Why Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is Important

The history of racism against people of Asian American and Pacific Island descent (AAPI) runs deep in America. For as long as people have immigrated to this country, the government has fought hard to keep them from being an equal member of society.  Various laws were passed to keep them from gaining citizenship as well as keeping them low on the social chain. With the passage of laws, the mass violence against communities, and the dehumanization of entire people groups, it is important to learn and understand about the rich history of AAPI in our country.

May was chosen as the month we honor AAPI in America to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to land on American soil on May 7, 1849. It is also the same month in which the Transcontinental Railroad was complete on May 10, 1869. The construction of the railroad was completed mostly by Chinese railway workers, many of whom were underpaid and mistreated in comparison to their white counterparts. In fact, many laws were passed to ensure immigrants were kept in submission to White Americans.

Beginning in 1790, the United States put into law discrimination against non-white people with the Naturalization Act. This act states that only free, White people would be granted naturalization in our country. This law excluded, Native people, Black people, indentured servants, women and Asian people from ever becoming naturalized citizens. Another action which systemically affected Asian people was the 1854 lawsuit of The People vs. Hall. This was based on an 1850 lawsuit in California which ruled that Native and Black people were not allowed to testify against White people. This was expanded to include Asians in 1854 and was a key lawsuit which enabled more violence and discrimination to happen against the Asian communities.

Throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s more systemic laws were put into place which made it easier to harm and displace Asian Americans. The following examples are just a handful of laws which were put into place to keep Asians out of our country:

  • The 1862 Anti-Coolie Act: This act was put into place to limit competition between White workers and Asian workers. Factories were allowed to place a tax on Asian Americans who were working in manufacturing factories as well as place a tax on the employers who hired Asian Americans. This was a way to limit the number of immigrants allowed from Asian countries as there wouldn’t be as many jobs available.
  • The 1870 Naturalization Act: This act allowed Black people to gain citizenship through naturalization but still prohibited Asian Americans through the same process.
  • The California Constitution of 1879: This prohibited corporations from employing Chinese people. This was put into place to deter Chinese immigration out of fear that they were going to take over the state.
  • 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act: This act suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers (both skilled and unskilled). From this point on any Chinese American had to carry papers on their person which identified who they were (laborer, scholar, diplomat or merchant). This act was not repealed until 1943.

Because of these laws, violent acts and other forms of racism were common among the Asian communities. Some of the these are well known in America (the Japanese Internment camps from 1942-1945) but many of these violent acts are never discussed in American History. Below are just a few acts of violence against various AAPI groups in American History.

  • 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles, CA: A white police officer was caught in the cross-fire between two Chinese gangs and killed. On October 24th, hundreds of white and Hispanic people attacked the Chinese community and lynched nearly 20 Chinese people (including a 14 year old and a prominent physician). Eight of the perpetrators of this massacre were convicted of manslaughter, however they were let off on a technicality by the California Supreme Court. Part of this technicality was in thanks to The People vs. Hall which stated that Asian Americans were not allowed to testify against White people. This massacre killed nearly 10% of the Los Angeles Chinese community.
  • 1885 Rock Springs Massacre: On September 2-3 in Rock Springs, WY white miners attacked Chinese miners and set fire to their homes. These miners drove the entire Chinese community out of the town. Twenty-eight people were killed and nearly 500 people Chinese were removed from the community. No one was arrested for this event.
  • 1885 Attack on Squak Valley Chinese Laborers: In Squak Valley White men fired into the tents of Chinese laborers, killing three and injuring three more. No one was arrested for this act of terror.
  • The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition: This exposition promoted the ideals of the United States imperial expansion and racialized depictions of Indigenous people. As part of this exposition, the United States imported a group of Filipino people and put them on display as a sort of human zoo. The 47 acres of land was advertised as the Filipino Reservation.
  • 1970’s-1980’s Rise of the Klan against Vietnamese refugees: After the fall of Saigon, thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled to America to escape communism. A large community of them settled along the gulf in Texas and used their fishing skills to support their families. However, the White fishermen did not like them coming to “their territory” and taking their fishing spots. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized these refugees; setting fire to their boats and setting crosses on fire in their yards until the Vietnamese moved on.
  • 2019 Covid-19: In December of 2019 the Covid-19 virus came out of Wuhan, China. As it spread quickly across the globe, former President Trump called it the “China Virus” in many of his social media communications. This contributed to anti-Asian sentiment and an uptick in Asian hate crimes in America. In a recent Gallup poll, 45% of Americans believe that China is the enemy.

As you can see, there is a deep history of systemic racism in America as well as violence against the Asian community. The American public school system has done a great disservice to our students by not discussing the various moments in history which have reinforced stereotypes and hate towards AAPI. It has also failed to teach our students the various AAPI people who have made positive impacts in history. During the month of May the goal of the NAFC blog is to draw light to the amazing contributions AAPI have brought to the United States as well as discuss in greater detail different events in history.