Why was there no prominent Asian Civil Rights Movement for most of American history despite Anti-Asian racism?


The Asian –American community was present in the United States in fewer numbers than the African-American community, and was not concentrated in any one industry. It was also divided culturally. Though Asians had been trading with or emigrating to the North American Continent for centuries (and it was an American, Commodore Perry, who ‘opened up’ Japan for the West) the waves of Asian-American immigration to the west coast came after the Civil War. Chinese-Americans on the east coast were primarily confined to New York, and tended to intermarry with Irish communities or to self-exclude.

Between 1870 and 1924, a large wave of immigrants entered the United States from Asia. They were firstly Chinese; then Japanese; then Korean. These groups, which were also divided within themselves, settled both within the Territory of Hawaii, and in California. However, they were used in the railroad industry, and in agriculture, without unions and with no political organization. As immigrants, they were not citizens, and had no claim to citizenship. After the power of states to regulate rights was reinforced by cases such as US v Cruikshank, Presser v Illinois, The Slaughterhouse cases, and Plessey v Ferguson, the potential of the fourteenth amendment to provide a cover for the civil rights on the part of Asian-Americans, should they seek them, was reduced almost to nothing.

It is therefore the case that a co-ordinated, vote-or-community based effort to elect Asian-Americans, or even to get Asian-Americans the vote, would have failed in the late nineteenth century. There is also substantial evidence that Asian-Americans did not seek this anyway.

By the Progressive era, the combination of a restriction on return for Koreans to a Japanese-dominated Korea, and the Civil War in China, made it impossible for people to simply leave the United States. Political agitation risked diverting lynchings onto Asian-American people; and federal political parties embraced segregation and the vote-getting idea of a ‘yellow peril. These last two are evidenced by the ‘Oriental’ Exclusion Act of 1924, and Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 segregation of the Federal government. Asian-Americans were thus in the same position as black people, but it is noticeable that the one instance of legal opposition to the segregation came in Lum v Rice, a case involving education.

The fact is that Asian-Americans did not agitate for civil rights as American citizens. Where there was agitation, it was for access to education and for freedom of enterprise, which meant the freedom to own and sell property. In Hawaii, matters were different, but Hawaii as a federal territory was both much freer than the continental United States from racism, and directly subject to a distant federal government rather than a state made up of a white majority (until 1959).

The African-American civil rights movement proceeded on the basis that African Americans were American citizens who had won rights in the Civil War, and who were subject to foul abuse. African American culture was preserved and upheld as a way for the community to survive by W.E.B.DuBois, and African Americans, except for emigration efforts associated with a few private societies before and during the civil war and Marcus Garvey afterward, were not viable. They could not be excluded from American society, and once African-Americans in the great migration moved en masse into northern and western cities, they could not be easily ignored by New Deal America.

On the other hand, Asian-Americans were never in that position. Where they did form a large group, in Hawaii, they tended to integrate into Republican structures, so that Senator Fong or Governor Ariyoshi could be prominent in the mid-nineteen sixties. Evangelical or catholic religion, or mixtures of Catholicism and Buddhism such as the Chondokyo faith amongst Koreans, were not survival mechanisms and did not link to protest amongst Asians; they linked to business, study and evangelical determination to succeed of the sort that made Asian-Americans a ‘model minority’ in the eyes of some, not all racists. Indeed, many Koreans in California had and have dual nationality and were essentially living in a 'fourth' or West Korea, separate from their North, South and Yanbian brethren.

It was also the case that separate Asian-American communities, such as the Japanese with memories of the Nisei camps, or Chinese, especially after 1949 if they were anticommunist, were more likely to associate with American republican patriotism than Democratic and progressive views of how to achieve community success. The republican affiliation of Fong and Ariyoshi in Hawaii upholds this point; the conservative Democrat outlook of Representative Patsy Mink perhaps serves as a contrast.

Asian Americans had nowhere to go once they arrived in the US, and the effect of the 1924 and 152 immigration restrictions was to reinforce conservative trends within the community, as was the opening of the Californian and Hawaiian educational system after 1954 to relatively little protest.

It is also noticeable that the African-American civil rights movement had strong roots in the trade union movement, and amongst radical workers organizations, as much as amongst the Niagara movement, the black churches and the Union league. Black people, for instance, formed a cadre 60,000 workers big within the Knights of Labour. Yet the Knights of Labour systematically excluded Asian-Americans, and inveighed against the ‘yellow peril’, as did subsequent unions, to the point of gaining the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924.

Though attempts have been made to characterize Chinese-American community organizations as trade unions, restrictive covenants and the development of monopoly industries in laundering, catering and services in the cities run by Chinese people meant that Chinese labour disputes tended to be with Chinese, not with wider society, and that Chinese unions did not bring different people together in a common cause. Korean-Americans were focused on business. Japanese Americans are not evident in radical organizations at all, and even within the Nisei camps there was a plurality strain of patriotism which meant that many complied with Order 9066 to demonstrate their trustworthiness.

It is therefore unsurprising that there was no agitation of Asian-American communities comparable to those within the African-American community. It would be hard to riot in Hawaii, for instance. Immigrants tend to be more conservative in proportion to the situations they leave, and those focused on religion, or business, or their own communities (especially when property owning is restricted by restrictive covenants) tend to be most conservative of all.


However, what is noticeable is that, once the African-American civil rights movement had achieved success, Asian-Americans did agitate as Americans for rights, and some (without much community support) like Fred Korematsu also agitated for redress. Asian-American entry into universities was significant, and Asian-American support of Taiwan and human rights became a serious electoral issue, even in liberal northern California, by 1966, as the electoral campaigns of Ronald Reagan suggested. Overall, however, if there had been a Korean, or a Chinese, or a Japanese Martin Luther King, it would be difficult to see what organizations he would have joined, or what he would have done.

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