The Chinese were the first to arrive during the Gold Rush of the early 1800’s. They worked as laundrymen and were instrumental in building the Transcontinental Railroad. While Chinese immigrants were building railroads to connect the continental East and West Coasts of the Americas, nativist fears rocked the country and inspired one of the most violent atrocities in the Pacific Northwest: The Rock Spring Massacre in Wyoming. On September 2
, 1885, 28 Chinese were killed, 15 were wounded, and all of their temporary housing was looted and destroyed by white railroad workers with riotous rage.
The miners were compensated for their loss, but only after President Grover Cleveland forced Congress’s hand. Following on the heels of the Chinese, Japanese workers were pulled toward the Island of Hawaii to be farm workers and help the island win the favor of the U.S. government as it modernized.
This influx of laborers was called the “Yellow Peril,” a term used to describe a grim future where Asians would eventually take over America. This title was given to them even though many of the Chinese came to the U.S. as sojourners
with the intention of returning back home. Despite their intentions, many stayed and legislation soon followed that pulled the welcome mat right out from under their feet.
Legislators could not resist the power of the anti-Asian fog in the air. They passed many restrictive access laws that hindered Chinese, Japanese, and members of other Asian nations from entering the country and thriving once here. First, Samuel Gompers forbade Chinese and Japanese immigrant laborers from joining unions in the early 1880’s to keep wages high.
Then Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration altogether. The final blows came in the Immigration Act of 1917, which banned immigration from most of Asian nations,
and the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, which restricted Filipino immigrants to just 50 per year.
Unlike African Americans, Asian Americans didn’t have the large numbers to help them as a potential voting block at the national level. For all intents and purposes, Asian immigration was a “West Coast” issue, something that may have reduced the pressure for Congress to regulate. The western states, however, stepped in. For instance, California banned Asians from public schools in 1860. Ironically enough, the legislation “fell short” of challenging the “Separate but Equal” principle in 1885.
Even in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Asian group stereotypes persisted in the media and modern culture.2
Some of those stereotypes might be viewed as positive – the “model minority myth” – but they have proved to be a double-edged sword and did not assure Asian Americans full acceptance within the white community. While Asian Americans may not have experienced discrimination in the same form as other groups, they are still treated as an “other” in American society.