On Asian America: The Election and A History of Exclusion [Parts I and II]

PART I: THE ELECTION

1982

In Detroit, Michigan, a Chinese American man is mistaken for being Japanese by two white autoworkers who were recently laid off.

“It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work!”

A fight ensues, Vincent Chin and his friends leave. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz also get kicked out. The two, father and step-son, pay a cab to drive for half an hour, looking for Chin. They find Chin at a McDonalds. They get out. They hunt him down. One holds him, the other beats him with a baseball bat on the sidewalk. Eventually, two off duty police officers step in, but it’s too late.

Chin dies of his injuries four days later, just days before his wedding.

Neither man sees jail time. They get three years probation, fined $3,000 and ordered to pay $780 in court fees.

The judge says, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail… You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”

2016

At the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, an Asian American woman is walking across a bridge on campus when a white man yells at her,

“Go back to Asia!”

She keeps walking, ignoring his racist comment, when suddenly, she feels someone grabbing her wrist from behind.

“Don’t you know it’s disrespectful to walk away from someone when they are talking to you?” he said to her.

The man who yelled at her earlier follows her and grabbs her. She asks him to let go, otherwise she’d hurt him. He laughs in her face and verbally dares her to fight him. So she punches him in the throat, he collapses, and his friends, witnessing all of this, call the police. And she’s handcuffed for assault.

You may have heard this story, or at least many like this one, which may or may not have covered your newsfeed — pending who your friends are — immediately after the presidential election. But the day after the election, and many days since, it felt like someone I loved died.


After a few hours of “sleep” I got out of bed and started to make breakfast with a friend. The waffles tasted bland and the coffee, burned. We tried decompressing about the election, but both of us were speechless. There wasn’t much to say, but to just be present in this shared space. I biked to the University of Minnesota later that morning, crossing that very same bridge, and I felt an overwhelming sense of anger. It was a crisp fall day, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I realized how cruel the world could be.

The Earth was still spinning, the sun was still rising, and people were acting as if nothing had happened. The universe was laughing in my face.

As I pedaled and pedaled, just trying to get through this nightmare, I stared at the students I was biking past and immediately thought, “How many of them voted for Trump?”

I finally made it to Ford Hall and spent the entire day, sitting in the student lounge, refreshing Facebook and clicking on every single link about the election. Graduates and undergraduates alike, sat in this room together in silence, most likely doing the same thing. Professors came by — one dropped off a giant bag of Halloween candy — to check-in and sit in this shared space — one of the few spaces where many of us could feel safe. I sustained myself on coffee and chocolate that day. I went to a workout that evening, but just felt mentally exhausted the whole time. And that night, a couple friends came over. We drank wine and ate pizza. I mostly talked, they mostly listened, and every once in awhile we’d sit in comfortable silence, or what felt more like mourning.

The next day, I came across this story about Minnesota — an Asian American woman is told, go back to Asia — and I broke down. I was so angry. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, smash anything I could find, and punch every Trump voter in the face. I wanted to yell at the people who felt empowered to do this and even more at the people who were walking by on the bridge and let this happen.

I wanted to yell at my friends, and ask every one of them, would have you done something if this happened to me? If you saw this happen to someone, would you have stopped this? Because this could be me. Because this was her. Because this was Vincent Chin.

Because I didn’t know who I could trust anymore.

Because for many of us, for many Asian Americans, we’re all too familiar with this form of racism.

Where are you from?
Where are you really from?
What kind of Asian are you?
Where’d you learn to speak English?
Your English is good.

For many Asian Americans, we’re all too familiar with the question, “Where are you from?” and what it leaves us with this sinking feeling, that pit in our stomach, that void. It reinforces our own feelings that we don’t belong. Because we know that what follows is a rephrased version of this question, “Where are you really from?”

But while many of us have been confronted with this question, in some form or another, how many of us are actually familiar with where this question comes from?


PART II: A HISTORY OF EXCLUSION

Have you ever wondered why so many Japanese Americans have generations of family who’ve lived in the US? Whereas for many other Asian Americans, we are the 1st or 2nd generation in our immigrant families.

In 1882, less than 150 years ago, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the US and declared Chinese ineligible for citizenship. It’s also important to note that the first undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico were the Chinese, who would flee to Mexico, with hopes of immigrating north.

Throughout this time, there were widespread anti-Chinese and anti-Asian riots. Many Asian laborers were blamed for stealing jobs (sound familiar?) and dozens of Asian laborers became victims of hate crime throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s — Chinese in Seattle, WA in the 1880s and Filipinos in Watsonville, CA in 1930.

In 1898, the US colonized the Philippines. After the US promised to grant the Philippines sovereignty after centuries of Spanish colonization, the US turned its back on the promises it granted Filipino fighters who helped overthrow the Spanish government. As consequence, the US colonized the Philippines, beginning mass migration to the US — mainly Hawaii and California. Also important to note that because the Philippines are a US colony, migrants are seen as US Nationals — neither citizen, nor immigrant.

In 1915, Takao Ozawa, a first generation Japanese American, applied for naturalization to become a US citizen. The 1906 Naturalization Act allowed only “free white persons” and “persons of African nativity or persons of African descent” to naturalize. He argued that because people of Japanese ancestry had fair skin, they were white.

In the 1922 Supreme Court case Ozawa vs. US, the Court unanimously ruled that the word “white” was synonymous with “what is popularly known as the Caucasian race” and Ozawa could not be white because he was “clearly of a race which is not Caucasian.”

Seeing this, in 1923 Bhagat Singh Thind challenged the US for naturalization rights. Again, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Thind, who is Indian Sikh, is not eligible for naturalization. Thind argued that because he belonged to the Caucasian race (relying on pseudo-scientific notions of race during this time) he fit the criteria that Ozawa did not. His ancestors came from the Caucasus mountains, where white people came from. (By the way, all of this knowledge about race was manufactured and there’s no scientific explanation, like DNA, that explains race, because well… we literally made it up).

However, the court ruled that he did not fit the “common sense” definition of Caucasian because he wasn’t white by skin color.

The Immigration Act of 1917 banned immigration from the “Asiatic Barred Zone” — which included all countries in Asia and the Middle East, with the exception of Japan and the Philippines. Because the Philippines were a US colony, Filipinos were considered US Nationals, therefore were still allowed to immigrate to the US as a labor source. In 1935, the Tydings-McDuffie Act granted the Philippines as a Commonwealth, agreeing to a ten year long process to grant the Philippines sovereignty. This was not done out of goodwill, but rather done to limit Filipino immigration, which the 1924 Immigration Act did not prevent since Filipinos were US Nationals. The Philippines were granted independence in 1946, after signing the Bell Trade Act, which specified economic trade policies between the US and Philippines. Currently, the Philippines’ largest export are its citizens, who leave, in search of better economic opportunities to support their families back home. This is not on accident, this is a product of colonization.

The 1924 Immigration Act, also known as the National Origins Act, created a national origins quota, that discriminated against certain countries. It limited the number of immigrants from countries in Southern and Eastern Europe, while excluding immigration from Asia.

Effectively banning immigration from Asia for over 40 years.

This ban on mass immigration from Asia would be upheld until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended the national origins quota. The Immigration Act of 1965 prioritized immigration for skilled laborers and those seeking family reunification. Congress aimed this bill at European immigrants, unintentionally opening mass immigration from Asia.

In 1943, the Magnuson Act repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, allowing a 105 person quota, per year, for Chinese immigration and also granted the right to naturalize to become a US citizen. The Luce-Cellar Act of 1946 allowed Filipinos and Indians to naturalize. Japanese were granted naturalization in 1952 under the McCarran-Walter Act.

The US Refugee Act of 1980 raised the number of refugees who were allowed into the US, in part to respond to the number of refugees fleeing Southeast Asia after the illegitimate and secret wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

And in 2017, the Executive Order, “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” bans Muslims from entering the US.