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Five decades of Asian-American history: from a marginalized discipline to a robust field

By Wang Xinyang | 2013-07-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Science Digest)

Chinese Americans rioting against the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was approved by Congress in 1882 and imposed severe restrictions on Chinese immigrants because of their race


In the 1960s, with the spread of the civil rights movement and the Asian-American Movement, an increasing number of Asian students in the United States hoped to learn more about their own culture and history. As a result, some Californian universities began to offer courses in Asian American Studies, and Asian-American history became the topic of a succession of books and articles. For a long time, however, Asian-American studies as an academic discipline was confined to the West Coast, mostly in California. Additionally, research tended to focus on Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, who comprised the bulk of Asian immigrants to the U.S. before the mid 20th century.
Five decades from its conception, Asian-American history has grown from a marginalized discipline to a robust academic field.
During the first two decades following its establishment, the most distinguished scholarship in the field centered around analysis of the pivotal role that racial discrimination has played in the history of Asian immigrants. While many had previously explained major issues and tensions in Asian-American history in terms of cultural divergence, scholars in the field began looking to attitudes and politics among Caucasian Americans for perspective on Anti-Chinese Movement in the 19th century. Reassessing the Chinese exclusion, they found its origins were not cultural differences, but rather an attitude of bigotry and racial superiority among whites—Caucasians feared the purity of their race would be tainted by Chinese immigrants. In this manor, scholars questioned the U.S. government’s detention of Japanese Americans during the Second World War; by attributing the government’s motivations to racism, they have not only undermined the credibility of the U.S.’s “military necessity” justification, but also achieved some degree of justice for the Japanese Americans who were the victims of discrimination.
While they were illuminating and protesting these injustices, scholars were concurrently gaining moral and intellectual authority in the discourse of Asian-American history. Any attempt to understand Asian-American history from other perspectives was seen as taking a stand against the victims, and in defense of Racism. 
Despite its progress during the past five decades, Asian-American history still has some notable problems. The connotation of “Asian-American” is still somewhat amorphous. In several influential books on the general history of Asian Americans, scholars mainly define immigrants from China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, India and Indochina, and their descendents as Asian-Americans. However, Racism is no longer such a dominant force in American civil life, and research increasingly reveals greater degrees of complexity among and disparity between the immigration patterns of individual Asian countries. Both of these factors could mean that common ground among “Asian Americans” is receding, and the definition of the term, as an umbrella category, will become increasingly vague. At this point, some may question whether there is still a necessity for the concept on an Academic level, or whether it would be more fruitful to replace the blurry and overburdened Asian-American history with more detailed Chinese-American history, Japanese-American history and Korean-American history. We may have to face these questions sooner or later.
An even more serious problem with the discipline is its ideologically-oriented, monistic approach to academic research, which was most distinct during the 1970s and 1980s. As has been stated, while approaching Asian-American history from the perspective of racial discrimination has merit, many Asian-American historians have gone to an extreme, championing the narrative of oppression as the only interpretation of Asian-American history. Anyone who ever tries to offer another approach inevitably faces relentless criticism from those scholars. One characteristic example is the backlash received by Ivan H. Light for his 1972 work “Ethnic Enterprise in America: Business and Welfare among Chinese, Japanese, and Blacks.”
Asian-American historians have shied away from discussing the influence of cultural traditions on Asian immigrants primarily from fear that in so doing, they might cause the detrimental effects of racial discrimination to become understated. In addition, they are also concerned with contemporary political factors.
The ideologically-oriented scholars cannot even tolerate those who try to explain the Anti-Chinese Movement from the approach of class opposition. In his book Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, historian Andrew Gyory offers his understanding of the Anti-Chinese Movement from the perspective of the demagogue and class opposition in labor relations. According to Gyory, politicians of the Republican and Democratic Parties, rather than Caucasian workers, incited the Anti-Chinese Movement. The book soon received strong criticism—in his over-40-page article "The 'Chinese Question' and American Labor Historians," Stanford Lyman criticized Gyory’s attempt to excuse the Caucasian workers by deconstructing racism with a post-modern approach. Lyman listed the white workers’ racist behaviors to prove they were excluding Chinese out of nationwide racial discrimination.
Lyman does have a point in iterating that the Racism embraced by the white workers was a significant factor spurring the Anti-Chinese Movement, but he has still understated the bigoted behaviors of the white workers. His discussion altogether excludes the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor’s discriminatory attitude toward Chinese immigrants, which is an unforgivable fault. In fact, both racial discrimination and class opposition are indispensible for us to understand that movement.
In addition to the suffering from a surplus of ideology-heavy research, another shortcoming of the extant scholarship in Asian-American history is the lack of attention given to linking Asian-American history with U.S. history as a whole. In her book At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943, Erika Lee found that the influence of Chinese Exclusion Act’s influence extended well beyond the Chinese community and started a new era in American history. From 1882 onward, she observed, the United States was no longer a country that welcomed immigrants unreservedly. John Kuo Wei Tchen has examined the link between Asian-American history and broader U.S. history by researching trade and cultural exchange between the U.S. and China in his book New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882. While these efforts certainly deserve recognition, hardly any other similar scholarly publications could be found.
In the past 15 years, new trends and avenues have surfaced within the discipline. By discussing the Caucasians, African Americans and Asian Americans in a triangular relationship, scholars have broken the traditional “black versus white” conception of race relations in America. Theories of assimilation, Americanization and settling have been refuted or weakened after the history of Asian immigrants was reexamined from the perspectives of transnationalism and diaspora. In addition, scholars embracing transnationalism and historical pluralism have acknowledged the military necessity of the relocation and detention of Japanese Americans, demonstrating the complexity of historical events.
For many years, most scholars have conceived of American race relations in the binary framework of “whites versus blacks” and the Asian immigrants are either classified into the blacks as colored races, or put to the white side as “model ethnic groups”. However, this reductionist pattern has been called into question in recent years.
Representations of transnationalism and diaspora include Madeline Hsu’s Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and South China; Chen Yong’s Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community; Eiichiro Azuma’s Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America; and Augusto Fauni Espiritu’s Five Faces of Exile: The Nation and Filipino American Intellectuals. Scholars incorporating the transnational approach, no matter what ethnic group they are studying, all agree that Asian immigrants have dual nationalism plus dual and even multi-cultural identities, arguing that these immigrants are living in two different worlds with different cultures concurrently.
While it is generally asserted among the more ideologically-guided scholars that the detention of the Japanese Americans was purely motivated by racial discrimination, the transnational approach has facilitated reconsideration of this issue. Scholars have found that the Japanese immigrants have shaped their dual-national identities by combining the idea of the American Frontier with Japan’s imperialistic expansion.
Japanese-American scholar Brian M. Hayashi’s research has convinced him that the detention of the Japanese Americans are in no way as simple as those with a more monistic approach have claimed. Hayashi believes that racial discrimination is not the sole reason for the infamous policy; rather, officials at the Department of War were afraid that Japan may actually attack the United States and the fear was not without reason. The “military necessity” therefore did exist, although it cannot prove the decision of the detention is right.
When established as a discipline five decades ago, Asian-American history was the product of the civil rights movement and Asian-American movement. Asian-American historians denied the claim that Chinese immigrants were sojourners for fear that the Anti-Chinese Movement might accrue a positive legacy if Americans perceived Chinese as not wishing to permanently settle in the U.S.. While the older generation of scholars built their work with strict focus to the oppression Asian Americans underwent and refused to contemplate alternative approaches to research, the emerging trends in the field have broken the confines of this monistic approach, marking the maturity of the discipline.
This is not to say these new trends are not without potential problems, however. If undue emphasis is given to transnational factors and the ability of countries to control immigrants is ignored or denied, scholarship may be in opposition to certain historical facts. It remains to be seen where the transnational approach is heading.
Wang Xinyang is from School of Humanities and Social Science at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Science Digest, N0. 106, Oct 2012.
Translated by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne