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A Brief History of East Asian Discrimination and Racism in the US

Back in 2010, I was doing an internship in the United States and had the opportunity to work with people from around the world. However, I noticed the company was doing something different with the students that came from China and South Korea. Instead of using their real names on their name tags, the company assigned them names that were “easier” to pronounce; like my friend “Jennifer”. When she told me about this situation, I was really mad. From that day on, I started calling her by her real name. This may sound like something simple, that is not a big deal, but their names are part of their identity. The right thing to do is use their real names and practice until you pronounce them correctly.

Fast Forward to 2021 and we’ve seen a surge of anti-Asian hate crimes across the country, quite notably in Atlanta, Georgia. In light of all this, my co-writer and I would like to trace the history of east Asian discrimination, starting from the 19th century all the way to the 21st century.


1854: People v. Hall 

    In the 1850s, Chinese migrants journeyed to western US to work in agriculture and other “menial” tasks. Here, chinese labor built a transcontinental railway system that effectively connected the eastern and western parts of the burgeoning republic. Nevertheless, the chinese were accused of stealing american jobs, and were even accused of harrowing the moral and cultural decay of american society. In 1854, George Hall shot and killed chinese migrant Ling Sing. The incident was taken to the California Supreme Court, where eyewitness testimony unanimously agreed that Hall killed Sing, but the Court dismissed the eye witnesses since they were all asian. And thus California ruled that no asian could testify against a white american. In other words, Americans could get away with crime against the chinese without facing justice.


1871: The Chinese Massacre of 1871

    Los Angeles was a different place in the 1870s: around 6,000 residents lived in this western town. The chinese population made up roughly 3%, and half lived in the adobe houses along La Calle de los Negros (This wasn’t a slur for african americans; instead, this name was given due to the large amount of black-skinned spaniards who lived there). Initially, the white residents didn’t mind the chinese until 1869 when The Los Angeles News and The Los Angeles Star began denigrating the chinese as immoral and inferior. Tensions exploded in 1871 after a chinese gang shoot-out killed a popular former salon owner, Robert Thompson. A mob of 500 residents demanded blood from the chinese and surrounded the building where the chinese were hunkering down. The mob dragged the chinese and looked for anything that resembled a beam to string a noose. The next morning, 17 corpses were laid out across the jail yard. 


1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act

    One of the most infamous laws passed by the United States Congress, probably the most renown in the history books. Motivated by xenophobia and baseless fears of cultural degradation, this 1882 Act blocked Chinese immigration for a period of ten years and required that any traveling chinese carry a certificate that indicated their status as either a laborer, scholar, diplomat, or merchant. More restrictions were added upon later such as the 1888 Scott Act, which made reentry to the US impossible for Chinese immigrants. 


1885: The Rock Spring Massacre

    Another massacre took place in the United States, specifically in Rock Spring, Wyoming. 28 Chinese coal mine workers were killed by 100-150 white coal miners, who also burned 79 homes. Those who were able to escape and hop on a train were fooled to think the train was taking them to San Francisco. Instead, the train took them back to Rock Spring and they were completely traumatized by looking at the disaster caused by the white coal miners. They saw the bodies of friends who got killed and the burnt remains of their homes. 


1942: Executive Order 9066

    Let’s shift to Japanese incurred discrimination for a bit. One of the most notorious actions taken by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his presidency was his signing of Executive Order 9066―a massive relocation effort that displaced over 117,000 Americans of japanese descent. Although military and gubernatorial authorities toyed with the idea of relocating italian and german-descent americans, the plan proved unpopular and instead targeted the japanese-americans. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI arrested thousands of community and religious leaders and searched the homes of thousands of other japanese-american citizens for signs of suspicious doings. It wasn’t long before Japanese families were sent to assembly centers, far away from the cities on the west coast, facing starvation and death by gunfire. It was only after the war ended that everything seemingly went back to normal. 


1982: The murder of Vincent Chin

    On the night of June 19, 1982, 27-year-old chinese-american Vincent Chin and a group of friends were off visiting a strip club in Detroit. While Chin and his companions commemorated his upcoming wedding, two men―Ronald Ebens and Michel Nitz―were at the club, still reeling from the loss of their jobs at Chrysler. These two men blamed the Japanese auto industry for their unemployment and when they saw Chin they mistook him as japanese. Chin and the ex-Chrysler employees got into a fight, and eventually Chin was beaten up by a baseball bat, dying of his injuries four days later. There was no coverage on Chin’s death and though the murderers were charged a $3,000 fine, $780 in court costs, and three years’ probation,  they received no jail time. Nevertheless, a Pan-Asian American civil rights organization called American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) formed and protested the charges that the ex-chrysler employees faced; the organization even petitioned the US Department of Justice to investigate the murder. Thankfully, the petition paid off and the men were served justice.


1990: San Francisco plague outbreak

    This made me think of what we are experiencing with COVID-19. The plague outbreak was very likely to spread from a ship that came from Australia. But, the first victim in the United States was a Chinese immigrant. Immediately, everyone blamed the entire Chinese community for it. Sounds familiar? Because this is exactly what is happening with COVID-19 and fueled by former President Trump’s constant attacks. 


2001: Hate crimes after 9/11

    The attacks and hate crimes after what happened on September 11, 2001, were over the roof. People started to attack those who were beleived to be Muslim, including people from South Asia. The hate was constant, visible and kept growing.


2021: Spa shootings in Atlanta

    There has been a lot of anti-asian hate crimes over the years, but we will end this article with the most recent one. A 21-year-old man killed 8 people at three different spas in Atlanta, and six of them were women of Asian descent. This recent hate crime caused a major outrage over the news, celebrities, and everyone over social media. The Asian American community spoke out loud about the fear they have been going through and the risks of other attacks.


As you can see, there has been a long history of racism and discrimination against Asian American in the United States that stretches into the 19th century and continues on today, particularly exacerbated by the economic and military ascension of the People’s Republic of China and the demographic shifts that the US will experience in the future . We can only hope a Red Terror-style moral panic doesn’t start anytime soon…


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Emilio H. Mejill Ortiz is a fifth-year UPRM student pursuing a mayor in pure mathematics. His two dreams after graduating is to one day publish a novel and to drive from Miami to Seattle. He loves reading, learning about history, and strives to master koine greek.
Mariely is a PhD student in School Psychology at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. She loves spending time with her family and their dogs named Gabo and Bebo. Mariely is always practicing sign language, reading, crafting, writing, watching movies or blogging! You can find her under a pile of books on her Instagram.
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