On the Origins of Anti-Asian Racism and How We Have Fought Back
In the United States, racist views of Asian-Americans are promiscuous and self-contradictory. On the one hand, we are told that we are model minorities, hard working citizens living out the classic American story of immigration and upward mobility. On the other hand, we are painted as perpetual foreigners, never quite American even after multiple generations of citizenship. On the one hand, we are supposed to be passive, docile, and submissive, while on the other hand they fear we are the yellow peril, a rising, ruthless, and aggressive empire that will someday destroy the white race.
The fact that these stereotypes are so contradictory show their ludicrousness. Racists project their own fears, anxieties, desires, and aspirations onto us in order to suppress our self-government and make us into who they want us to be, even if what they want us to be makes no sense. But racist fears, anxieties, desires and aspirations are not simply the product of individual ill will – they are shaped by powerful institutions. For example the U.S. military reproduces stereotypes of Asians as an aggressive, brainwashed Mongolian horde in order to raise support for their base expansion projects aimed at containing Chinese military power. Without U.S. military interests in Asia, this stereotype could have died out but instead it is growing.
That’s why liberal strategies of “anti-racism” will not liberate us. Liberals encourage white people to question their stereotypes as part of confronting their “privilege.” They do not attempt to abolish the institutions like military bases that produce and reproduce these stereotypes to keep us subordinated. This editorial will examine the historic political, economic, and social origins of anti-Asian racism. Our goal is not to enlighten anyone’s consciousness but rather to expose the institutions that oppress us so we know who our enemies are and what we need to smash.
The big picture: Facing the double-barreled shotgun of colonialism and empire
In general, we can say that our enemies are the forces of white supremacy – any institutions and practices that have the effect of elevating white people over people of color (including Asians) by subordinating and suppressing our attempts to be self-governing.
In particular, there are two interlocking systems of white supremacy that shape the terrain of Asian American life and struggle. The first consists of the social relations formed by the colonial settlement of North America and the founding of the United States out of colonial settler states. It is the result of land stolen from American Indians and Chicano/as, the enslavement of Blacks, and the extreme exploitation of “free” Black, Indigenous, European, and Asian migrant labor. As a shorthand, we will call all of this “settlerism”.
Settlerism has created a legacy of terror, violence, and racial hierarchy which Asian Americans have had to navigate. From the moment we arrived as workers in the Wild Wild West we found ourselves facing down the barrels of guns originally pointed at Blacks and American Indians. Later, we found ourselves victims of a Jim-Crow-style legal system. It is only more recently that we have been championed as the “model minority”, a supposed solution to the “problem” of militant Black resistance to 500 years of settler terror. The racist rationale that created such an identification for Asian Americans is further explored below, as well as in other articles.
The second system of white supremacy is related to settlerism but is more global. It consists of the social relations formed through the expansion of U.S. imperialism in Asia through military conquest (the colonization of the Philippines, the partition of Korea, the Vietnam War, etc.) and the domination of American multinational corporations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank over Asian economies. U.S. Empire built off of earlier forms of European imperialism in Asia even as it modified them. Like them, it enforced the fiction of a white Western civilization reforming Asian barbarism.
The experience of Asian Americans has been shaped by the fact that those who rule over us here in the U.S. also subjugated the countries we or our families came from. The architects of U.S. Empire in Asia created a whole string of lies about Asians being backwards, ignorant, weak, and undemocratic in order to justify this subjugation. These lies have been applied to us as well, preventing us from assimilating and becoming white like the formerly non-white immigrant groups from Europe did.
In response many Asian Americans have chosen to be consistent and principled internationalists – we have known that our situation here will not improve unless people of color abroad defeat U.S. Empire. Others have bought into U.S. empire, claiming they are the “good” Asians, unlike those “bad” Asians over there who are prone to terrorism, fanaticism, Communism, or Islam. And of course US Empire has exported aspects of North American settlerist ideology to Asia, which is why so many of our aunties and uncles over there are scared of Black Americans even though they have never met any.
In order to understand Asian American struggles we need to keep both of these systems of white supremacy in our headlights. We can’t adopt the all-too-common view that race in America is a simple binary of white over Black. Social relations in the U.S. are deeply shaped by U.S. imperialism in Asia, our peoples’ resistance to it, and our own struggles here in North America. But at the same time, we can’t pretend we’re in a national liberation struggle somewhere in Asia where we are the majority – we are in the Western Hemisphere where our lives are forged in the Black-indigenous-white crucible and we need to seek our allies and define our enemies within this context.
To do so, we will consider the origins and contemporary manifestations of four forms of anti-Asian racism: the backwards worker myth, the perpetual foreigner myth, the model minority myth, and the myth of the yellow peril.
The Docile Worker Myth: Frustrated American dreams turned deadly
The fundamental forms of anti-Asian racism emerged because of labor competition between Asian workers and white workers who viewed Asians as backwards and submissive.
To understand why this happened we need to look at a key moment in the formation of both settlerism and imperialism: the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Asian Americans first began to arrive in large numbers as miners, farmers, workers, and rebels. At this time the U.S. was going through the industrial revolution, unleashing forces of capitalist accumulation with a voracious appetite for land, resources, and labor. To fulfill this appetite, soldiers and settlers were moving westward looting and plundering American Indian and Chicano lands at a breakneck pace. The wealth they wrenched from their genocidal drive to the Pacific was delivered, dripping in blood, as the down-payment for the new factories, plants, and shipyards that formed the bedrock of emerging U.S. imperial power in Latin America and Asia.
All of this involved mobilizing and exploiting human labor at an unprecedented scale. American settlerist mythology describes the conquest of the West as a something led by individualistic small property owners – farmers, cowboys, merchants, prospectors, etc.– who supposedly represent the soul of American democracy. But digging goldmines, boring through mountains to build transcontinental railroads, and similar enterprises required a level of organization that rugged individualists alone could not accomplish and capital that only large corporations and the federal government could provide. Soon enough big companies shunted aside the pioneers and hired mass gangs of workers at the lowest wages they could possibly impose. This was the birth day of the America we know today, where our dreams are of cowboy glory and our day jobs are full of monotonous toil under the watch of bureaucrats.
The corporations were looking for workers who could be compelled to accept slave-like wages and conditions without revolt. They turned to two sources. The first consisted of European immigrant workers from the east coast who had found themselves thrown into unemployment and poverty through economic crisis. The second consisted of former Asian farmers dislocated by the European and U.S. imperialism that was ravaging their homes (e.g. the Opium War and the genocidal Philippine-American war). But neither of these groups proved to be a well-disciplined or docile workforce, and it turned out that the only way to neutralize them was to pit the former against the latter.
The European immigrants were lured west with dreams of becoming self-made men- owning property and eventually becoming capitalists. Their dream was a mirage; they were sorely disappointed and were seething with anger. Those who had established small businesses were getting out-competed by the big corporations. And new unskilled workers who arrived from east coast slums found dangerous, low paying jobs their only option.
White supremacist politicians, craft union bureaucrats, businessmen, and many white skilled workers joined together to make Asian workers scapegoats for these frustrations; the Chinese community, which was the largest Asian ethnic group at the time, became their primary victim. They deflected the anger of small proprietors away from the big corporations and against their Chinese workers, arguing that the corporations’ reliance on cheap Chinese labor gave them an unfair advantage over smaller businesses. They also claimed that “civilized” white Americans should not have to compete in a labor market with “backwards” and “weak” “Orientals.” This allowed the skilled white workers and their craft unions to deflect the demands of unskilled European laborers for training and entry into the trades. The unskilled workers were told Chinese immigrants, not the corrupt and elitist craft unions and bosses were to blame for their plight. All of this allowed expanding US capitalism to solidify control over the workforce, neutralizing potential trouble from the unskilled white workers by co-opting them into white supremacy and neutralizing the Chinese workers by subjecting them to vigilante terror.
These anti-Chinese campaigns were a key moment in the construction of that bloody line between white and nonwhite in America. Part of the logic of settlerism was the deputization of rank and file white workers into a vigilante force that could aid the state in dispossessing and murdering American Indians and Chicanos. This logic was extended against Asians as bands of armed vigilantes attacked Chinese folks and drove them out of gold mines, orchards, and small towns across the West. Between 1850 and 1906, Chinatowns burned to the ground and thousands of Chinese were killed, forced into prostitution, or marched to railroad cars and driven out, sometimes along the very tracks they and built. It was a campaign of wholesale ethnic cleansing.
Eventually, this vigilante force was legalized in the form of a whole complex of Jim-crow-style legislation that forbade Asians from owning land, testifying against white men in court and attending public schools, etc. It all culminated in the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act which attempted to prevent any further Chinese immigration.
Early Filipino- Americans faced similar conditions. For example, there were anti-Filipino riots against Filipinos in Yakima and Wenatchee valleys in Washington, and Filipinos were driven out of Yakima in 1928. Japanese Americans also faced segregation from public schools and were attacked by racist mobs in San Francisco in 1907.
The ideologues leading these campaigns justified them by describing Asian workers as docile, dirty, backwards, and undemocratic. They were painted as conformist, traditional people unfit for a world of hearty American pioneer individualism. Many of these stereotypes remain today. (Of course, in cases where they had managed to set up their own businesses or farms, the script was flipped and Asians were portrayed as uppity, cunning devils who must have some trick up their sleeve).
In reality, the white workers were just as dirty, poor and miserable as Asian American workers, but they were bamboozled into hugging the chains of their own wretchedness rather than fighting back against their real enemies. They were the ones who succumbed to the manipulations of anti-democratic ideologues and if anyone was swept mindlessly into mob conformity it was them. They were tricked into siding with their bosses and decadent, conservative craft unions rather than joining with Asian workers who could have been their natural allies in building a more democratic America.
Of course, this is not to say that all classes of Asian Americans were automatically democratic. Emerging elites in Asian American communities also exploited our peoples ruthlessly. For example, Chinese workers were oppressed by powerful businessmen and labor brokers such as the Chinese Six Companies on the West Coast. These cartels collaborated with white supremacists to deliver coolie workers under slave-like conditions to American corporations. They worked with other Chinese elites that controlled political dissent in Chinese communities and maintained highly patriarchal and semi-feudal patronage networks backed up by thugs.
But despite these restraints, Asian American workers proved themselves to be anything but backwards and naturally slavish. They lived the classic American experience of being thrown into a rootless, violent new context and improvising strategies of survival and resistance. During the anti-Chinese pogroms, Chinese Americans organized boycotts, lawsuits, popular militias for armed self-defense, appeals to China for arms, and mass civil disobedience against attempts to get them to wear photo ID cards.
At times, Asian American workers found solidarity with Euro-American, Chicano, Black, and Native American workers in the IWW, a radical union that fought the bosses and the racist and corrupt American Federation of Labor. Japanese workers organized alongside Mexican workers in Oxnard CA, and Japanese-led labor organizing and strikes on Hawaiian sugar plantations attempted to break down the divide-and conquer management system that allocated wages based on ethnicity to create resentment between different Asian groups. Pioneering Filippino activists such as Philip Vera Cruz and Carlos Bulosan also organized alongside Arab and Latino farm workers to create the strong United Farmworkers Union in the 1960s. Enduring much physical and economic duress, the farmworkers managed to go on strike and organized a four-year long grape boycott to push for higher wages and better working conditions.
These moments of resistance are often overlooked chapters in the struggle for democracy and anti-racism in the U.S. They offer important lessons for us today where the American dream is once again dissolving into unemployment, economic crisis, dislocation, and faceless bureaucracy. Once again, right-wing populist/ white supremacist politicians and militias are emerging to blame all of this on immigrant workers. Latinos are the primary targets for now, and for reasons we explain below Asian Americans could also be targeted in the future. We can look to this early Asian American resistance for insight into how we can fight back today.
The perpetual foreigner myth
Despite these heroic struggles, Asian American workers and principled multiracial labor organizations were numerically outnumbered. Eventually, Asian Americans were barred from many industries and forced to live in ghettos (Chinatowns, Manillatowns, little Tokoyos etc). Although Asian Americans used these communities to build networks of mutual aid and protection from white supremacy, this ghettoization limited their ability to impact broader American politics through multiracial labor struggles and cultural production.
This is partly the material basis for the myth that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners. Having ethnically cleansed and concentrated Asian American populations, white supremacists turned around and argued that Asians liked to keep to themselves, that we are just visitors or squatters here who are loyal to our homelands and not to America. They see our cultures as strange and exotic, fundamentally incompatible with American democracy.
This perpetual foreigner myth was reinforced by the machinery of U.S. Empire, which was expanding into Asia. To justify its conquests, the imperialists argued that Asians had an exotic, decadent, and outdated civilization that needed to be supplanted by Western modernity. Rudyard Kipling’s notorious poem the “White Man’s Burden” was about this conquest, and it described Filipinos as ungrateful heathens, “half devil, half child.” He is only one of many examples. These views of Asians as an exotic and backwards civilization were applied to Asian Americans as well, and our ongoing segregation has been justified over and over again with the excuse that we will never be able to participate fully in American civic life.
The perpetual foreigner myth reached a crescendo during World War II when the U.S. government portrayed the entire Japanese – American community as a ticking suicide bomb ready to go off in support of Japan. They rounded up thousands of Japanese families and put them in concentration camps. The perpetual foreigner myth is still alive today as neoconservative pundits portray South and Southeast Asian- American Muslims as a fifth column ready to pollute America with Jihadi terror, vampirish patriarchy, and religious fanaticism. Of course, some Asian Americans buy into this malicious propaganda by arguing that those other Asians, not us good suck ups, are the real, perpetual enemy aliens. The notorious Michelle Malkin who wrote the book, “In Defense of Internment: The case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror” is one such example.
This perpetual foreigner myth is gendered: white supremacist efforts to define Asians as strange and exotic are often fought over the bodies of Asian women. Before the Western colonists arrived, Asian societies had a wide diversity of gendered institutions from the rigid patriarchy of imperial Chinese Confucianism to the relatively matriarchal norms of Southeast Asia and southern India.Yet everywhere they went, these colonists set out to create reflections of their own patriarchal societies. In Burma, British colonialists found themselves interacting with powerful women leaders. They argued that the equality or even dominance women enjoyed there was a mark of Burmese society’s barbarism. They eagerly tried to “civilize” these “exotic” women by training Burmese men to dominate them.
Ironically, in the 20th century the imperialists flipped their script. Now they like to portray Asian societies as strange and backwards because of their supposedly more “traditional” patriarchy. We are constantly exposed to images of veiled Pakistani or Afghan women and the neoconservatives would have us believe that the war on terror is being fought to liberate these women from the grips of Islamic repression. What they never mention is that the U.S. has often supported the most patriarchal despots in Asia from Park Chung Hee in Korea to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
While the US military is busy “liberating” Asian women, its soldiers and sailors stationed at the military bases in Asia sometimes rape local women and get away with it under Status of Forces agreements reminiscent of colonial concessions. Prostitution, sex tourism, and human trafficking rings from Thailand to the Philippines have sprung up to provide “rest and relaxation” to US soldiers and tropical getaways for US businessmen. Associated advertising and pornography outfits turn this material reality into the myth of the hyper-sexual exotic Asian woman.
While some white supremacists claim they are coming to Asia to liberate its women, others appeal to the patriarchy of American capitalism and attempt to pimp out Asian women as supposedly traditional, docile, unliberated peasants who will make good sweatshop workers, mail order brides, and prostitutes. This logic has helped build an Asian underclass inside the U.S. When these women resist and sabotage their bosses’ efforts they are subjected to assault or are detained and deported.
The model minority myth
Today this underclass is rendered invisible and this history of Asian American working class resistance is suppressed. Both inside and outside our communities, Asian Americans are now portrayed as middle class, upwardly mobile, hard working techies. Our classmates assume we are naturally smart and politicians assume we are naturally conservative.
These new stereotypes also have a dark history behind them. In 1965, the US was facing pressures from the civil rights movement at home and the cold war abroad. In an attempt to improve its poor image as the world’s greatest racist, the U.S. government relaxed some of it’s explicitly race-based immigration laws and began to allow more Asian immigrants to come over.
Unlike at the turn of the century when they needed cheap workers, in the 60s the U.S. capitalists faced a crisis of overproduction and unemployment due to massive automation of U.S. factories. However they did have a large demand for trained technicians, scientists, and engineers who could help run and update this automated machinery, and they were competing with the USSR for scientific talent to promote military supremacy. Given this context, the 1965 immigration act only allowed in the educated, skilled Asians and continued to bar unskilled Asian workers. This also contributed to a brain drain in Asian countries that now lost the skilled doctors and scientists who had received state subsidized training for their capabilities.
This arrangement proved useful to the ideologues of white supremacy. They began to argue that Asians were a “model minority” because they had supposedly pulled themselves up by their bootstraps through education and hard work. The disproportionate number of Asian technicians and professionals who had arrived at the US through the state’s capitalist immigration policies, was ahistorically attributed to Asian values of hard work and family. The implication here is that other minorities are problem minorities – that Latinos and especially Blacks remain poor because of their supposedly inferior culture, laziness, or lack of intelligence, and not 500 years of settlerism, slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination. At a time when the Black Power movement was shaking up American society and galvanizing young working class Asian Americans to side with Blacks in the struggle against white supremacy, this emerging model minority myth was deployed to divide Asians from Blacks and delegitimize the Black revolt.
The model minority myth is destructive not only because it sets us against other people of color but also because it erases our own legacies of working class struggle. By presenting Asian Americans as inherently middle class it obscures the key histories outlined above, denying us democratic and anti-racist sheroes and organizational precedents from our own communities. It also renders invisible the significant and growing Asian American working class today. From undocumented Chinese and Filipino workers to Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian refugees from the terror of the US war in their homelands, this myth leaves out some of the most important and dynamic Asian American communities- the very folks who are a waging key struggles today against police brutality, homeland security raids, and deportation orders.
The model minority myth could not have lasted if it were simply a white racist fantasy propagated by media portrayals of Asians. It was solidified because upwardly mobile middle class leaders in some of our own communities have bought into it. As soon as possible they moved out of the ghetto and into the suburbs and they tried to train their kids to fear and pity other people of color. Many of our parents continue to buy into this myth because in their eyes it jives with some of their own chauvinistic thinking about essential “Asian” values of hard work and family discipline (expressed through very American and very capitalist reinterpretation of Confucianism, Hinduism, etc.). For them being the model minority also means maintaining patriarchy, regulating their kids’ sexuality, and keeping them away from the more dynamic (and less white!) aspects of American culture such as hip hop. It is the task of our generation to break this middle-class stronghold that has dominated Asian Americans today.
In this sense, our struggles against the model minority myth today are not just struggles against the white supremacist media and immigration systems; they are also struggles for women’s liberation, workers’ self management, sexual and gender freedom, and anti-racism in our own communities. As more Asian workers begin to immigrate and as our generation of young Asian Americans begin to identify more with other people of color, the model minority myth could be shaken up.
The international dimensions of the model minority myth follow the same pattern, and exacerbates its harm. U.S. Empire has propped up the Asian Tigers (South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan) as models for other people of color nations to follow. And yet these supposed capitalist success stories have faced restless working classes and democratic challenges to their authoritarian governments. South Korean workers and farmers militantly confronting the cops at anti-globalization demonstrations should be enough to shatter the myth of Asian docility and conservativism.
The Myth of the Yellow Peril
All of the myths discussed so far are built on the assumption that Asian countries will remain subordinated to U.S. Empire. Even the Asian tigers are junior partners. But the prospect of a growing Chinese empire emerging as a direct rival to U.S. imperialism could significantly shake up the relationship between Asian Americans and other Americans.
The rise of the Japanese Empire in the early 20th century gives us a precedent for understanding what might happen. At first the American ruling class saw the Japanese Empire as a benign, progressive force that could help modernize the rest of Asia and Japanese Americans were thus seen in a positive light. But eventually, Japan began to approach parity with the U.S. and the two empires began to compete for territory and resources. At that point, the script was flipped and the Japanese were portrayed as ruthless, cunning, diabolical aliens threatening to swarm across the world and exterminate the white race. The propaganda of both the Japanese and the U.S. armies turned the Pacific front into a race war. In the U.S., this gave rise to the stereotypes of the “yellow peril” literature and films.
Today, while most American elites are content to cash in on cooperation with China’s dynamic capitalists, some factions of the U.S. ruling class are beginning to promote a vision of China as the new yellow peril. They recognize that China holds trillions of U.S. dollars in its state bank and are startled by Chinese government efforts to wean its economy off of production for the U.S. consumer market. They describe the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony as a strange pageant of Asian conformism, as an unleashing of the collective power of docile Asian workers who will bow to a rising new Emperor, a new Oriental Despot. There is renewed talk about the threat that Chinese people supposedly pose to Western values.
What effect all of this will have on Asian Americans is yet to be seen. Many of us, regardless of ethnicity, are mistaken for Chinese by white folks who can’t tell the difference between us. If the U.S. and China begin a protracted inter-imperialist rivalry over energy, military, or financial supremacy, this could re-awaken some of the old anti-Asian elements of U.S. nationalism. The model minority myth could dissolve and more direct and vicious forms of white supremacy could re-emerge. Faced with angry American workers who have lost their jobs due to corporate looting, politicians may try to divert this anger against Chinese workers abroad and Asian American workers here, claiming we are “stealing” American jobs. This could lead to new attacks against Asian Americans reminiscent of the killing of Vincent Chin who was beaten to death in [year] by Detroit auto workers angry at Japanese competition. Although unlikely in the near future, outright war with China could lead to social chaos in both countries and the possibility of new internment camps. We shouldn’t be alarmist but it is crucial that Asian Americans begin organizing now to prevent these potential catastrophes. We are in a good position to make links between American workers and Asian workers abroad, articulating our common interests and challenging the claims of both Chinese and American elites to speak for our peoples.
As we have seen, anti-Asian racism is not simply the product of individual ill will. The docile worker myth, the perpetual foreigner myth, the model minority myth, and the myth of the yellow peril all have to do with deep-rooted contradictions in American society. If we want to break free of these oppressive myths then we need to confront these contradictions head on, in solidarity with other Americans and with folks struggling against U.S. empire abroad.
 The Asian American activist, J. Sakai, has used the concept of “settlerism” to explain the structure of white supremacy and capitalism in the U.S. Sakai argues that most white “workers” have been bought off by the privileges they received from white supremacy and therefore are not part of the working class. While we agree that the U.S. is a product of a colonial settlement process, we recognize that in history some white workers have rejected these privileges and sided with workers of color against white supremacy and capitalism. We believe that such breakthroughs are happening in lower frequencies today and can take form in larger scales.