Not your Model Minority. Asian American history is one of anti-Asian violence, racism and perseverance. Knowing our history is to know our identify to shape a better future.
For most of U.S. history (1700s-1952), Asian immigrants were ineligible for citizenship and were subject to the most severe immigration restrictions by various laws and regulations on both the national and state levels.
The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s enabled Congress to enact the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, eliminating race discrimination in immigration, a critical law shaping the demographics of America today and beyond.
The U.S. saw the population of Asian Americans growing from under a million in 1960 to over 24 million in 2020, and becoming even more heterogeneous with a majority of Asian Americans born outside of the U.S.
1763: First Asian Americans
Filipinos were the first Asians in America to settle in Louisiana, brought over by the Spanish.
1790: Asian Indians
First recorded arrival of Asian Indians in the United States.
1790: Naturalization Act of 1790
This was the first time Congress established a uniform Rule for Naturalization. This act limited was limited to any “alien, being a free white person” who have lived in the U.S. for at least 2 years were to able to become a U.S. citizen. The naturalization laws were later amended between 1870 to 1875 to also include “aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent.”
1830s: Chinese in Hawaii
Chinese sugar cane laborers in Hawaii. Chinese peddlers recorded in New York City.
1847: Chinese Students in New York City
Three Chinese students arrive in New York City for schooling. Among them, Yung Wing graduates from Yale in 1854 and becomes the first Chinese graduate from a U.S. college. Prior, the US and China signed its first treaty in 1844.
1848: California Gold Rush
Gold was discovered in California. Chinese miners arrive in California. Over 20,000 Chinese entered California by 1852. California imposed the Foreign Miner’s Tax enforced on Chinese miners in 1850.
1854: People vs. Hall
George Hall shot and killed Chinese immigrant Ling Sing. In People vs. Hall, the California Supreme Court reinforced racism against Asian immigrants by ruling that people of Asian descent could not testify against a White person, enabling Whites to escape punishment for anti-Asian violence.
1862: National Ban on “Coolie Trade”
The federal “Act to prohibit the ‘Coolie Trade’ by American Citizens in American Vessels” put the exclusion of Chinese immigrants at the center of debates about race, slavery, immigration and freedom at the close of the Civil War. The Coolie Trade began in the 19th century and became a global system by the 1830s circulating indentured Asian workers to plantations replacing enslaved Black labor as the Atlantic slave trade was being dismantled.
1865: Transcontinental Railroad
Central Pacific Railroad Co. recruits Chinese workers for the transcontinental railroad. Two thousand Chinese railroad workers strike (Chinese Labor Strike) for a week in 1867 over underpaid, overworked and dangerous conditions. The first transcontinental railroad was eventually completed in 1869.
1868: Burlingame-Seward Treaty & Japanese Laborers in Hawaii
U.S. and China signed the Burlingame-Seward Treaty, guaranteeing the right of Chinese immigration thereby supplying inexpensive Chinese labor to U.S. employers. Chinese immigrants were not eligible for naturalized citizenship. The treaty was later amended in 1880 to limit or suspend Chinese immigration. In 1868, 149 Japanese laborers were illegally shipped to Hawaii. Prior, the U.S. and Japan signed its first treaty in 1854. By 1860, Japan sends its first diplomatic mission to the U.S.
1871: The Chinese Massacre of 1871
A reflection of the growing anti-Asian sentiment, on Oct. 24, 1871, a mob of more than 500 rioters surrounded and attacked Los Angeles’ small Chinese community, following the death of a White man caught in the crossfire between rival Chinese groups. It was the largest lynching in American history with 18 Chinese dead. Eight of the rioters were eventually convicted of manslaughter, but their convictions were overturned and no one else was ever punished.
1875: Page Act of 1875
America’s first immigration law, the Page Act of 1875, making East Asian women immigration illegal and barring existing Chinese-American women from becoming citizens. Though the law states the prohibition of the importation of East Asian women for the purpose of prostitution, it was enacted based on sexist and de-humanizing stereotypes. The law’s goal was to limit the size of the Chinese population in America.
1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act
Another example of anti-Asian racism and scapegoating, in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law targeting an ethnicity, banning Chinese immigration for 20 years. It was extended for more than 60 years before it was repealed in 1943.
1885: Rock Springs Massacre
In Rock Springs, Wyoming, anti-Chinese sentiment exploded on September 2, 1885, when 100 to 150 White miners surrounded and attacked Chinese miners, killing 28 people and burning 79 homes.
1898: United States vs. Wong Kim Ark
Wong Kim Ark was born in the U.S. to Chinese parents. He was denied re-entry to the U.S. after a visit to China citing the Chinese exclusion laws. Wong asserted his right as a US citizen taking the case up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld birthright citizenship to all people regardless of race, the idea that anyone born on U.S. soil is a U.S. citizen regardless of race.
1907: The Bellingham Riots
On September 4, 1907, a mob of around 500 White men in Bellingham, WA, mostly part of the Asiatic Exclusion League (formerly aka Japanese-Korean Exclusion League), sought to drive out South Asian immigrant workers, primarily Sikh men, from local lumber mills. The mob attacked the South Asian workers and destroyed their property driving all out of Bellingham within days.
1910: United States vs. Balsara
In this early racial classification case, the U.S. ruled that Asian Indians are White and eligible to for U.S. citizenship.
1913: California Passes the Alien Land Act (Webb-Haney Act)
California passes law prohibiting aliens ineligible to citizenship from owning agricultural land and limited lease term to three years. Though this applied to all immigrants from Asia, it was targeted at Japanese immigrants to prevent them from becoming independent land owners as they were achieving upward social mobility. Washington, Oregon and Arizona also followed. This was later reversed after World War II.
1920: Women’s Right to Vote (19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)
Passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote. Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle—it took decades of organizing, petitioning, picketing and protest that began in the 1800s. Decades of struggle to include African Americans and other minority women in the promise of voting rights remained. Many women were still unable to vote long into the 20th century because of discriminatory state voting laws.
1923: United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind
In 1919, Bhagat Singh Thind filed a petition for naturalization under the Naturalization Act of 1906 which allowed only “free white persons” and “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” to become U.S. citizens by naturalization. He came to the U.S. in 1913 for higher studies and had served in the United States Army. The Court unanimously rejected Thind’s argument, adding that Thind did not meet a “common sense” definition of white, ruling that Thind could not become a naturalized citizen. The Thind decision led to the denaturalization of about fifty Asian Indian Americans who had earlier successfully applied for and received U.S. citizenship.
1924: The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act)
The Immigration Act of 1924 established immigration quotas thereby limiting the number of immigrants allowed to the U.S. It barred any immigrants from Asia. The basic purpose was to preserve the ideal of US racial composition. Congress later revised the Act in 1952 (McCarran-Walter Act).
1930: Anti-Filipino Watsonville Riots
A white mob of more than 500 people attacked Filipino farmworkers and their property, after Filipino men were seen dancing with white women at a dance hall in Watsonville, California, due to anti-Filipino sentiments. The rampage and violence ran through the community for days and spread to other areas in California. By 1933, California prohibited marriages between Filipinos and whites and Congress restricted Filipino immigration to the U.S. a year later.
1942: Japanese Internment during World War II
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 with the stated intention of preventing espionage on American shores. From 1942-1945, the U.S. forced around 112,000 people of Japanese decent, even though over 60% were US citizens, to internment camps. No spies were ever found. In 1988, the U.S. issued a president apology to survivors and $20k each in reparations.
1952: Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (McCarran-Walter Act)
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 upheld the national origins quota system established by the Immigration Act of 1924, reinforcing this controversial system of immigrant selection. It also ended Asian exclusion from immigrating to the United States and introduced a system of preferences based on skill sets and family reunification. The Act created symbolic opportunities for Asian immigration, though in reality it continued to discriminate against Asian immigration.
1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964
Signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson and enacted by July 4, 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one of the most significant laws in American history. The U.S. ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
1965: Voting Rights Act of 1965
Congress expanded The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and passed additional civil rights legislation with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act is one of the most far-reaching impacts of civil rights, that prohibits discrimination in voting. It was designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, secure the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country and provide nationwide protections for voting rights. The Voting Rights Act has been weakened and parts gutted in the past decade – a battle that continues to today as more anti-voting measures are being introduced by states across the country.
1965: Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act)
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, is one of the most critical immigration acts that continues to change the demographics of America. A result of America’s civil rights movement, the act aimed to eliminate race discrimination in immigration. The law abolished the National Origins Formula, which had been the basis of U.S. immigration policy since the 1920s. It removed discrimination against Southern and Eastern Europeans, Asians, as well as other non-Western and Northern European ethnic groups from American immigration policy. It applied a system of preferences for family reunification, employment and refugees.
1967: Loving vs. Virginia
A landmark civil rights case. America had centuries of laws banning miscegenation, any marriage or interbreeding among different races. The couple, Richard Loving (White) and Mildred Jeter (mixed-Black), filed suit with the help of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenging America’s anti-miscegenation laws. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that anti-miscegenation statutes were unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.
1973: Roe vs. Wade
A landmark legal decision issued on January 22, 1973, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute banning abortion, effectively legalizing the procedure across the United States. The court held that a woman’s right to an abortion was implicit in the right to privacy protected by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Since the 1973 ruling, many states imposed restrictions on abortion rights. The Supreme Court with its conservative majority in 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022 in its decision on Dobbs vs. Jackson, holding that there was no longer a federal constitutional right to an abortion.
1979: Vietnamese Shrimpers and the KKK
At the close of the Vietnam War, the United States resettled many Vietnamese refugees. In Texas, many of those immigrants took up shrimping. Anti-Vietnamese sentiment and trope of Asians taking White jobs by Texas fishermen exploded in attacks on Vietnamese shrimpers by Ku Klux Klan members.
1980: Refugee Act of 1980
The continuing outflow of refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and communist revolutions in Southeast Asia generated political support for expanded and regular refugee admissions. The Refugee Act of 1980 raised the annual ceiling for refugees from 17,400 to 50,000, created a process for reviewing and adjusting the refugee ceiling to meet emergencies, and required annual consultation between Congress and the President on refugee admissions. The Act changed the definition of “refugee” to a person with a “well-founded fear of persecution” according to standards established by United Nations conventions and protocols.
1982: Vincent Chin Murder
In Detroit in 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American while out celebrating his upcoming marriage, was beaten to death by two White autoworkers motivated by anti-Japanese sentiment, thinking Chin was Japanese. They blamed Chin for “the Japanese” taking their auto-industry jobs while the U.S. was undergoing a recession. The men only received probation and a $3,000 fine. The lenient sentence outraged and galvanized the Asian American community to unite across ethnic lines for justice and civil rights.
1990: Immigration Act of 1990
The Immigration Act of 1990 overhauled the legal immigration system by outlining three different paths by which people could immigrate to the United States: family sponsored, employment based and diversity based. The Immigration Act of 1990 was a significant milestone and it remains the framework for today’s legal immigration. It shifted the focus of legal immigration from a focus on family-based immigration and toward admission of more immigrants based on their skills and education. As of 2020, over 75% of of H-1B holders are from India and over 10% are from China.
1992: Los Angeles Riots
Tensions had been building between the Black and Korean American communities in Los Angeles for years. Then came the April 29, 1992, acquittal of the police officers caught on camera beating Rodney King. As the city erupted in riots, Korean American businesses became targets; thousands were damaged during the unrest.
2001: The US Patriot Act (Islamophobia)
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act, which conflated immigration and national security policy, and forced 80,000 men from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries to register with the agency then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Hate crimes also spiked against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim (Islamophobia), including people of South Asian descent.
2015: Obergefell v. Hodges
June 26, 2015 marks a major milestone for civil rights in the United States, as the Supreme Court announces its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. By one vote, the court rules that same-sex marriage cannot be banned in the United States and that all same-sex marriages must be recognized nationwide, finally granting same-sex couples equal rights to heterosexual couples under the law.
2020: Anti-Asian Violence & COVID-19
Beginning early 2020, Asian Americans largely feel scapegoated and blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic from the media reporting early cases from China, racist rhetoric by then President Donald Trump, among a growing extremist right wing sentiment. A surge in Anti-Asian hate crimes exploded across the US, during the period from March 2020 to June 2021 more than 9,000 anti-Asian hate incidents were self-reported to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate. The anti-Asian violence unified and galvanized various Asian groups to speak up. By May 2021, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law.
2022: Dobbs vs. Jackson
On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court with its conservative majority issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey and dismantling 50 years of precedent protecting the constitutional right to abortion in the United States.