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'Yellow Peril' Fears Still Run Deep

April 29, 2001|LISA SEE | Lisa See is author of "On Golden Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family" (Vintage, 1996)

Arecent study on attitudes about Chinese Americans found that 25% of Americans see Chinese Americans in a "very negative light," while another 43% view them somewhat negatively. The survey commissioned by the Committee of 100, a Chinese American leadership organization also found one-third of all Americans question the loyalty of fellow citizens who happen to be of Chinese ancestry, while a quarter believe that they are taking away too many jobs from other Americans and are uncomfortable with the idea of voting for an Asian American for president.

These numbers are offensive but not surprising. In the 19th century, the Workingmen's Party campaigned on the platform that the Chinese were taking our jobs, resulting in local laws that barred or restricted Chinese immigrants from all manner of work, even operating the stereotypical laundry. Anti-Chinese sentiment led to increased violence in towns throughout the West, including Los Angeles, which experienced its first race riot in 1871 when 19 Chinese men and boys were killed.

What started as informal bullying was formalized with the enactment of the Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers and rendered Chinese immigrants totally ineligible for citizenship. (This last clause alone allowed the U.S. to join Nazi Germany and South Africa as the only nations ever to withhold naturalization on purely racial grounds.) The law opened the door to even more legalized harassment, including the passage of miscegenation laws in California and 27 other states, the last of which was overturned in 1965.

With this history so recent, does it come as any surprise then that 24% of poll respondents said they disapproved of marrying an Asian American?

Polls of this sort are colored by current events. Domestic news concerning the campaign-donation scandal, the Cox committee report on spying by China and the Wen Ho Lee case certainly have fanned the flames of anti-Chinese-American sentiment. But our feelings about Chinese Americans are also inexorably--and incorrectly--linked with our deeply conflicted feelings about China.

Although the Committee of 100's survey took place before the midair collision between the U.S. spy plane and the Chinese fighter jet, President Bush's comments on arms sales to Taiwan and Beijing's heated response to both, these incidents not only worsen an already problematic international relationship but also stir up negative feelings about Chinese Americans. As the political chest-beating intensifies, we seem to lose our ability to differentiate among a Chinese living in China or Taiwan, a Chinese immigrant living in Alhambra and a person of Chinese descent who is a fifth- or sixth-generation U.S.-born citizen.

But is all of this unique to Chinese Americans? African Americans and Native Americans know the dire effects of racism all too well. Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants experienced tremendous discrimination during the 19th century. Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, and then went through another tough cycle during the economic backlash against Japan in the 1980s.

Right or wrong, Americans' fears about a particular country--due to territorial aggression, economic competition or general loutish behavior--have a direct influence on how we feel about our fellow citizens. How would this same survey have played out if it had been about Americans of Iranian, Iraqi or Colombian descent? For that matter, how would people have responded if it had been about privileged white American males? One out of four people probably would see at least one of those groups in a "very negative light," which of course doesn't make it right.

This survey points out that many Americans are still suspicious of people who "don't look like us," which has never been the way to take the true measure of someone's qualifications as a neighbor, an in-law or a president. Many still gauge American patriotism based on country of origin, though most of us left home countries to come to America in search of the same things: freedom, a better life for our families and a haven from unjust discrimination. Most disheartening, many of us are still operating off of fears and prejudices for which we don't know or remember the origins, that have no bearing on the present, and certainly don't bode well for the future.

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