When Asian-Americans Have to Prove We BelongRoundup
tags: World War II, racism, Chinese Exclusion Act, coronavirus, Asian American History
Jia Lynn Yang is a deputy national editor at The New York Times and the author of the forthcoming book “One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965,” from which this essay is adapted.
The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a torrent of anti-Asian racism in America that shows no signs of abating. Asian-Americans have been spat on in the streets, harassed and insulted. Even children have been attacked as our fellow citizens blame us for a virus that threatens our families no less than any other household.
This is not the first season of darkness for Asian-Americans in this country. Nearly 80 years ago, Japanese-Americans were forced from their homes into barren internment camps. It did not matter how long they had lived here or what they had contributed. They were still considered foreign — dangerous to their neighbors and a threat that had to be contained.
Today, as then, Asian-Americans are wondering how to respond. The former presidential candidate Andrew Yang on April 1 called on the community to “show our American-ness” by pitching in to fight the pandemic, invoking the example set by Japanese-Americans who proved their loyalty to white America by volunteering to fight in World War II.
Books and movies have memorialized the dramatic story of those soldiers, who made up the 442nd Regiment of the U.S. Army, one of the most decorated American units from the war. Less known is what happened after their sacrifice, when Japanese-American leaders leveraged the regiment’s heroism to end a ban on Asian immigration and to win naturalization rights for all Asians.
But that political fight did not have a happy ending. Appeasing white America did in fact achieve some victories — even major ones — for the Asian-American community. As a strategy to defeat racism in the long run, though, it fell painfully short.