How Westerners View Asian Americans Before and After World Conflicts.

Throughout the history of the United States, minority races have faced discrimination from the majority and, even at time, from its own government. However, the plight of the Asian Americans who suffered discrimination in the U.S. was different to that of other races due to their circumstances.  “Yellow peril” was a theory that people of Asian descent are a mortal danger to the rest of world (http://youtu.be/LOB0VCCEUa4?t=40s).  This sentiment, which pervaded the western world, was driven by the fear of Asian, especially Chinese and Japanese, growth in terms of economics and military, but also by the growth of Asian presence in the Western world, especially the U.S. This correlation of increased fear and Asian growth can be seen by the racist reactions of white Americans during US economic downturn in the late 1800’s, the consequent government legislations and treaties that barred Chinese immigrants into the country, and finally the militant reactions of the US government during the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor; hatred and fear of Asians, and subsequently discrimination against Asians escalated as “yellow peril” pervaded the United States.

Initially, when Chinese first immigrated to the U.S. during the early 1800’s they were welcomed with open arms as “coolies”; this is a racial slur used to describe low-waged Asian laborers. Despite the Chinese immigrating to the U.S. willingly, they were subject to extreme social and economic discrimination as well as extremely harsh labor conditions. They were welcomed because they were efficient and willing workers who were worked under extreme conditions while not complaining about the low wages.

However, this welcome was short-lived as by the end of 1800’s the US economy was facing a downturn. The Chinese were regarded as poachers of jobs and were disparaged by white workers. Journalists and satirical cartoonists, along with white Americans were projecting an image of Chinese as disease-ridden, opium smoking, criminals; in fact, many prominent magazines and newspapers published satirical, racist cartoons.[1] Even political leaders, such Denis Kearney, a California labor leaders have been recorded making extremely incendiary statements, such as “To an American, death is preferable to life on a par with the Chinese”. Labor leaders blamed the Chinese for the economic dissatisfactions of white Americans, and helped to fuel the Anti-Chinese sentiments in America with their inflammatory speeches. “We declare that white men, and women, and boys, and girls, cannot live as the people of the great republic should and compete with the single Chinese coolies in the labor market”. These leaders continue to push for legislation that would keep Chinese cheap labor away from American shores.[2]

In light of the extreme opposition against the Chinese workers, the government responded with legislations and treaties that banned the Chinese from the U.S., causing Anti-Chinese sentiment to escalate even higher. After many calls to ban Chinese workers from the U.S., the US government renegotiated the terms of the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which had originally granted the Chinese free entry into the country, and Chinese immigration was consequently suspended. However this was not enough to satiate the disdain white Americans had towards the Chinese. In 1882 the US government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, thus banning the Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. for the next ten years. Even though the Chinese were now banned from American soil, other Asians continued to settle in the U.S. between 1885 and 1908; during this time more than 181,000 Asian immigrants[3] came to the so-called “land of the free” a better opportunity. Like the Chinese, the Japanese had been welcomed at first as a source of cheap labor, but soon afterwards, became targets of anti-Asian movements. As the Japanese moved from wandering farm laborer to owners of farms and small businesses, and thus becoming more established in the U.S., they inherited and faced the same prejudice the Chinese had previously faced.

Before the bombing of Pearl Harbor during the Second World War, the government had, in response to growing Anti-Chinese sentiment by the general public, imposed rather passive legislations onto those of Asian, especially Chinese descent, barring them from immigrating into this country. However, afterwards, the government acted upon the general discrimination of and hatred towards Asians as they corralled those of Japanese descent and sent them to concentration camps. In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy on December 7, 1941 and the subsequent fear of those of Japanese-descent, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering of everyone of Japanese descent to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps. (http://www.ushistory.org/us/51e.asp). The Japanese had to comply with the executive order and only had a limited amount of time to pack up and sell all their assets, so consequently their property and belongs were sold for an unfair price. This heinous action by government was later vehemently protested by prominent justices of the US Supreme Court. In fact Justice Frank Murphy in his dissent in the case of Korematsu v. United States relegated this as a resemblance of “the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy”, marking this government act as the height of discrimination against Asians.

[1] http://immigrationinamerica.org/449-coolies.html

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/endanger.htm

 

[3] Orientals by Robert G. Lee, Chapter 4, page 108.

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