June 1, 2021

A Brief History of Discrimination Against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans

Holland & Knight Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month Spotlight Series

Holland & Knight's Diversity Council and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) Affinity Group are proud to celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and pay tribute to the generations of Asians and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and continue to play a role in its future success. This year, we took time to reflect on how we could better support our API colleagues, sitting down with attorneys and staff to have important conversations about racial justice and allyship. Throughout the coming weeks, we will be presenting a video series showcasing some of these conversations. We hope that the stories conveyed in these videos help advance dialogue around API Heritage Month as well as lead to further discussions of how we can be better allies to our API friends, family and colleagues.

In this episode, New York attorney Sheila Shen provides a brief overview of discrimination against the Asian and Pacific Islander American community in the United States. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to attacks on the Asian population during the Vietnam War to stereotypes perpetuated in the media today, the community has faced and continues to face numerous instances of discrimination and violence. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a sharp uptick in hate aimed at the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Against this backdrop, Sheila describes three key ways legal professionals can support their AAPI colleagues during this time: bystander intervention training, promoting AAPI attorneys and providing pro bono services to the AAPI community.


Video Transcript

Sheila Shen: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first immigration law restricting immigration into the U.S., and to this day it is the only immigration law on U.S. books that restricts immigration purely based on race. After the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, immigration did increase from other Asian countries, including Korea, Japan and India. However, each of those waves of immigration was also followed by exclusionary laws banning immigration from those countries of origin. The combination of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the subsequent laws banning immigration from other Asian countries resulted in by 1924 Filipino nationals being the only group of Asian peoples that were allowed into the U.S. And this was largely because at that time the Philippines was, in fact, a U.S. colony. So, by the 1920s, the U.S. had effectively banned immigration from any Asian country. Immigration into the U.S. from Asian countries throughout the 1800s and early 1900s was largely based on labor. There were large labor needs in the U.S., whether that be railroads, ancillary communities next to railroad stations, other labor movements, and the backlash the Asian communities faced was mostly focused on Asians taking American jobs. And that was what led to most of the exclusions. So the Japanese internment after World War II was the first and only time in American history that an ethnic population had been excluded by law and segregated into specific camps. The immediate impact of that was that an entire community was dispossessed of their businesses, their homes, kicked out of their homes. And there's certainly been long-term effects of that. I think one of the ways that you see that is in Asian communities being highly focused and highly, sort of, concentrated around each other.

A Brief History of Discrimination Against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans

The Vietnam War, which was fought in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, was the result of fallout from the First Indochina War between French and communist-led Viet Minh after the French withdrew from Indochina in 1954 and the U.S. supported the South Vietnamese against the Viet Cong, who initiated a guerrilla war. Of course, the Vietnam War was highly unpopular in the U.S., and that directly led to attacks on Asian populations in the U.S. Really disparaging remarks were made about Asian Americans. The sort of vein of lumping all Asians together as Vietnamese and indiscriminately lodging epithets at Asians of any sort of origin was prevalent. There's harmful depictions of Asian stereotypes all over Hollywood today still. It ranges from usurping Asian characters and identities and using Caucasian actors to portray Asian characters. It goes to stereotyping Asian women as overly sexualized or as dragon ladies alternatively. And it also goes towards emasculating Asian men and depicting them as effeminate. And then that is something that you're seeing still in media today. The hate and discrimination lodged against Asian Americans today, I think, shows a lot of the same strains as it's shown throughout the course of history. For example, in 1982 Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was murdered in Michigan after being attacked by a laid-off auto worker who accused Asians of stealing his jobs. And this was sort of in the face of the Japanese motor industry becoming a dominant player in the international market and the impact on the Detroit and Michigan auto workers environment. Similarly, now what we're seeing is that economic forces, political forces, have a huge impact on how Asians are viewed in the U.S. community and the type of discrimination that we face. Of course, there's been an unprecedented rise in AAPI hate over the course of the last year as a result of the COVID pandemic. And political statements calling COVID the "Wuhan flu" or the "China virus" have led to a direct spike in violence against the Asian community. So one easy way to help the AAPI community is to get trained as a bystander for bystander intervention. This is a straightforward, tactical thing that everybody can do, and something as simple as calling attention when you see an instance of discrimination or violence towards the AAPI community can be really effective. As attorneys, we're of course in a privileged position, and I think promoting AAPI attorneys who traditionally don't make it to the senior levels of management in firms or in companies is another way to make sure that our voices are heard. And then third, of course, providing pro bono services to the AAPI community, whether that is through a local Asian American Bar Association or through some other community efforts, is a great way to lend your time and our privilege to the community.

More Videos in this Series

Episode 1: A Series Introduction from Asian/Pacific Islander Affinity Group Chair Stacey Wang

Episode 2: Witnessing API Discrimination: A Shared Experience

Episode 3: Kristin Asai Shares Her Family History in the U.S. Japanese Internment Camps

Episode 4: Highlighting API Contributions to the U.S. Military

Episode 5: A Brief History of Discrimination Against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans (You are currently viewing Episode 5)

Episode 6: Becoming an Ally with Jennifer A. Mansfield

Episode 7: Perspectives from a Second Generation Samoan American

Episode 8: Reflecting on the Importance of Professional Mentors

Episode 9: Explaining the Model Minority Myth

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