Activists with the Asian American Coalition for Education protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building on June 29, 2023

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How False History Is Used to Justify Discrimination Against Asian Americans

The Civil Rights Movement didn’t pave the way for Asian American success in America. A Jewish immigration activist did.

by
Sheluyang Peng
July 12, 2023
Activists with the Asian American Coalition for Education protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building on June 29, 2023

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

On June 29, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) in a landmark decision that overturned explicit race-based affirmative action in America. The decision was a major victory for Asian Americans—whom Harvard had routinely and openly discriminated against. To impose quotas on the school’s racial makeup, Harvard had systematically given Asian Americans lower “personality” scores on applications, the suit alleged, drawing from stereotypes of robotic and inscrutable foreigners from the Orient. It was the same tactic Harvard had used a century ago to systematically discriminate against Jews.

In the aftermath of the ruling, rather than celebrating the victory against racial discrimination, a number of prominent media figures advanced a narrative blaming Asian Americans for betraying other racial minorities. The narrative went as follows: Black Americans and their work leading the Civil Rights Movement are the reason you Asians are in America in the first place—how dare you now sell out the very people you should be thanking for bringing you here.

Jemele Hill, a columnist for The Atlantic, tweeted that an Asian American mother celebrating the court’s decision “carried the water for white supremacy and stabbed the folks in the back whose people fought diligently for Asian American rights in America.” Former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien quoted the same tweet, saying that the mother was “screwing over other people of color … Particularly those whose efforts in civil rights paved the way for your family to come to America.” And activist-attorney and House candidate Qasim Rashid claimed that “Asians were only able to immigrate to the United States b/c Black civil rights leaders passed immigration reform.”

This trope about Asian American debts did not emerge spontaneously in the last few weeks. It was seeded into the public discourse by the most influential project of historical reframing in recent American history: the activist-journalism of The New York Times’ “1619 Project.” In her opening essay for the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones asserts that “Because of black Americans, black and brown immigrants from across the globe are able to come to the United States and live in a country in which legal discrimination is no longer allowed. It is a truly American irony that some Asian-Americans, among the groups able to immigrate to the United States because of the black civil rights struggle, are now suing universities to end programs designed to help the descendants of the enslaved.”

Now taught across the country in public school curriculums, the claims of the 1619 Project have become official history. The purpose of Hannah-Jones’ narrative was to guilt-trip Asians into supporting affirmative action by drawing a direct line from the Black-led Civil Rights Movement to the sweeping immigration reforms that allowed Asians to emigrate to America.

Except that this narrative is utterly false. On the contrary, many Black Americans were understandably anti-immigration. In the early 20th century, Black workers in the then-nascent labor movement worried that immigrants—Europeans, West Indians, and Asians alike—would take away their jobs. A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the first successful Black labor union in America and a key organizer of the Civil Rights Movement’s 1963 March on Washington, maintained a hardline restrictionist stance on immigration. Randolph declared that “It is time to call a halt on this grand rush for American gold, which over-floods the labor market, resulting in lowering the standard of living, race-riots, and general social degradation. The excessive immigration is against the interests of the masses of all races and nationalities in the country—both foreign and native.”

Randolph had the support of fellow restrictionist W.E.B. Du Bois, whose book The Souls of Black Folk originally made negative remarks about Jews before the 50th-anniversary edition swapped out the word “Jews” for “immigrants.” For example, the original 1903 version claims that “only a Yankee or a Jew could squeeze more blood from debt-cursed tenants,” while versions from 1953 onward state that “only a Yankee or an immigrant could squeeze more blood from debt-cursed tenants.” A reference to “shrewd and unscrupulous Jews” was changed to “shrewd and unscrupulous immigrants.”

And while history textbooks often present Booker T. Washington as a foil to Du Bois, Washington was also a restrictionist. In his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech, Washington sent a stern message to industrialists that employed immigrants instead of Black workers: “To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race—cast down your bucket where you are. Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides.”

Some Black restrictionists indulged in explicit racial stereotyping, claiming that Japanese workers were unfit to work on American railroads because they were “too short to make down the upper birth [sic] without a ladder.” There is indeed a long history of Black nativism in America, from Reconstruction era antipathy toward Chinese railroad workers to the modern-day Twitter activism of the American Descendants of Slavery movement. It is not a uniquely racial story—other native working-class groups in America advocated against immigration for similar reasons—but it gives the lie to the claims now being used to morally blackmail Asian Americans.

A number of prominent media figures advanced a narrative blaming Asian Americans for betraying other racial minorities.

The myth that the Civil Rights Movement led to immigration reform comes from the false conflation of two separate bills signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Because the two bills were signed by the same president a year apart, it is easy to make the assumption that the passage of the first led to the smooth sailing of the second. Yet the two bills ran parallel when it came to their core advocacy groups. The Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, was the culmination of decades of advocacy by pro-immigration groups—mostly made up of Jewish, Irish, and Japanese activists—and most of all by one of its namesakes, Rep. Emanuel Celler.

Emanuel “Mannie” Celler was the Brooklyn-born grandson of German Jewish immigrants, and he took great pride in his family’s immigrant history. He loved telling a story about how his mother’s parents met in New York Harbor when the ship carrying them from Germany began to sink, throwing his grandmother into the water before his grandfather jumped in and rescued her, sparking a new romance in the New World. Mannie graduated from Columbia Law School before going into politics, and immediately made waves in 1922 when he ran for a House seat as a Democrat and managed to win his Republican-majority congressional district by appealing to hard-drinking immigrant voters fed up with Prohibition laws.

In Congress, Mannie quickly developed a reputation for his unapologetic pro-immigration advocacy. Anti-immigrant sentiment had surged in the wake of World War I’s carnage and the nationalist fervor that followed. In addition, the ethnic and religious composition of newer immigrants alarmed the WASP establishment, who decided after decades of heavy immigration to shut American borders. Celler gave his first big speech on the House floor passionately arguing against the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, a law that set severe quotas on Southern and Eastern Europeans and completely banned Asians from immigrating. In the years after the passage of Johnson-Reed, immigration ground to a halt—but Celler refused to accept that Johnson-Reed was the end of the American immigration experiment, and spent the next four decades of his life working toward overturning the act.

One especially urgent issue, for Mannie, was the persecution of German Jews by the Nazi government. While the American public murmured about the rumors coming out of Germany, public sentiment was stubbornly anti-immigration. Another member of a religious minority in America, Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, regularly broadcast fiery polemics against Jews on radios all across America.

In 1938, Celler introduced a bill that would allow the president to lift the quotas for victims of religious and political persecution. The bill was unpopular even among fellow Jewish leaders who already had to contend with antisemitic conspiracy theories, and saw the bad optics of a Jew proposing a bill that everyone knew was designed to let more Jews in. But Mannie didn’t care about optics—he wanted to save lives, and refused to back down.

As the news trickling out of Nazi Germany grew increasingly alarming, Congress refused to budge on the quotas. It took six grueling years of lobbying from Jewish lawmakers for FDR to establish the War Refugee Board (WRB), an agency that saved tens of thousands of Jews—but not before millions perished in the Holocaust. As WRB director John W. Pehle would later lament, the group’s work was “too little, too late.”

If being against affirmative action means carrying water for white people, then being for it just means carrying water for Black people. The Asian coolie forced to carry both buckets becomes strained under the yoke.

None of these setbacks was able to stop Celler’s zeal for immigration reform, for which he developed an incrementalist strategy to slowly chip away at the quotas. In 1946, Mannie managed to get the Luce-Celler Act passed, allowing a small number of Filipinos and Indians to migrate to America per annum and opening up a pathway to citizenship for them for the first time. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 chipped away even further, allowing 100,000 refugees to settle, although antisemites in Congress only voted for the bill after it was revised to limit Jews.

Celler became the chair of the House Judiciary Committee shortly afterward, and he used his expanded powers to push for the eventual dismantlement of the quota system. In 1950, Mannie managed to get Congress to amend the Displaced Persons Act to allow over 400,000 more refugees in, about a fifth of which were Jews. And over in the Senate, fellow German Jew Herbert Lehman also worked tirelessly to dismantle the quotas, even while the Red Scare propagated nativist sentiment by associating immigrants with communism.

In 1952, historian Oscar Handlin (who was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants) published the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People. Written in a lyrical fashion rather than the standard droll academic cadence, the book almost single-handedly popularized the notion that America is a nation of immigrants. As Handlin wrote in his opening one-two punch of sentences, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”

Handlin became the nation’s preeminent scholar of immigration, and testified before Congress advocating for the passage of the Hart-Celler Act—the bill that would destroy the Johnson-Reed Act’s quotas and open America’s doors to immigrants from all over the world. By the time the House passed the bill, Celler was the only House member left that was present when Johnson-Reed was passed. On Oct. 3, 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law at the Statue of Liberty. It was the zenith of Mannie’s long career, the culmination of decades spent fighting to abolish the quota system—an accomplishment 41 arduous years in the making.

When Johnson signed Hart-Celler into law, he and other lawmakers only expected a small trickle of Asian immigrants—but instead received a tidal wave. Asian Americans went from constituting less than 0.5% of the American population to about 7% today. In an era where Asians are viewed as the “New Jews” in the American cultural consciousness, it feels fitting that the existence of a sizable Asian American population is largely the result of the efforts of the “Old Jews.”

But unlike Jewish comedians of decades past, Asian Americans do not make jokes about “Asian guilt.” The new crop of Asian American activism—a mostly grassroots movement of Asian immigrant parents—unapologetically looks out for Asian interests. In doing so, these advocates for working and middle class Asian Americans threaten to topple the patronage system operated for “people of color” by professional managerial class Asian American groups, which lack authentic community support but receive backing from the Democratic Party.

Five years ago, Wesley Yang penned a pair of prescient pieces in this magazine pointing out that Asian Americans are unique in that our very presence threatens the interest-group juggling act of elite institutions, and that by arriving here and excelling academically, Asians have “made it impossible for the brand managers of the Ivy Leagues to preserve the balance between merit and social justice and inherited privilege in a way that is remotely tenable.” Because Asians have faced historical and present racial discrimination, one would expect colleges to favor Asian applicants under social justice doctrine, yet colleges do the opposite.

Yang further pointed out that “Asians aren’t seen as a ‘real’ minority—nobody has them in mind when they speak of minorities, and thus the hiring of many Asians does not count for those in pursuit of “diversity.” This exclusion has been formalized into the bureaucratic euphemism “underrepresented minority,” which means “minorities who are not Asian,” and that “in pursuing their own narrow ethnic interests, Asians can break up the coalescence of the country into racial blocs and come to occupy a key fulcrum point in the racial politics of America.”

Yet the blatant exclusion of Asians under the “underrepresented minority” umbrella and the shift from POC to BIPOC has resulted in a new racial awakening among some Asian Americans—a realization that no one else in the POC coalition really cares about Asians. Every Asian professional has a story about the awkwardness, the aversion of eyes, the radio silence when an Asian claims to be a representative of people of color. If being against affirmative action means carrying water for white people, then being for it just means carrying water for Black people. The Asian coolie forced to carry both buckets becomes strained under the yoke, forever an indentured servant to two masters.

Progressive Asian Americans, like those that staff astroturfed “Asian-interest” NGOs, understand that in order to remain in the POC coalition, Asians must constantly pass the purity test of not saying anything negative about the groups higher up on the progressive stack. That we should always address the “anti-Blackness” apparently endemic in Asian communities, while remaining silent on incidents where Black perpetrators commit hate crimes against Asian Americans. And that when the evidence becomes undeniable, we should blame the nebulous and ever-changing boogeyman of white supremacy. Asian American studies professor Jen Ho claims that “... anti-Asian racism has the same source as anti-Black racism: white supremacy. So when a Black person attacks an Asian person, the encounter is fueled perhaps by racism, but very specifically by white supremacy. White supremacy does not require a white person to perpetuate it.” Such is the life of the Asians that accept their fate as the bottom rung in the POC coalition, ensconced in their ivory towers, working twice as hard to be a good little model minority that shoves working-class Asians under the bus.

To the social justice crowd, the Asian is truly an aberration, an anomaly in the administrative class matrix with the potential to tear down the entire racial patronage system in America. The SFFA decision and the subsequent celebrations from Asian Americans show that some have managed to break free of the guilt-baggage to celebrate their own liberation.

Steven Yeun, the Korean American actor who rose to fame playing a fan-favorite heartthrob on The Walking Dead, once quipped that “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

Yet in the ongoing debate over affirmative action and the future of meritocracy in America, everyone else is thinking about us—and we no longer need to be shamed out of doing the same.





Sheluyang Peng is a writer living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. His writing can be found at societystandpoint.substack.com.

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