The Discrimination Against Asian American Immigrants

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Similar to other racial and ethnic, the process of Asian communities’ seeking for equal opportunities and citizenship rights in the Unites States has been meandering. Asian immigrants were, as other racial minorities, subject to the Anglo-American’s perception that people of color are inferior and threat to white society, and the difference in physical appearance and culture has marked their impassability of development.

The period from nineteenth to twentieth century has featured the American polity’s effort to form social, political and economic environment in which Asian immigrants confronted decisive obstacle preventing them from achieving upward social mobility. Asian, according to the U.S. Census, is demographic classification of a person who have ancestral origins in East Asia, South Asia, or Southeast Asia and Asian people take up closely 60 percent of the world’s population. Different from minorities such as African American that were historically enslaved to go to the United States or Native American that originally resided on the North America mainland, Asian immigrants have their own domestic and international impetus to migrate (Shaw, DeSipio, Pinderhughes & Travis, 2018). Early colonialism, imperialism and the resulting incursion, combined with other inner factors led to economic and political turmoil in China, forcing Chinese to move west seeking for better living condition and opportunity. Other groups, such as Japanese, Korean and Filipinos, migrated as the result of business relationship and laboring contracts that their countries had with the United States (Shaw, DeSipio, Pinderhughes & Travis, 2018).

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Majority of the Asian immigrants came to U.S. with the desire to be beneficiary of job opportunity and economic development. Despite playing crucial role in contributing to industrializing American economy and filling the labor shortage, Asian immigrants were not close to what they desired. What stranger thing that never happened to other minorities but Asian is that they experienced the attitude shift of American society from regarding them initially as a model minority to treating them as racial threats (Shaw, DeSipio, Pinderhughes & Travis, 2018). Take Chinese for example. California Gold Rush of 1848 gave rise to a significant Chinese immigration to American West, where they flocked in as miners along with getting involved in other significant industrial projects that required huge amount of labor, such as the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. The beginning stages of gold rush in 1850s witnessed mutual regard where Chinese appreciated the continent’s flourishing environment and American society distinguished Chinese immigrant as a model minority who are highly intelligent, industrious, and politically passive or apolitical (Shaw, DeSipio, Pinderhughes & Travis, 2018). The economic competition between Chinese laborers and American native workers, however, brewed an anti-Asian atmosphere in which American worker worried about their jobs were taken and their wages were undercut. The atmosphere soon led to a series of laws putting Chinese workers at disadvantage and eventually evolved into the enactment of Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 (Shaw, DeSipio, Pinderhughes & Travis, 2018).

The 1882 statute, which initially prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years, was extended and renewed in 1892 with the Geary Act and made permanent in 1902 (Wei, n.d.). Other statutes, such as 1875 Page Act that forbade Chinese women from migrating to the United States, and previous issued Federal Naturalization Law of 1790 that granted national citizenship to only white persons, worked hand in hand with Chinese Exclusion Act to pave the dead-end road for Chinese immigration (Waxman, 2018). The anti-Chinese sentiment grew further to become anti-Asian agitation with which the government issued a series of laws, such as the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 and the Immigration Act of 1917, to prevent people from most of the Asian countries from immigrating to U.S. Seven years later, with the enactment of The Immigration Act of 1924, the gate for Asian immigrants to the United States was completely closed (“Asian American History Timeline,” n.d.).

The Chinese Exclusion Act was believed to represent a watershed in United States history. In addition to the fact that CEA was the first major restrictive immigration law, it transformed the country’s attitude and relationship to immigration by first banning an entire immigrant group due to their race and class. The legal practice of CEA facilitated the formation of the so-called gatekeeping ideology discussed by anti-Chinese nativists during 1870s when they first advocated closing America’s gate to protect the nation from invasion of Chinese immigrants (Lee, 2002). The key elements of gatekeeping ideology against Chinese include “racializing Chinese immigrants as permanently alien, threatening, and inferior on the basis of their race, culture, labor and aberrant gender relations; containing the danger they represented by limiting economic and geographical mobility as well as barring them from naturalized citizenship through local, state, and federal laws and action; and lastly, protecting the nation from both further immigrant incursions and dangerous immigrants already in the United States by using the power of the state to legalize the modes and processes pf exclusion, restriction, surveillance, and deportation” (Lee, 2002, pp. 38). The ideology led to serious consequences for other potential immigrant groups and laid a strong foundation for the formation of twentieth-century United States race-based immigration policy (Lee, 2002).

Ever since the enforcement of CEA, succeeding immigrant groups became the target of the ideology and were measured and treated by the tools and rhetoric that used to battle against Chinese immigrants. For example, Japanese were viewed by nativists as another phase in the immigration from Asia that took the place of the Chinese and were considered to be as inferior, unassimilable and exploitable cheap labor as Chinese laborers. Mexican immigrants moved to the United States to compensate the shortage of agricultural labor caused by excluded Asians, but they also confronted the same racialized description (Lee, 2002). Because the notion of confirming Chinese immigrants as permanent foreigners was introduced through legal processes and reinforced in the political and cultural environment, nativists viewed Mexican immigrants in the same way, ignoring the fact that parts of the United States used to be their homeland. They justified their standpoint by arguing that Asians and Mexicans shared the same inferiority because they were physically alike to be degraded agricultural workers (Hoffman, 1974). The similar argument was used against certain European immigrant groups as well, even though the physical appearance of European immigrants were similar to white Americans. Those European immigrants were directly connected to Asians, being called Chinese of Europe and Chinese of the Eastern States and being described as unassimilable, racially inferior to Anglo-Saxons and cheap labor threatening the country (Higham, 2002). Nativists even advocated that the only remedy to eliminate the threat was using the same exclusionary politics as Chinese Exclusion Act (Lee, 2002).

The enforcement of Chinese Exclusion Act also led to the formation of modern immigration policies that the government use for regulating and controlling the arrival of immigrants and the process through which immigrants naturalize to become a citizen. The inspectors required for examining Chinese immigrants under the CEA created the prototype of immigration legislation and inspection. The attempt to keep Chinese laborers’ record of entering, leaving or reentering evolved into a tracking system that became today’s visa application or updating procedures that affect every foreigner who wants to come to the United States. Finally, the requirement of getting certificates of residence for all Chinese who had already lived in the country during the Chinese exclusion era has been inherited nowadays as so-called green cards. Those who do not have this type of residential prove will be regarded to be unlawfully in the United States and will be deported just like what Chinese laborers have been through at that time (Lee, 2002).

Apparently, Asian immigrants’ decades of effort to fight for equal civil right and opportunities have received effect. It has been reported that Asian Americans have the household median income of $74,829. The number is 39% higher than the national median income of $53,657. They are also reportedly to boast the highest proportion of college graduates of any race or ethnic group in the country (Chen, 2018). As a result, Asian Americans are now portrayed as the model minority that has successfully overcame social injustice and gained a piece of American dream (Wong, & Halgin, 2006). As a completely different racial description of Asian Americans from Yellow peril or racial threat, the model minority seems exerting positive influence on Asian American group. The truth is that this label is actually detrimental for the minority group because it stereotypes Asian Americans, assuming that they would all behave in the way that they would actually not. One area in which Asian Americans experience detrimental treatment as model minority is higher education. It is widely believed by the society that Asian Americans have better academic performance than Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, and should be judged as rigidly as white students to gain admission to university (Bell, Harrison, & McLaughlin, 1997). However, studies have shown that Asian Americans are not necessarily comparable to white students in terms of academics and they may even perform worse than other minority groups. The model minority myth leads to the current situation in which Asian Americans receive less educational services and opportunities that could facilitate them to succeed. Even when Asian Americans do perform as well as white student, they still have less chance to be admitted into elite institutions (Li, 2005).

The model minority myth does not hold true in employment field either. It is reported that almost 30 percent of Asian Americans have been discriminated in the workplace, which is the highest rate among any other racial minority groups (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2005). Asian Americans also represent the lower rate of being promoted to managing positions compared to their Black or white counterparts. The reason behind is that working environment usually hold high expectation for Asian Americans due to the model minority perception, which does not really match the reality because of Asian Americans’ language deficiency and cultural differences (Tang, 1997). The failure of meeting high expectation causes the dissatisfaction from superiors and leads to the barrier and processes that prevent Asian Americans from moving up to managerial positions, which is also called the bamboo ceiling (“Asian Americans face 'bamboo ceiling,” 2012, June 12).

Model minority myth is believed to be used by the government to defend current social injustice, racism and discrimination complained by other minorities. The government has incentive to widely and strongly promote Asian Americans as the model minority in order to remind other complaining racial groups that Asian Americans achieve their current social status by complaining less and working hard. The following implication is that other minorities could realize social upward movement in the same way, which allows the government to evade its inaction on social justice. The myth also masks the contemporary needs of Asian Americans and the true difficulties they have constantly confronted as general public, institutions and judicial system assume that Asian Americans have managed to successfully overcome social injustice and inequality and achieved so much that they do really need systematic assistance (Starkey, 2016).

In conclusion, Asian Americans have suffered from racial discrimination since late nineteenth century. The enforcement of Chinese Exclusion Act marks the milestone in the United States’ immigration history. It is not only the first immigration law that went against an entire racial minority, it also set the tone for American government to view and regulate immigration issues. Chinese Exclusion Act changed the government’s attitude toward immigration, making race and ethnicity a big deal and shaping the race-based immigration regulations, which have affected immigrants throughout the history. Contemporary Asian Americans are still subject to racial-related hardship as they are labeled as model minority. The model minority myth is a misinterpretation that damages the group’s interest by setting up unrealistically high expectations for Asian Americans to reach in education and employment, and by wrongly assuming the group has achieved social upward mobility so that their difficulties and needs could be legitimately ignored. To change to the current situation Asian Americans are facing, it is important that the society should be aware of the misassumption that put a lot of pressure on the group, appreciating Asian Americans’ contribution to the society but also acknowledging that they are no better or more privileged than other minorities. In terms of evaluating them in educational and employment areas, Asian Americans should be judged based on their actual capabilities and work ethic, rather than assuming they must perform well due to the model minority perception. If the model minority concept is a tool used by government to silence other minority’s complain about social injustice, Asian Americans should stand out to let the truth be heard, so that there will be no inter-racial tension between Asian Americans and other minorities. They should also join in other racial groups to fight for social inequality, forming a bigger alliance to let them voice out and continuing to push government to offer better treatment.

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