Saturday, October 24, 2009

Visible but Invisible: Asian Americans and Race in America

by Motoya Nakmura


     Helen Zia recalls in her book, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, having felt puzzled as a child growing up in the United States. The feeling was provoked by the fact that she could not trace any records of contribution by Asian Americans, people like her, to the building of America. Caught in the dominant racial formation of black and white, Asian American history had been intentionally obscured, even though the first Asian migration to America goes back to the mid-eighteenth century, in 1763, when Filipino seamen from Manila, on Spanish ships during Spanish Galleon trade, found their way to Louisiana. It marked the first Asian settlement in the United States. (Okihiro 1994: 38) Chinese merchants and sailors were also present before gold was discovered in California in 1848. (Zia 2000: 26)

     This paper’s attempt is to reveal the cause of this invisibility of Asian Americans by examining the Asian American immigration experience from the mid eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth century. The first section will look at common barriers they shared, despite differences in nationality and culture, and their response to these barriers. The second section will look at the different conditions that Asians from different countries faced, breaking into different time periods: pre-World War II, post-World War II and the Communist Revolution in China, along with geographic differences: the U.S. mainland and Hawaii. The third section will look at how the Asian American population has changed since the 1965 Immigration Reform Act.

      After the end of the Civil War in 1865, southern plantation owners started hiring Chinese laborers, noncitizens who could not vote, in order to replace freed African American laborers who were entitled to vote, so that the planters could keep cheap labor and maintain their white political supremacy. All Asian Americans, as part of the political agenda of whites, were caught in the largely black and white interpretation of the naturalization law, a law which was passed in 1790 and amended after the Civil War.  Despite their nationalities, they were not granted naturalized citizenship until the mid twentieth century, even though they were a major work force that contributed to the wealth of American industries. The laws and legislation that deprived Asian Americans of legal rights and political power became the biggest barrier that Asian Americans faced through their journey to make America their home. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, prohibited Chinese laborers immigration to the United States and kept Chinese Americans from becoming citizens. This marked the first legislation that Congress passed based on race. Also, the 1924 Immigration Act banned the immigration by anybody who was ineligible for citizenship, which include all Asians except Filipinos. Asian Americans were not only kept from being citizens but also from owning land in the United States. By 1913, many states prohibited Asian Americans from owning land. The 1920 Alien Land Law prohibited anyone of Asian ancestry from owning land.

     Some Asian Americans brought their frustrations to court.  It was, however, in vain. In 1922, Takao Ozawa’s hope to become an American was shattered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Associate Justice George Sutherland ruled, “the applicant is clearly of a race which is not Caucasian, and therefore belongs entirely outside the zone on the negative side,” (Okihiro 1994: 61)


     Though Asian Americans from different countries share similar experiences in terms of exploitation, marginalization and racism, the different time periods brought starkly different experiences to the various Asian populations.

      World War II changed significantly the status of Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos in very different ways. As soon as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment spread rapidly throughout the United States, particularly affecting Japanese Americans in the West Coast states. During this same period, China and the Philippines became allied forces with the United States against Japan. Chinese and Filipino Americans who had been called racial slurs like “monkeys,” and “rat-eaters,” became regarded as beloved friends. Time magazine even published illustrated tips on how to tell Chinese friends from Japanese enemies. (Zia 2000: 39) In addition, the Chinese, in 1943,  and the Filipino and Asian Indian populations, in 1946, were allowed to become naturalized citizens.

     Amidst the atmosphere of hatred toward Japanese Americans, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans that included American-born Niseis (second generation), who were American citizens by birth. 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned at ten internment camps in California, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Arkansas, where they lived without privacy in dusty prison-styled barracks throughout the duration of the war.

     Despite the way they were treated in their homeland, many Nisei Japanese Americans fought against Nazi Germany to prove their loyalty and patriotism. Most of them belonged to the segregated U.S. Army 442 Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. Members of the 442 were among the first to liberate concentration camp victims in Dachau, Germany.  U.S. Military commanders, embarrassed by the fact that the family members of the Japanese American soldiers were interned in their own homeland, decided against publicizing the contribution these men made. (Zia 2000: 43)

     Another example of how the specific time period affected certain Asian Americans groups was the Communist Revolution and the Korean War. Shortly after Chinese were treated as allied friends, they became enemy aliens like the Japanese during World War II. Ironically, because of this antagonism against the Chinese, Japanese and Korean Americans were finally entitled to citizenship in 1952.

     The geographical differences between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii also created very different Asian American immigration experiences. The biggest difference between Asian Americans in the U.S. mainland and those in Hawaii was their population ratio. In 1920, the Asian population was only 0.17 percent of the whole mainland population. In Hawaii, however, the Asian population was 62 percent of the whole island population. (Takaki 1998: 132) This majority race status played a big role in the empowerment of Asian American laborers in Hawaii. After the 1900 Organic Act that annexed Hawaii to the U.S. territory, the preexisting contract labor system at sugar plantations ended, leaving all Asian Americans free from their contracts. The unfair and race based labor conditions had been common in both the mainland and Hawaii. Asian laborers were consistently paid much less than their white working class counterparts. However, empowered by their free worker status and their majority population status, they organized strikes to protest against the harsh and unfair labor conditions at sugar cane plantations. This labor activism succeeded in ending the unfair wage system that previously existed.

      Beyond these plantations, Asian American laborers on the mainland became targets of violent racism by their white working class counterparts, who were in the majority.  Many anti-Asian riots, lynching and massacres by white mobs occurred. In addition to the anti-Asian movement, many Asian Americans faced marginalization by their white employers. The majority of laborers for The Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese Americans. After completion of the transcontinental railroad, Chinese laborers were not even invited to the celebrations, during which European laborers were congratulated for their contribution. The railroad company not only fired all the Chinese laborers but did not allow them to ride on the very railroad they helped build. (Zia 2000: 27)   

      Until the mid-20th century, most Asian Americans were involved in hard physical labor in agricultural, mining, and railroad industries. Even in the cities, they worked mainly as domestic servants. However, global politics started changing the status of many Asian Americans. World War II helped skilled Chinese and Filipino find better jobs in the war industries, which had been previously unavailable to them. After the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution, thousands of well-educated Chinese elites, such as scientists and engineers, found refuge in the United States, escaping the political atmosphere of their homeland.  This added many Asian Americans among other skilled professionals.

     The Immigration Reform Act in 1965 provided a more dramatic change for Asian Americans. Pressured by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the new act took away many race-based restrictions from the old immigration act. The change impacted not only the increase of Asian populations but also the increase of a more skilled and educated Asian American population. According to the 2003 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, out of about 10 million Asians who immigrated to the United State between 1820 and 2004, 8.6 million entered the United States since 1971. (Fong 2008: 28)

     Manufacturing industries left the United States to seek cheaper labor in less-developed countries such as China and India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Conversely, demand for specialized laborers who could help the United States compete in the global economy, increased. The new immigration law supported family reunification and added a category for skilled professionals in short supply. This encouraged a significant number of foreign-born Asian students to get advanced degrees in specialized fields in demand such as engineering and computer science. Many got jobs, stayed, and brought their families to the United States, creating a new wave of Asian migration. This current migration of educated and specialized Asian Americans contributed to the drastic increase of a successful middle class population within the Asian American population.

      Another new layer to Asian American history occurred as a result of the American defeat in the Vietnam War in 1975. This caused a massive wave of refugees from Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, who entered the United States to escape political persecution.    

     Global politics that impacted the United States and its resident ethnic groups, such as World War II and the Chinese Communist Revolution, escalated animosity toward Asian Americans living in the United States. Empowered by the fact that the majority of the Hawaiian population was Asian American, Asian Americans in Hawaii were more resilient against racial discrimination and harsh labor conditions than their brethren in the US mainland. However, from the Chinese “coolies” who were brought to the southern plantations to replace African slaves in the mid 19th century, to Japanese Americans who were interned like prisoners during World War II, Asian Americans shared common barriers that kept them from planting roots in the United States.  

    The contributions of Asian Americans throughout the century live in the shadow of American history. Since the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, a sizable number of well-skilled and educated Asian Americans have achieved high status in the American society. The trend of Asian American immigration has drastically changed.  However, the marginalization of Asian Americans seems far from over. In 2004, Pubic Television (PBS) broadcast a four-hour series called They Made America, which featured the most influential people who contributed to commercial milestones. No Asian Americans were mentioned. (Fong 2008: 17) In 2005, more than 30,000 Vietnamese Americans were affected by Hurricane Katrina, but media coverage excluded the Vietnamese American victims, focusing only on black and white victims. (Fong 2008: 37)

     These incidents, coupled with the long history of oppression and invisibility of Asian Americans, might lead current Asian American children to wonder, as Helen Zia did, why Asian Americans contributions to the building of America are missing in history.







Fong, Timothy P. “The History of Asians in America.” In The Contemporary Asian AmericanExperience, 3rd ed. 17-40. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2008.

Okihiro, Gary. “Is Yellow Black or White.” In Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. 31-63. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Takaki, Ronald. “Dollar a Day, Dime a Dance: The Forgotten Filipinos.” In Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. 315-354. Boston: Little, Brown & Company Limited, 1989.

Takaki, Ronald. “Raising Cane: The World of Plantation Hawaii.” In Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. 132-176. Boston: Little, Brown & Company Limited, 1989.

Takaki Ronald. “The Tide of Turbans: Asian Indians in America.” In Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. 294-314. Boston: Little, Brown & Company Limited, 1989.

Zia, Helen. “Surrogate Slaves to American Dreamers.” In Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. 21-52. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.


















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