hate.

Despite being praised as the model minority, questions such as “Where are you really from?” or “What are you?” place Asian Americans as the racialized “other”—never quite being considered as Americans. Sociologist William Petersen in a 1966 article in New York Times Magazine was credited for first articulating the myth. He contrasted Japanese Americans with Black Americans, whom he called “problem minorities” who had rightfully earned the prejudices against them.

“This is a tool of white supremacy,” Izu said. “It’s used to divide people. If you can understand that, then you can understand why [we] are in this big fight for a multiracial democracy…We need to put it in this bigger spec and frame it in a way so that people can see that this is a part of the fight for democracy. [The model minority strategy] is a tool of white supremacy and it’s dangerous to us and everybody else.”

The importance of learning history

California became the first state to adopt an ethic studies curriculum requirement at the high school level in 2021. Mae Lee, department chair of Asian American and Asian Studies and professor at De Anza College, sees the impact of teach Asian American history for Asian students.

“Whenever we want to talk about anti-Asian hostility or aggression or scapegoating, the historical context is really important,” Lee said. “As someone who is in the classroom, many of my students when they first learned about these incidents, if it had not been for Black Lives Matter, my students would understand these experiences in very isolated or individualized ways. There’s pedagogical and political framing that we do by offering historical context”

When she was a student at Stanford, Lee was one of 56 students arrested for sitting in the president’s office demanding for ethnic studies in 1989. The result led to the immediate hiring of minority faculty and installing full-time directors at the ethnic community centers. For Lee, being exposed to Asian American activism in college, allowed her to engage with her identity in greater racial consciousness and fully grasp the Asian American experience.

“Our institutions, our school institutions, media institutions, political institutions, have never foregrounded an analysis of anti-Asian racism,” Lee said. “We wouldn’t expect [students] to have a consciousness around race and Asian American identity.”

The fight to end Asian hate is not a singular battle. It involves the coalescence and collaboration of all marginalized groups to acknowledge this nation’s history of deeply embedded racism. Back when the first Stop Asian Hate rallies started, Young Yu stood in solidarity with people of all backgrounds.

“There was an incredible solidarity of people of all races at these rallies. It wasn't just for Asians,” said Young Yu. “That's the only way we can move forward. That's the only way we can make any change.”


The above article is by Yuuki Nishida, who is a journalist and team member on East Palo Alto Today's Stop the Hate Media Campaign, which is funded by a grant from the State of California that is administered by the California State Library.

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