A Letter from the History Faculty on Violence against Asians and Asian Americans

The History Faculty stands against the racial prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and violence facing Asian Americans and Asians in the United States, which the murder of six Asian women, among eight victims, in Atlanta has brought to public attention. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the trade war with China have been associated with a rise in anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes, as documented by various groups. As historians we recognize that anti-Asian sentiment is deeply rooted in the US, a history that cannot be separated from the violent histories of the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands, the enslavement of peoples of African descent, the criminalization of undocumented immigrants, and military campaigns overseas. For many Americans, the history of early Asian immigrants and the struggles and contributions of successive generations of Asian American and Pacific Islanders remains largely unknown and invisible. Asian Americans occupy a paradoxical space in the popular imagination. On one hand, they have been viewed as “perpetual foreignerswho are with us but not of us, to quote from the Asiatic Exclusion League (1908). On the other hand, the trope of the Model Minority” has perpetuated a myth of Asian American exceptionalism to gloss over the structural racialized inequalities of people of color in the United States. The horrific Atlanta shootings puncture this illusion. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is counted among 100 “milestone documents” in this country’s history. The first immigration law to target a racial group, it set a precedent for future immigration restriction. Executive Order 9066, another “milestone document, authorized the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, again among our nation’s darker moments. This internment was upheld by the case of Korematsu v. United States (323 U.S. 214 [1944]), which found that Executive Order 9066 did not show racial prejudice but rather responded to the strategic imperative of national security. As “perpetual foreigners,” Asian Americans have been subject to “tests” of loyalty, and in times of tension suspected of betraying American national or commercial interests – a phenomenon also seen in connection with accusations against scientists of Asian descent, like Qian Xuesen (MIT MechE, MS 1936; Associate Professor, Department of Aeronautical Engineering, 1946-1947; Professor of Aerodynamics, 1947-1949). 

Yet, Asians and Asian Americans have not been passive victims; they have pushed back against exclusionary laws. For example, the Wong Kim Ark case of 1898 (United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649) established the important precedent of birthright citizenship through the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Asians have fought for this country too, serving in the military and in medical corps, though this did not guarantee their belonging. Bhagat Singh Thind, a South Asian Sikh veteran of the US Army was granted citizenship three times, only to have it revoked twice. In 1923 the Supreme Court (United States v. Thind, 261 U.S. 204) ruled that Thind was ineligible for naturalization on racial grounds, being neither “white” nor of African nativity or descent, revoking not only his citizenship but the citizenship of dozens of South Asian Americans. Thind finally succeeded in 1935 when the Nye-Lea Act granted citizenship to World War I veterans. 

The fact that one of the Atlanta victims, Yong Ae Yue, came to the United States in the 1970s through her marriage to a US soldier stationed in Korea also highlights the global dimension of these dynamics. Starting with the annexation of Hawaii and the takeover of the Philippines and Guam at the end of the nineteenth century, America’s military presence in the Asia-Pacific region expanded throughout the twentieth century. Even today, more than 100,000 military personnel are stationed in the region. This militarization placed Asian and Pacific Islander women, in particular, in profoundly fraught circumstances. Some found themselves under the objectifying gaze of American soldiers, while others married and migrated to the US. More broadly, US involvement in wars in East and Southeast Asia during the Cold War era directly led to the displacement of millions of Asians, many of whom immigrated to the United States. As memories of these conflicts have faded, so too have the very reasons why so many Asians and Pacific Islanders came to America been forgotten.  

As historians, we insist on remembering and making visible the invisible. We affirm Pres. Reif’s message that “we would not be MIT without” our Asian American and Asian colleagues, students, staff, postdocs and alumni. And several of us are contributing to uncovering the exclusions and inclusions of MIT’s engagement with Asia and with Asians and Asian Americans that date back to the very founding of the Institute. 

See: China Comes to MIT, 3 Questions: Emma Teng on “China Comes to Tech”, South Asians at MIT, Exploring generations of influence between South Asia and MIT

Further reading: 

Christopher Capozzola. Bound by War: How the United States and the Philippines Built America’s First Pacific Century. Basic Books, 2020. 

Emma J. Teng,Chinese Elites and U.S. Gatekeeping: Racial Discrimination and Class Privilege in Boston’s 1905 King Incident.Modern American History, 2021, 1–24. doi:10.1017/mah.2021.1 

Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost History of South Asian America  

MIT Visualizing Cultures

On US conquest and occupation of the Philippines: