The recent attacks on Asians have blown a huge hole in the “model minority” ridiculousness, demonstrating once again that Americans will be racist toward any non-whites, whatever the meaning of non-white means at any given time. The historian Mae Ngai, one of the most important scholars working on immigration in any field today, reminds us of the long history of anti-Asian racism, a centerpiece of understanding American history.
Imagine, for a moment, that there had been no exclusion laws, and Chinese and other Asians had continued to freely immigrate to the United States. California, the West, indeed, the whole country would look radically different today. Not all of Asia’s “teeming masses” would have inundated the U.S.; migration does not work that way. The poorest do not migrate, because they can’t afford to, and the wealthiest don’t need to. Migration sets patterns, or chains, from certain areas and not others. Still, by 1950, many millions of Asian Americans would have been building their lives in the United States, and, in the process, contributing to the country. Instead, that year there were a mere 320,000 Asian Americans, composing just two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Since the immigration reforms of 1965, the number of Asian Americans has increased, but we are still barely 6 percent of the U.S. population. Yet too many Americans still believe that there are too many Asians in the U.S. and that we don’t belong here.
For many Asian Americans, the policy of exclusion looms as large as Jim Crow does for Black people. The association is more than a metaphor. In the late 19th century, Jim Crow and Chinese exclusion were related projects of white supremacy, one in the South and one in the West. After the Civil War, the old planter class and the new industrialists in the South responded to the prospect of equality for the formerly enslaved by relegating them to second-class status, stripped of the franchise and other civil rights. The dangers that white supremacists associated with Black citizenship provided an object lesson for why Chinese people should be excluded. A reactionary political alliance of the West and the South pushed the exclusion laws through Congress.
Asiatic exclusion and Jim Crow segregation were two modes of racial management necessary for white supremacy after the Civil War, when the West and the South were being integrated into a national economy based on corporate capital and a polity made up of white male voters. These policies relied on euphemisms and legal fictions—“aliens ineligible to citizenship” and “separate but equal”—to work around the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection and due process for all. Indeed, in the late 19th century, the Supreme Court would interpret the Fourteenth Amendment to favor the rights of capital, and not those of formerly enslaved people or Asian immigrants.
Laws like these were not preordained, but resulted from a choice made between two competing visions: The nation could be built on the principle of white supremacy or on that of democracy. Frederick Douglass understood that the futures of the South and the West were entwined, and that together, they would determine the fate of the nation as a whole. “I want a home here not only for the Negro, the mulatto, and the Latin races,” he said in 1869, speaking out against Chinese exclusion, “but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours.”
Americans today are slowly beginning to appreciate the nature of systemic racism against Black people. We need to expand the scope of our understanding; different historical dynamics have produced different racisms. But although distinct, their histories are connected and their legacies overlap, sometimes chaotically. And if we don’t understand the history of exclusion, we cannot understand the racist hatred that continues to be directed against Asian Americans in the present.