Anti-Asian racism, specifically anti-Chinese racism, is interwoven into the very fabric of the United States. Edward Said popularized the term “orientalism,” which can be used to describe and analyze the contemporary iterations of longstanding anti-Asian racism and violence. Said and other scholars describe the ways in which the “West” – Europe and the United States – has positioned itself as the pinnacle of knowledge, civility, and development, in direct comparison to the “East” – all regions of Asia – otherwise known as the “Orient.” The West has developed an image and system of beliefs about and against the “East” as the “other,” positioning it as backwards, barbaric, exotic, exploitable. These beliefs and the construction of the “Orient” has created and fueled the anti-Asian racism and violence that we are still witnessing today.
Said writes, “the Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages... the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience... The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture” (Said, 1978).
The idea of the “Asian immigrant” was already solidified in white settler beliefs before the arrival of any Asian people to the U.S because of Europe’s influence, orientalism, and the construction of race to justify endless violences against Black and Indigenous people, Indigenous people of the Americas, and people of color (Lee 2016). Moreover, the racist stereotype of “yellow peril” developed in the late 19th century, when Chinese workers began immigrating to the United States, creating the idea that Chinese people were a threat and danger to white people. The term has since been reclaimed in many Asian liberation movements.
There is also a history of division between Asian and Black communities and liberation movements that we must acknowledge. This is not to ignore or discredit the very important and real solidarity between Asian and Black communities, or reduce the identities of Black Asian people, because this certainly does not apply to all efforts and people. However, Asian Americans were and are still often used as a measurement of superiority against Black people and there is anti-Blackness in many Asian communities. Chinese laborers were often seen as more “docile, submissive and hard-working, unlike African Americans'' (Huang 2017). This rhetoric is the work of a system of white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
Moreover, during and post-WWII, many Asian Americans attempted to align themselves with whiteness and distance themselves from Black communities and other communities of color through channels such as economic and education status in order to gain white societal acceptance.
When wider identity-based liberation movements gained traction later in the 20th century, this previous divide was used to pit Asian and Black communities against one another. Although contemporary movements have far more solidarity between these communities, we cannot discuss the violence against Asian communities without also recognizing that this violence is also rooted in anti-Blackness.
With these frameworks and ideas in mind, we wanted to pull together a timeline of specific events, as well as general foundations, of anti-Asian racism in the United States that might provide some context to the recent influx of violence. As a company based in both the United States and South Asia, we acknowledge the severe gap in education about and recognition of Asian and Asian-American (primarily East and Southeast Asian) people outside of these horrific instances of violence. This timeline is our attempt at situating recent acts of violence in broader historical contexts in hopes of providing a more authentic narrative to the voices, events, and movements that are too often silenced and marginalized by white supremacy. This timeline is not a full list of relevant historical events, rather a sampling of some key moments in American history that may begin to explain the current state of fear and violence we find ourselves in.
We recommend checking out https://aatimeline.com/intro for a much more in depth timeline.
1850s: Chinese people began immigrating to the United States and were funneled into dangerous labor jobs, including the building of the transcontinental railroad, where they made up 90% of the workforce. Chinese immigrants were described as “a distinct people...whom nature has marked as inferior” (Lee 2016). On average, they were paid 30% less than white laborers and an estimated 1,000 Chinese laborers died during the project, although this number is disputed and most likely much higher. After the completion of the project, Chinese people faced hostility from white settlers for “stealing jobs.”
In 1854, the Supreme Court case People vs Hall denied Asian, Black and Native American people from being able to testify in court, making it nearly impossible for them to protect themselves against growing hatred and violence through formal channels of “justice” (Lee 2021).
1870s: State authorized bills, like the Foreign Miners Tax, treated Asian, Hispanic and Black laborers as lesser than white laborers and forced them to pay higher taxes (Lee 2016). These legal discriminations further normalized violence against non-white immigrants. In October 1871, after a white man was killed in the crossfire between two rival Chinese men, a mob of about 500 non-Asian people brutally massacred nineteen Chinese boys and men. In the matter of one day, 10% of the Chinese community in LA was killed in what is now known as the Chinese Massacre of 1871.
1875: The Page Act of 1875 was one of the earliest efforts to limit immigration of Chinese people, without explicitly excluding them based on race. It prohibited the immigration of male contract laborers and women assumed to work in prostitution (Salyer 2006). This is an early example of Asian women being discriminated against for being perceived as sex workers. Asian women were blamed for tainting the moral sanctity of the Americas, causing “moral and racial pollution” (Lee 2016). All Anti-Chinese laws referred to people that "look Chinese,” meaning a lot of East Asian and Southeast Asian folks were also targeted.
1880s: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed as resentment of Chinese laborers increased, effectively prohibiting all Chinese immigration. However, because of the Angell Treaty between China and the United States, the U.S. could not fully prohibit the immigration of Chinese people. Thus, the only Asian immigrants that were allowed into the country were those that could “contribute” to U.S. society, such as merchants, students, professionals and diplomats, with the expectation that they would leave once they fulfilled their duties. With laws in place that ensured Asian “productivity,” the “Model Minority Myth'' emerged. This is the idea that Asian people are hardworking and therefore belong in the United States, creating a contingent acceptance of the community based on how "productive" they are. The myth also fails to recognize the significant disparity between different Asian American communities. Burmese and Fillipino American communities have some of the highest rates of poverty in the country, as well as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (Tran 2018).
1941 and World War II: With World War II and Pearl Harbor began an anti-Japanese sentiment and state sanctioned fear. After Pearl Harbor, the US Government forced people of Japanese descent (you only needed to be 1/16 Japanese) into internment camps to protect “American” civilians from the supposed enemy. Families were only allowed to take what they could carry from their homes to the camps, and upon arrival they were met with barbed wire, guard towers and armed soldiers. Japanese-American activist, Yuri Kochiyama, spent three years of her life in detention. Besides the physical, emotional and psychological trauma, Japanese-Americans also suffered a great amount of economic loss during this time from being forcibly removed from their homes and life. While it is difficult to measure the exact amount of wealth lost, many estimates are placed between $1 and $3 billion (Densho, 2017). Although people were allowed home in 1945, the Executive order which allowed for the legal internment of Japanese-Americans wasn’t rescinded until 1976, 34 years after its creation (Ray 2016). Widespread anti-Japanese sentiment led to many violent acts of hatred against all Asians, including the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, a young Chinese man who was beat to death with a baseball bat by two white men who assumed he was Japanese (Little, 2020).
1966: William Peterson wrote the infamous NYT article “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” which is viewed as one of the most influential pieces about Asian-Americans (Chow, 2017). It pits Asian and Black communities against each other praising Asian Americans for assimilating while slandering Black Americans. This rhetoric solidified the narrative of the “model minority myth.”
1968: Despite state led attempts to pit Black and Asian communities against each other, there have been many instances of solidarity, including with the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF). TWLF included a coalition between the Black Students Union, the Latin American Students Organization, the Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor (PACE), the Filipino-American Students Organization, the newly named Asian American Political Alliance, and El Renacimiento fighting for the creation of an ethnic studies department and for more allocated slots for students of color at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley.
1964-1973, The Secret War (Laos): Between 1964-1973, the US dropped over two million bombs on Laos, more than any other country ever bombed. In an attempt to “neutralize Laos” and to cut off communist supply lines to Vietnam, the U.S. excessively bombed Laos with the excuse that “the Lao were expendable... and President Johnson [had] halted bombing in North Vietnam in 1968, so the airpower no longer used in North Vietnam was diverted to Laos” (Issacs 2017). The Vietnam war continued to fuel fear of Asian people, something that is well documented in the radical student run newspaper, Gidra - started by 5 Asian UCLA students one year after the term “Asian American” was brought to life as a “political identity.” Gidra is a great first-hand source at Asian activism, and you can parse through archives here, as well as their current outlet here. Today South East Asian Americans face the highest rates of poverty in the Asian American community.
1978: Edward Said wrote Orientalism, establishing and defining the critical concept of the depiction of the “East” as a monolithic and inferior culture by Western standards.
2010s: Despite the heavily radicalized language around who are “undocumented immigrants,” Asian people make up a large portion of undocumented people that are therefore targeted by ICE. Asian restaurants are targeted and raided and hundreds of Southeast Asian people have been deported and detained, which increased significantly under the Trump administration.
Today, the model minority myth continues with stereotypes of the “wealthy Asian American,” and the idea that all Asian families have high paying jobs from working hard and achieving the American Dream. This is not and should never be held as true. The idea that the Asian identity is monolithic only benefits white supremacy and it invalidates the experiences of marginalized communities. It creates a notion that Asian Americans are only allowed to engage with the American society in productive ways, and as soon as this production is over, so are all the entitlements that come with it.
Currently, Asian Americans have the largest wealth inequality between subracial groups, with the differences stemming from access to education, privilege and social mobility. 12.3 percent of Asian Americans live below the federal poverty level, ranging from 6.8 percent of Filipino Americans to 39.4 percent of Burmese Americans, further exemplifying the disparity within the Asian American community. Southeast Asian people are also targeted by incarceration that often leads to deportation. Many Asian led organizations today are involved with uplifting and strengthening the narrative of the marginalized Asian American community. Though there are countless other liberation movements, organizations, and individuals we hope you will support, we have provided a short list of places we recommend donating to below.
CAAAV is organizing AAPI communities to build grassroots community power across diverse, poor, and working class Asian immigrant and refugee communities in New York City.
NAPAWF focuses on building power with AAPI women and girls to influence critical decisions that affect their lives. Using a reproductive justice framework, NAPAWF elevates AAPI women and girls to impact policy and drive systemic change in the United States.
Red Canary Song centers base building with migrant workers through a labor rights framework and mutual aid. They believe that full decriminalization is necessary for labor organizing and anti-trafficking. #RightsNotRaids #SexWorkIsWork
Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) provides direct support to Asian and Pacific Islander (API) prisoners and raises awareness about the growing number of APIs being imprisoned, detained, and deported.
Cali Kye Cab: VENMO: @calikyecab Zelle: firstname.lastname@example.org
Based in the Bay Area (though other cities are starting similar initiatives), Cali Kye Cab will pay the Uber/Lyft ride up to $40 if someone is concerned/scared about their safety as an Asian person on public transportation.