Aspects of the Asian American Experience—Rights Denied and Attained

1Asian Americans, a conglomerate term first used in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and perhaps coined by the late historian of Japanese America, Yuji Ichioka, refers to immigrants from East and South Asia and their descendants. It is not used for most persons born in Soviet Asia—of whom there are very few in the United States—nor for Iranians and other Asians from the region west of Pakistan generally known as the Middle East. This distinction, spelled out in the Immigration Act of 1917 in terms of degrees of latitude and longitude, defined what was known as the “barred zone.” Although there are historical reasons for treating Asian Americans as “a minority,” they are, in fact, many distinct minorities. One need only think of how peculiar it would be to make generalizations about “European Americans”—a term that hardly exists in the literature—to understand how inappropriate, in some ways, the category Asian American is.

2Asian Americans, who are a category created by the American government, although it did not begin to use the term until the latter decades of the twentieth century, have experienced a wider variety of discriminations than any other persons. This is not to say that they are the most discriminated against or the most disadvantaged. Native Americans and African Americans have endured and continue to endure a greater and deeper denial of rights. Large numbers of Asian Americans—and absolute majorities of some discrete ethnic groups—have achieved middle-class status. The separate history of Asian Americans is worth noting both for its own sake and to emphasize an important but often ignored fact: racism in the United States has not been bi-chromatic, a matter of black and white, but multi-chromatic, a matter of red, black, yellow, brown and white.1 This essay examines the major rights that Asian Americans have achieved, after first having been denied them by American governments and then indicates the various successful strategies employed by various groups and their leaders to achieve specific rights. The major rights considered during specific eras are: (1) the right of naturalization (1870–1952); (2) the right of immigration (1882–1952); (3) the right of family reunification (1882–1965); (4) the right to earn a living (1850s–1965); (5) the right of residence (1850s–1948); (6) the right of integrated schooling (1860s–1954); (7) the right to marry (1850s–1967); (8) the right to equal accommodation (1850s–1964); and (9) the Right of Redress for a Governmental Violation of Rights (1942–1988).

3First, however it is useful to get an idea of the absolute and relative numbers of individuals involved. As late as the end of the nineteenth century only two Asian nationality groups were enumerated by the United States Census Bureau, Chinese and Japanese. The census of 1900 counted fewer than 110,000—some 85,000 Chinese and 24,000 Japanese—less than two-tenths of one percent of the total national population, almost all of whom were foreign-born. These numbers grew slowly in the next half-century, spurred largely by Japanese immigration before 1924 and natural increase thereafter. The mid-century totals for these two groups were 117,000 Chinese and 141,000 Japanese, with a large majority of each group native-born citizens. By 1950 there were also 62,000 Filipinos in the United States and a few thousands of other Asian nationalities, largely Koreans and natives of India and Pakistan, but the total incidence of the group was essentially the same, just over two-tenths of one percent. In the second half of the twentieth century, the admission of Hawaii to statehood in 1959 and the liberalization of general immigration laws in 1952 and 1965 resulted in a 2000 Census identification of more than ten million persons of Asian birth and ancestry. They constituted 3.61 percent of the population and an absolute majority were foreign-born.The table below gives the numbers for the eleven largest groups as enumerated and defined by the census in order of numerical incidence.

Asian Population by Detailed Group: 2000

Group Number
Chinese 2,442,970
Filipino 1,864,120
Asian Indian 1,645,510
Vietnamese 1,110,297
Korean 1,072,682
Cambodian 178,043
Hmong 170,049
Pakistani 155,909
Thai 110,851
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, We the People: Asians in the United States,
4Given these numbers, it might be reasonable to assume that Asian Americans had little significance in United States history until very recently but that would be a serious misapprehension, as the following narrative should make clear.

The Right to Naturalization

5The Constitution of the United States contains no specific criteria for naturalization: it merely instructs Congress to create “a uniform system of naturalization.” Congress did so with a relatively simple statute in 1790 making “free white persons” eligible for naturalization and meaning to deny the process to indentured servants and blacks. Despite this a few Chinese and Japanese individuals were naturalized in the ensuing eighty years. The passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution—the former ending slavery and the latter creating birthright citizenship—suggested the need for change. In 1870 Congress rewrote the statute. A few Radical Republicans, led by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, sought to make the new law color-blind, but the majority, aware of the anti-Chinese furor on the West Coast and of a few well-publicized incidents involving the use of Chinese labor in the East, refused to do so. Instead it recast the law by dropping the word “free” and making “persons of African descent” eligible for naturalization. This meant that only “white persons”—whatever that meant—and persons of African descent could become naturalized citizens, and that Asians—and only Asians—were what later statutes would refer to as aliens “ineligible to citizenship.”2 Although many statutes would single out Chinese for special treatment, most subsequent statutory anti-Asian discrimination for the next ninety-two years was carried out under the “aliens ineligible to citizenship” formula. The right of naturalization was granted to Asians piecemeal between 1943 and 1952, first to Chinese, as an wartime ally, then, in 1946, to Filipinos, for wartime service, and “natives of India,” because of effective lobbying. In 1952, under the impetus of Cold War imperatives, the McCarran-Walter Act fulfilled Sumner’s dream and made naturalization color blind.3

The Right to Immigrate

6While the word “immigration” does not appear in the Constitution, the instruction about naturalization, the provision that only native-born citizens could be president, and the language about the “importation of persons” —that is, slaves—all refer to it. The first statutory regulation of immigration came in 1809 when Congress outlawed the slave trade. In the 1840s, when a few eastern states wanted to keep out certain immigrants—chiefly Irish and Germans—the Supreme Court ruled in the Passenger Cases of 1849 that immigration was “foreign commerce” and thus could be regulated only by Congress.4 Congress passed no legislation restricting free immigration until the largely ineffective Page Act of 1875, which was aimed chiefly at Chinese women,5 and only with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was there effective immigration legislation.6 Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese Exclusion Act did not bar all Chinese immigration, only that of “Chinese laborers.” During the sixty-one years that it was on the books, some 95,000 Chinese aliens legally immigrated to the United States.7 Nevertheless, the Chinese Exclusion Act, usually treated by historians as an unfortunate minor incident, was much more than that. It did not just affect Chinese; it became the hinge on which all American immigration policy turned. Before the passage of the act there had been no effective exclusion of aliens except for disease, and that exclusion was effected by local health and police authorities. Nor had there been any deportation of aliens: not one person had been forced to leave by the infamous and short-lived Aliens Act signed by President John Adams in 1798, and no other deportation statute existed.8 The exclusion of most Chinese in 1882 ended the era of free and unrestricted entry to the United States. In less than forty years the House of Representatives would vote to end all immigration for a limited period, and by 1924 the Congress, having passed a wide variety of restrictive measures in the previous decades, would enact a “permanent” quota system which would drastically limit most European immigration, and using the “aliens ineligible to citizenship” formula, would bar all alien Asians. The 1943–1952 eradication of the “aliens ineligible to citizenship” category left Asians admissible but under very small quotas. The 1965 immigration act put Asians on a relatively equal footing with other aliens.9

The Right of Family Unification

7It is ironic that family reunification, which is now one of the two most common avenues of legal entry into the United States, was introduced into American law as part of a treaty designed to pave the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Sino-American treaty of 1881 specifically exempted from immigration restriction “Chinese subjects . . . proceeding to the United States as teachers, students, merchants or from curiosity.”10 This allowed the wives of what later statutes called “treaty merchants” to enter the United States.

8The reunification principle was recognized, for a second time, by the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907-8 between the United States and Japan which effected the exclusion of most Japanese male aliens from immigration. But it did provide for the admission of the wife of any Japanese, regardless of his status, who had established domicile in the United States.11

9Family reunification was further embedded into law by the 1924 immigration act which singled out certain family members of American residents and made them eligible for admission “without numerical limitation,” that is regardless of the quotas. At the same time the right of United States citizens of Asian descent to bring in Asian wives was ended. A 1930 act amended this by allowing the entry of such wives provided that the marriage had taken place before the 1924 act went into effect.12 The ending of the bars to naturalization in mid-century placed the family reunification status of Asian Americans on the same footing as that of other Americans.

The Right to Earn a Living

10From the very beginning of their experience in the United States Asian immigrants were subjected to severe limitations about how they could earn a living. That discrimination was both de facto and de jure, and was over and above that experienced by other immigrants. An 1850 California tax on “foreign miners,” although theoretically affecting all such miners, was collected largely from Chinese who paid almost all of the $100,000 it raised annually for nearly two decades. That law was the first American statute printed in Chinese by order of a legislature. In other states and territories, for example Idaho, Chinese were simply forbidden to become miners. California placed special taxes on Chinese laundries, a device emulated in other jurisdictions. The adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 made most discrimination that singled out Chinese difficult to sustain; after that time statutory discrimination was most often effected either by laws barring certain professions and jobs to all aliens—although such statutes usually made exceptions for aliens who had declared their intention to become citizens—or, in other instances, barred them to aliens ineligible to citizenship. The bar against aliens becoming lawyers was all but universal; other employment bars prevented Asians from becoming pharmacists or undertakers, bartenders or barbers.13

11Although Chinese in California and elsewhere had engaged in agriculture from the Gold Rush era on, no nineteenth century legislation was aimed at Asian farmers. Under Populist influence late in the century a number of states and the federal government passed alien land laws, but these were aimed at absentee foreign owners and usually exempted actual settlers by one means or another.14

12The coming of large numbers of Japanese in the early twentieth century changed that. Beginning in 1913, California and ten other western states passed alien land laws which prohibited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from owning agricultural land. The original statutes were deliberately ineffective as they ignored leasing, or share cropping. By the time this defect was remedied in the years after World War I most Japanese settlers had American-born children in whose name they could safely place their land. This sometimes led to difficulties. As late as the post-World War II years, under the governorship of Earl Warren, the state of California confiscated land in the hands of alien Japanese under escheat proceedings: by that time the typical case involved the death of a Japanese American soldier in the United States Army which caused his estate to be inherited by an alien parent or parents! Such laws became dead letters in 1952 when Congress, in effect, abolished the category of “alien ineligible to citizenship.”15

13Apart from agriculture, most twentieth century employment discrimination involved the simple non-statutory refusal to hire.

14In the years before World War II, for example, although thousands of Japanese American citizens had been trained as teachers, not one had been hired in a west coast state. Many received their first opportunity to teach when they gained employment in the schools set up in the concentration camps that confined most mainland Japanese Americans during World War II.

15During that war the federal government promulgated its first equal employment orders in connection with the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committees (FEPC). Although primarily affecting African Americans, a handful of the cases handled by the FEPC involved discrimination against Chinese and Japanese. At the same time, the combination of wartime labor shortages and an increased commitment to at least pro forma equality broke down many of the existing job barriers, first east of the Sierras, and then in the entire country. In addition, although the federal FEPC expired in 1945, a number of states passed FEPC statutes in the post-war era.16 Even before the federal equal opportunity acts of the 1960s Asian American were no longer shut out of any significant employment areas. However much evidence indicates the continuing existence of impediments to promotion, often described as glass ceilings because they are seemingly invisible.

The Right of Residence

16Residential segregation was and continues to be a fact of life for large numbers of Asian Americans: today, as in the recent past, much segregation has been voluntary because large numbers of Asian Americans, particularly but not exclusively immigrants, have chosen to live in ethnic enclaves, Chinatowns, Nihonmachi (Japan towns), Little Manilas, Little Saigons, etc. Once restricted to city centers, like the Chinatowns of San Francisco and New York, and the wrong side of the tracks in smaller towns, today there are satellite Chinatowns in New York’s Borough of Queens and in suburban towns like Monterey Park just east of Los Angeles.17

17However from the mid-nineteenth century to the post World War II era such segregation was not voluntary: it was virtually impossible for Asian Americans to acquire housing in other than ghetto-like locations. Although there were some state and municipal segregation statutes and ordinances, the chief means of enforcing residential segregation was through restrictive covenants, which were clauses placed into real estate titles limiting the sale or transfer of that particular piece of property to members of certain groups, most usually “Caucasians,” but often “white Christians.” On the West Coast “Orientals” were often barred. In a 1917 case the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the enforceability of such covenants in state courts in a decision that was not reversed until 1948. After the Supreme Court reversed itself in 1948 and made restrictive covenants unenforceable, the National Association of Real Estate Boards changed its code of ethics to read, “A realtor should not be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or use which clearly will be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”18

18Other housing segregation was effected by banks and federal housing and financing agencies through a process of “redlining,” which created districts in which it was difficult if not impossible to get the low-interest mortgages without which most persons cannot afford to buy homes. Although these informal sanctions no longer prevail, they still exist and mitigate against all persons of color.

The Right to an Integrated Education

19Legally segregated schools for Asian Americans existed in California and Mississippi, but nowhere else on the mainland. In Mississippi, until sometime after 1954, there were three separate sets of schools in some places: one for whites, one for blacks, and one for Chinese.19 During World War II, when Japanese American troops trained in Mississippi, a small separate school was established for the children of those soldiers. In California statutory school segregation for Chinese began in 1858. California law provided that school districts might set up Chinese schools, and, if they did, all Chinese pupils must attend them. Only in San Francisco was such a school established. When, in 1906, the San Francisco School Board ordered Japanese pupils to attend the Chinese school, an international incident erupted requiring the intervention of Theodore Roosevelt before the school board revoked the offending order. The Japanese government closed its eyes to the fact that in at least two rural California school districts, where Japanese American pupils predominated, schools were segregated.20 Interestingly, there was no legal segregation of African American students in twentieth century California. All statutory school segregation in California ended shortly after the Brown decision of May 1954.

The Right to Marry

20Bars against interracial marriage and sexual relations are older than the republic. One authority dates them from 1630. There is no federal law on the subject but 42 of the 50 states have had such laws on the books.21 California and other far western states and territories, except Hawaii and Alaska, enacted separate laws barring marriages between Asians and whites. These laws were not formally struck down by the court until the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia which did not directly involve Asians. Asian American women citizens, however, had one unique disadvantage. The Cable Act of 1922 ended the automatic granting or revocation of citizenship to married women solely because of the status of their husbands. Prior to 1922 an alien woman who married a citizen or whose husband became naturalized automatically became an American citizen. Conversely, any female citizen, native-born or naturalized, who married an alien, was divested of her citizenship. Both automatic granting and divestment of citizenship ended as Congress declared that “the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of her sex or because she is a married woman.” However there was a joker for a few women: despite the principle cited above the law also provided that “any woman citizen who marries an alien ineligible to citizenship” – in other words any Asian alien— “shall cease to be a citizen of the United States.” The anti-Asian provisions were repealed in 1931 and the act was repealed in 1936. Men’s marriages were not affected either before or after 1922. No American male ever gained or lost citizenship because of marriage.22

The Right to Equal Accommodation

21Asians, like other people of color, suffered continuous discrimination in places presumably open to the public until the 1960s when a combination of statutes, executive orders, and court decisions made such discrimination illegal and provided ways for persons suffering such discrimination to recover damages in court. In California, but nowhere else that I am aware of, in the 1920s and 1930s, Asians suffered some discriminations that were not visited on the less numerous African Americans. In the case of municipal swimming pools in Southern California, for example, Asians were barred, blacks were not, and sometimes Mexican Americans were allowed to use the pool one day a week—usually the day before the pool was drained and cleaned.

The Right of Redress for a Governmental Violation of Rights

22The great watershed for Asian Americans was World War II. During it, Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans and Korean Americans all gained special recognition as allies in the war against Japan. Japanese Americans, as we know, suffered grievously. I will not here expand upon that massive violation of the civil rights of more than 120,000 persons, more than two-thirds of them American citizens.23 But I do want to note what may become a new right which has arisen from the Japanese American wartime experience.

23Even before the war was over, most of the concerned federal officials were aware that a miscarriage of justice had taken place and raised no objection when the Supreme Court, late in 1944, finally ordered that imprisoned and exiled Japanese American citizens be allowed to return to their West Coast homes. Just three years after the war Congress passed the Japanese American Claims Act which provided $38 million to compensate for losses of real property. The act created no precedents: it was similar to claims acts after other wars and to Indian claims acts.

24More than thirty years after the war was over a movement to gain some kind of redress for the wartime wrongs done them arose among a few activists in the Japanese American community. By the end of 1980 Congress acceded to their demands and created a presidential commission—the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC)—whose mission was to investigate whether a “wrong” had been done to Japanese American during the war, and, if so, to recommend what should be done about it. A little over two years later the commission issued its report and found that “the broad historical causes” of the incarceration of Japanese Americans were “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” It recommended (1) a formal apology from Congress; (2) presidential pardons for those who had run afoul of the justice system in resisting incarceration; (3) restoration of lost status when possible; (4) a special fund to be set up for research and education about race relations; and (5) a one-time, tax-free payment of $20,000 to each survivor.24 It took five years of debate for Congress to pass what became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, although payments did not begin until 1990. All told some 82,000 persons were compensated a direct cost of $1.64 billion. Canada, which had treated its residents and citizens of Japanese birth and ancestry in a similar manner, quickly emulated the American example in 1988, and paid off without delay.25

25This is, to my knowledge, the first time the winner of a war has apologized to some of its victims. The United States has never formally apologized to Native Americans, to the descendants of slaves, or to anyone else. The American apology has increased the pressures on the Japanese government to apologize for its wartime atrocities in China or against Korean comfort women. The most prominent European apology occurred when British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized to the Irish people for the British government’s failings during the famine years of the late 1840s. Whether this sort of governmental action will be repeated and become another segment of the culture of rights, no one can now say, but it seems to me to be at least a possibility.

* * *
26The strategies employed by the groups and their representatives have varied widely. This account will survey the methods used by members of three groups: Asian Indians, Chinese, and Japanese. It is particularly worth noting that each of these groups, denounced as “unable to acculturate to American ways,” did in fact manage to use American traditions and techniques in attempting to achieve its ends: the major methods employed were litigation, diplomatic pressure, lobbying, and coalition politics. To be sure, they were not always successful but each group did manage to achieve advantages in its struggle for rights by use of these “American” methods.

27Chinese, from almost their earliest days in California, had confrontations with American law. In criminal cases Chinese almost universally lost because juries of American citizens refused to convict whites of offenses against Chinese. In addition, until 1872, a Chinese could not testify against a “white” in California courts. But in civil matters, especially those involving property, Chinese fared somewhat better. As early as 1860, organized groups of Chinese began to employ Caucasian lawyers to defend them and to lobby for them. (Since Chinese were “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” no Chinese could practice law anywhere in the United States until there were native-born adults who had passed bar examinations.)

28Basing their arguments on federal supremacy in matters of immigration, treaty rights, and, eventually, the Fourteenth Amendment, the various attorneys for Chinese achieved a high degree of success. Initially much of the defense of Chinese was sponsored by what can be called immigrant protection societies, ranging from the mercantile elite Six Chinese Companies to shoemakers’ and laundrymen’s guilds which served functions later assumed by civil rights organizations. After 1878 many of these functions were assumed by the American attorneys who served as co-consular representatives for the Chinese in San Francisco.26

29After 1882 the federal Chinese Exclusion Act and its enforcement became the focus of Chinese civil rights litigation. The sheer number of cases is amazing. Although there were probably no more than 125,000 Chinese in the United States at any time in the nineteenth century scholars have counted 9,711 different cases in the federal courts of the Northern District of California alone, in addition to which there were “tens of thousands of petitions for habeas corpus” in those same courts!27 Although the Chinese and their attorneys won a number of individual cases—and, in the process helped to establish important legal precedents that protected other immigrant groups—all litigative attempts to overturn the Chinese Exclusion Act failed. After the turn of the century, the Chinese American community used fraud and chicanery—illegal entry and successfully claiming U.S. citizenship and falsifying kinship relationships—and partially defeated the intent of the Exclusion Act. The eventual repeal of the Exclusion Act in 1943 owed nothing to Chinese American activism, but was, as noted above, a side-bar to global diplomacy. Chinese effectively used the American rules as long as it availed them to do so; when those no longer worked, they made up their own.

30Asian Indians also tried to use the law to their advantage by challenging the denial of citizenship to them under the Naturalization Act of 1870. Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh from Punjab, argued in a case decided by the Supreme Court in 1923 that because he was ethnologically of Aryan stock, and therefore Caucasian, he was eligible for naturalization under the statute. His case seemed to be strengthened by the fact that, in a naturalization case involving a Japanese decided in the previous year, the court had ruled that the word “white” in the naturalization statute meant “Caucasian.”28

31This was a misapprehension. The very same justice who had ruled in the earlier case, British-born George Sutherland, who sat from 1922 to 1938, now ruled that “white” did not mean “Caucasian,” after all, but meant “white” in the “understanding of the common man.” He directly rejected Thind’s argument, ruling that “It may be true that the blonde Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity but the average man knows that there are unmistakable and profound differences between them today.”29 Based on the Thind case the Department of Justice began proceedings to revoke some 70 naturalization certificates previously issued to Asian Indians, and between 1923 and 1926 revoked about 50 of them. But in 1926 Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, who had been naturalized in 1914 and subsequently had become a lawyer in California, successfully challenged the government by invoking an established rule of civil law that a decision not appealed within three years should stand. He retained his citizenship and the government ceased its campaign of revocation, but made no move to restore citizenship to those whose naturalization had been improperly revoked.30

32A 1946 victory achieved by Asian Indians was by other means. At least six Asian Indian civil rights organizations had been created in part to fight for citizenship in the years after the Thind decision: the Hindu Citizenship Committee, the Indian Association for American Citizenship, the Indian National Congress of America, the Indian Welfare League, the National Committee for India’s Freedom, and, most important of all, the India League of America. At this time there were only a few thousand Asian Indians in the entire United States, many of them on non-immigrant visas, so these were lobbying organizations. The India League’s “one-man lobby,” the New York merchant who called himself J. J. Singh, was aptly described by the journalist Robert Shaplen:

Sirdar Jagjit Singh, the president of the India League of America […] is, at fifty-three, a handsome, six-foot Sikh who by means of persistent salesmanship, urbane manners, and undeviating enthusiasm, has established himself as the principal link between numberless Americans and the vast mysterious Eastern subcontinent where he was born.31

Thanks largely to Singh’s efforts, and also to the fading anti-colonial tradition of the United States, the Act of July 2, 1946 gave the right of naturalization and a small immigration quota to “persons of races indigenous to India.” To place that law in context, it followed by less that three years the repeal of Chinese Exclusion and was part of a statute that granted the right of naturalization to Filipinos.32 In that same session of Congress bills to make Koreans and Thais eligible for naturalization failed.

33Both of these strategies—the law suit and the lobby—were employed by Japanese Americans, but only they were able to make gains because of diplomatic pressure in the early years of this century. Beginning with protests from Tokyo about San Francisco’s orders to segregate Japanese pupils in 1906, the Imperial Government effectively defended some of the rights of Japanese in the United States until 1924 when popular sentiment overruled reason of state. The protests bore fruit because Washington respected Japan’s growing military power. As President Theodore Roosevelt put it in a private letter: “it is unthinkable that we should continue a policy under which a given locality may be allowed to commit [unfriendly acts] against a friendly nation.” Roosevelt negotiated successfully with San Francisco officials to revoke its segregation order and the Japanese government turned a blind eye to segregation of Japanese pupils in at least two rural California school districts. Roosevelt’s administration then negotiated the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907-08 with Japan under which Japan agreed to stop issuing passports to laborers to come to the United States and Hawaii, and the United States agreed not to inhibit family reunification for persons already resident in the United States and not to enact federal anti-Japanese legislation. Roosevelt and his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, successfully exhorted Republican California governors “to sit upon the lid,” as one of them put it, and prevent anti-Japanese statutes from being enacted, but that restraint did not work for the Democrat Woodrow Wilson; much state anti-Japanese legislation ensued in 1913 and after. The Gentlemen’s Agreement held until Congress abrogated it, over Calvin Coolidge’s weak protest (but no veto) in 1924.

34During this period, when almost all adult Japanese Americans were, by law, Japanese nationals ineligible for citizenship, the tutelage of the Japanese government was appropriate. The major organization of the first or Issei generation of Japanese Americans, the Japanese Association of America, was always under the informal leadership of Japanese consuls and other officials appointed by Tokyo.33 The first generation and the Japanese government also availed themselves of American law and lawyers. They successfully blunted the effect of the Alien Land Acts of California and other western states and unsuccessfully challenged the ineligibility of Japanese for naturalization.34

35The second-generation Japanese Americans, the Nisei, tried to keep the Japanese government at arm’s length and went so far in accommodation as to bar their parents from membership in their civil rights organization, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), founded in the 1930s. They pursued law suits, sometimes filed by Japanese American attorneys, and were successful in a lobbying effort, chiefly due to the support of the American Legion, for a statute to make a small cohort of Japanese-born veterans of the United States armed forces during World War I eligible for citizenship.35

36During the wartime incarceration of the vast majority of mainland Japanese Americans, the JACL was impotent. It protested its loyalty and decided to cooperate with its oppressors in hopes of mitigating the exile and earning a better postwar future. It encouraged Japanese Americans to volunteer for military service even while incarcerated in concentration camps and later encouraged the government to re-institute the military draft for Japanese American young men. In the postwar era it lobbied, with the support of some of the same government officials who had organized the incarceration, for passage of the Japanese American Claims Act of 1948 which provided a traditional kind of payment for property losses and for the otherwise repressive McCarran-Walter immigration act.

37The innovation for Japanese Americans was the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, an act whose passage was hotly contested and the subject of fairly prolonged debate. An umbrella group of Japanese American organizations organized a successful bi-partisan coalition for what it called redress which eventuated in the act’s passage through Congress. As noted above, the act’s terms were unprecedented: so was its passage. One of the reasons that the small Japanese American community—fewer than 850,000 persons—could lead a diverse coalition was that it had paid its “dues” over the years. Its leading organization, the JACL, participated in the various lobbying organizations which had advocated civil rights. In addition, it had important ethnic “clout” in Congress, as the small but effective group of Japanese American legislators in the House and Senate who provided leadership and called in “IOUs” from other legislators not otherwise interested in a bill whose benefits were exclusively for one ethnic group. And last, but by no means least, the Japanese American lobbyists and their supporters played effectively on that sense of justice which is deeply embedded in the American tradition, the positive horn of what Myrdal called an American dilemma.36


1   General accounts of Asian American history include Harry H. L. Kitano and Roger Daniels, Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Boston: Twayne, 1991), and Ronald T. Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989).2   Obviously unsure of the meaning of the 1870 statute, Congress specifically barred Chinese from naturalization in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The definitive rulings came only in Supreme Court cases in 1922 and 1923. In Ozawa v. U.S. (260 U.S. 189) the court in 1922 ruled that “white” meant “Caucasian,” but in a case the very next year, U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (261 U.S. 204), denying citizenship to a native of India who was, according to ethnology, Caucasian, the very same Justice, British-born George Sutherland (1862–1942) declared for a unanimous court that Congress’ use of “white” in the 1870 statute meant “white” in the “understanding of the common man.”3   For an analysis of these statutes see Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1988), 196–98, 283–84.4   48 U.S. 283 (1849).

5   The Page Act made it a crime for Americans to participate in the “cooly-trade,” barred the entry of persons under sentence for nonpolitical offenses, of persons whose sentence had been remitted on condition of emigration, and of women “imported for the purpose of prostitution.” Although no enforcement bureaucracy was created and federal courts insisted on proof that women were actually prostitutes, it is clear that the law made it difficult for Chinese women to enter the country and probably deterred some from even trying. This minor act was the start of modern American immigration restriction. It also marked the introduction of what would become a minor motif in anti-immigrant legislation: the notion that immigrants, and especially immigrant women, were contaminating pure and innocent American men. 18 Stat. 477–78. For a detailed analysis of the Page Act and its consequences, see George A. Peffer, If They Don’t Bring Their Women Here: Chinese Female Immigration Before Exclusion (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

6   The classic account is Elmer C. Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1939; 1973).

7   Roger Daniels, “No Lamps Were Lit for Them: Angel Island and the Historiography of Asian American Immigration,” Journal of American Ethnic History 17 (Fall 1997): 4–18.

8   For accounts of how the process of excluding Chinese shaped American law and practice see Charles J. McClain, Jr., In Search of Equality: the Chinese Struggle against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), and Lucy Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

9   Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004).

10   William M. Malloy, comp., Treaties, Conventions, International Acts, Protocols and Agreements between the United States and Other Powers, 1776–1909, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1910), I: 237–39.

11   Roger Daniels. The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, 1962), 31–45.

12   46 Stat. 581.

13   See Sandmeyer, Anti-Chinese Movement, 40–77, and Daniels, Asian America, 109–52.

14   Douglas W. Nelson, “The Alien Land Law Movement of the Late Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the West 9 (1970): 46-59.

15   Daniels, Politics, 46–64, and Daniels, Asian America, 298–99.

16   Andrew E. Kersten, Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest, 1941–1946 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

17   Timothy P. Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: the Making of Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), and Leland T. Saito, Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).

18   David H. McKay, Housing and Race in Industrial Society: Civil Rights and Urban Policy in Britain and the United States (Totawa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1977), 53.

19   For California see Irving G. Hendrick, The Education of Non-Whites in California (San Francisco: R & E Research Associates, 1977), and Charles M. Wollenberg, All Deliberate Speed: Segregation and Exclusion in California Schools, 1855–1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); for Mississippi see James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), and Robert S. Quan, Lotus Among the Magnolias: The Mississippi Chinese (Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1982).

20   Daniels, Politics, 31–45.

21   The eight are: AK, CT, HA, MN, NH, NJ, VT, & WI. A comprehensive account is Byron Curti Martyn, “Racism in the United States: A History of the Anti-Miscegenation Legislation and Litigation,” Ph.D. diss., 3 vols. University of Southern California, 1979. See also Candice L. Bredbenner, A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

22   The Cable Act is 42 Stat. 1021; the act ending denaturalization of wives of Asian aliens is 46 Stat. 854. Loving v. Virginia is 388 U.S. 1 (1967).

23   Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II, 2nd ed. (New York: Hill an Wang, 2004).

24   CWRIC, Personal Justice Denied (Washington, D.C., 1982), and CWRIC, “Press Release” (Washington, D.C., n.d. [June 15, 1983]).

25   Roger Daniels, “Redress Achieved, 1983–1990,” in Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H.L. Kitano, Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress 2nd ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), 221–23. The same volume contains a text of the statute which is P.L. 100–383. See also Leslie T. Hatamiya, Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and the Passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993). For Canada see Roy Miki and Cassandra Kobayashi, Justice in Our Time: The Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992).

26   Much of what follows on Chinese owes much to the superior monographs by McClain and Salyer cited in note 8.

27   The counting comes from Christian G. Fritz, “A Nineteenth-Century ‘Habeas Corpus Mill’: The Chinese before the Federal Courts in California,” American Journal of Legal History 32 (1988): 347–72; Lucy Salyer, “Captives of Law: Judicial Enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Laws, 1891–1905,” Journal of American History 79 (1989): 91–117; and Christian G. Fritz and Gordon M. Bakken, “California Legal History: A Bibliographic Essay,” Southern California Quarterly 70 (1988): 203–22 at 204.

28  Ozawa v. U.S. (260 U.S. 178).

29  U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (261 U.S. 204).

30   I believe that this is the first civil rights case in which an Asian American attorney was an attorney of record. Roger Daniels, History of Indian Immigration to the United States: An Interpretive Essay (New York: Asia Society, 1989).

31   Robert Shaplen, “One-Man Lobby,” The New Yorker, 24 March 1951: 35–55. See also R. Narayanan, “Indian Immigration and the India League of America,” Indian Journal of American Studies 2, no. 1 (1972): 1–30, and Premdatta Varma. Indian Immigrants in the USA: Struggle for Equality (New Delhi, 1995).

32   60 Stat. 416.

33   I have spelled much of this out in greater detail in Roger Daniels, “The Japanese,” pp. 36–63 in J. Higham, ed., Ethnic Leadership in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).

34   For the state laws see Daniels, Politics of Prejudice, esp. pp. 46-64. The citizenship case is Ozawa v. U.S. 260 U.S. 178.

35   49 Stat. 397.

36   For a thorough account of the struggle for redress see Mitchell Maki, Harry H.L. Kitano, and S. Megan Bechtold, Achieving the Impossible Dream: How the Japanese Americans Achieved Redress (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).


Roger Daniels is Charles Phelps Taft Professor Emeritus of History in the University of Cincinnati. He has written widely on Asian Americans and immigration. His most recent major works are Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. (2nd ed., 2004) and Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants (2004). He is currently completing a political biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Suggested Citation

Daniels, Roger. “Aspects of the Asian American Experience—Rights Denied and Attained.” American Studies Journal 51 (2008). Web. 19 Jul. 2024. DOI 10.18422/51-03.


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