Module 5. Our Story: Asian Americans


The end of World War II brought the U.S. a new role on the global stage. The use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war made the U.S. the most powerful country in the world, while also causing mass death and destruction in the name of democracy. The paradox of these two concepts conveyed a conflict in American ideology.

In order to maintain the moral high ground, the U.S. passed new immigration policies in 1952, revising earlier immigration quotas of the 1920s. This act loosened some restrictions on Asian nations to immigrate to the U.S., and also made naturalization possible for Japanese, Korean, and Chinese immigrants, but only from these countries of origin.

The next decade brought milestones for racial minorities. These changes included legislation, social movements, and community activism that remade Asian Americans for the next few decades.

First, the legislation that passed broadened the definition of Asian American and dramatically diversified America. This was the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, also referred to as the Hart-Cellar Act. The act overturned previous legislation that granted entry into the country based on national origin. Instead, the act created preference for highly skilled immigrants and ones that already had family in the country.  Policymakers did not anticipate the impact of this legislation. Immigration rates increased dramatically, and many of those immigrants came from Asian countries.

Next, as the Civil Rights movement propelled equality forward for African Americans, the same call for equality was inspired in many other groups. Asian Americans took to the streets just as other racially minoritized groups demanding for equality. Asian Americans like Grace Lee Boggs participated in marches for equality on behalf of African Americans, then turned to inspire Asian communities to do the same. Philip Vera Cruz was a Filipino American who was active in promote fair labor practices for farmers in California and was instrumental in Cesar Chavez’s protest movements in Delano, California. Asian Americans formed a pan-Asian coalition nationwide of Asians that would reject discriminatory labels like “Oriental” and “yellow,” and demand equality on all fronts for Asian Americans. Like many other minoritized groups, in an effort to reclaim a once derogatory term, supporters of Asian American rights claimed Yellow Power in their rhetoric.

Although the label of “Oriental” is now largely understood as inappropriate, another more nefarious label was applied to the Asian community, one that has very complex ramifications. This is the label of “model minority.” The concept of the model minority characterizes Asians as obedient, law-abiding, and submissive to authorities (Thrupkaew, 2002). It also uses three types of Asians, the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean as prime examples of what a successful immigrant should be. These three groups have had their hardships but have been able to become successful in the U.S. and statistically held jobs with higher wages and did not rely on government programs. This concept created much tension between minority groups as well as within the Asian community itself.

First, the model minority paradigm was created to juxtapose the perceived success of Asians against the perceived failures of other persons of color like African Americans and Hispanic Americans who were reliant of government programs and assistance at higher rates. By upholding the Asian community as “model minorities,” the accusation on other ethnic groups was a questioning on why they also could not live up to those standards.

Secondly, the model minority term created tensions between Asian Americans. Japanese, Korean, and Chinese immigrants had a longer history of emigrating into the U.S., and as a result were second and third or more generations of wealth by this point. Additionally, by the 1950s, preference was given to highly skilled Asians who were of these three groups to enter the country, providing a solid economic foundation from the start. And lastly, these three groups reflect a clear bias of colorism, for decedents from these groups tend to be lighter complected than newer immigrants and refugees post 1965. All of these factors created tension and resentment between Asians who either benefitted from the label or were disadvantaged as a model minority.

Although the 1960s brought a push for social change in America, equality continued to be an uphill battle for Asian Americans. Further social conflicts around the globe like the Vietnam War and human rights crises brought even more Asians into the U.S., but this time as refugees. Southeast Asian groups like Vietnamese, Laos, Cambodian, and Hmong immigrants came to the U.S. and were received with fear and suspicion that heightened tensions in some pockets of the nation. Waves of new immigrants typically bring fears to Americans who anticipate a strain on resources that directly affect their livelihoods. These tensions will sometimes erupt in violence as they did in two separate cases during the 1980s.

The 1980s brought an economic downturn that inflated the sense of limited community resources and employment. This anxiety is best exemplified with the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese man who lived in Detroit, Michigan. Economic strain was felt in blue collar jobs in this city, mainly the automobile industry. Chin was coming home from his bachelor party when he was beaten to death by two White men who claimed he was a “Jap” that was taking jobs away from Americans. These men plead guilty, but received no jail time, only probation with a $3,000 fine.

In Stockton, California, at the end of the decade, 1989, another heinous act motivated by racism occurred. This Stockton school shooting marked the deadliest school shooting with the highest number of fatalities and injuries until Columbine in 1999. A White man used an AK-47 to enter Cleveland Elementary School of predominantly Asian American children and opened fire. He shot 34 people and killed 5 that were between the ages of 6 and 9. This elementary school was known to have been attended by mostly Asian students, many of them refugees from Southeast Asia.  Of those children killed, all of them were Asian.


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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