In the late 19th century, white Americans faced the prospect that Chinese and other Asians might become a significant portion of the population of the United States. In response, they passed a series of laws excluding Chinese people from immigration and citizenship.
The justification for exclusion was that the Chinese were an “unassimilable” race and therefore could never become Americans. Exclusion soon extended to all Asians and remained in U.S. law until 1952. Its rationale—that Asians pose a racial danger to American society—has endured in our politics and culture to this day.
Imagine, for a moment, that there had been no exclusion laws, and Chinese and other Asians had continued to freely immigrate to the United States. California, the West, indeed, the whole country would look radically different today. Not all of Asia’s “teeming masses” would have inundated the U.S.; migration does not work that way. The poorest do not migrate, because they can’t afford to, and the wealthiest don’t need to. Migration sets patterns, or chains, from certain areas and not others. Still, by 1950, many millions of Asian Americans would have been building their lives in the United States, and, in the process, contributing to the country. Instead, that year there were a mere 320,000 Asian Americans, composing just two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Since the immigration reforms of 1965, the number of Asian Americans has increased, but we are still barely 6 percent of the U.S. population. Yet too many Americans still believe that there are too many Asians in the U.S. and that we don’t belong here.