THE BLOG

Remembering Our Past for a Better Future: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

05/25/2015 04:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images

It is easy to forget your history. It is particularly easy to forget if your history is neither a part of the mainstream American historical narrative nor included in our history books. Asian American Pacific Islanders face this challenge. However, our memory needs to become part of our consciousness to help us move toward a society which is just.

May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month. The White House held a Summit on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on May 12, 2015. Around 2,000 leaders and members of the public gathered in Washington D.C. to discuss policies and programs which have supported AAPI communities.

President Obama stated,

When any of our citizens are unable to fulfill their potential due to factors that have nothing to do with their talent, character, or work ethic, then I believe there's a role for our government to play.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the silent immigrants in North America -- seen but not heard. There is a long history of Asian immigration to the United States, but much of it is not integrated into the institutional memory of the country; this history is glossed over as insignificant or unimportant. They are the forgotten people whose history is characterized by rejection from immigration officials. They have suffered numerous hardships. Much of their history is tarnished by racism and invisibility. This racism and invisibility from United States history have inhibited AAPI growth within the society and country.

AAPI immigration to the United States began in the mid-1800s. The annexation of California in 1846 by the United States opened the door to Asian laborers, with a significant wave of Chinese immigration during the California Gold Rush from 1848 to 1855.

At the beginning of the gold rush, the Chinese were tolerated. As soon as it became more difficult to find gold, tensions toward the Chinese grew. Eventually they were pushed out of the gold mines. Many took low-wage employment in restaurants and laundries. Since Asians were generally viewed as a commodity, many Chinese laborers were imported for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Asian immigrant lives were considered expendable, and they were made to participate in the most dangerous work, such as placing and detonating dynamite during the building of the railroads.

Most of the early Asian immigrants were male, but Asian women, motivated by a desire for freedom from poverty and patriarchy, sometimes made the decision to immigrate. More frequently, men arranged to import Asian women for profit and exploitation. Many women were used as laborers to feed, wash, and clean for the men. Others worked in the fields for wages and spent a full day under the sun, perhaps with babies strapped to their backs, before returning home to fix dinner for their husbands or other male workers. Asian American women suffered in silence within a culture in which their roles were defined by Asian men.

A series of restrictive laws were enacted which limited the life of Asians within the United States. In 1870, Congress passed a law that made Asian immigrants the only racial group barred from naturalization to United States citizenship. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. This was extended indefinitely and was finally lifted in 1943. The 1917 Immigration Act further limited Asian immigration, banning immigration from all countries in Asia.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that prescribed certain areas in the United States as military zones. This led to the transportation of Japanese Americans to internment camps, far from their homes on the Pacific coast. The conditions of these camps were akin to camps for migrant workers. Some camps were built in former livestock pens with residual manure on the grounds. The walls of the buildings were often made of tar paper, which provided little protection from the elements making the winters too cold and the summers too hot where the people lived.

Armed soldiers guarded the camps; barbed wire fences surrounded the compounds. These conditions were accompanied by racism and prejudice, including discriminatory laws that existed before the beginning of the war, such as the prohibition of Asian Americans from owning land in certain areas. Hardships were exacerbated because the nearby residents to these camps were none too happy with their new neighbors.

It is also important to recognize that while Japanese Americans were interned, while Italian Americans and German Americans were not placed in camps during the war. The United States was officially in war against these three countries, but only the Japanese Americans were interned. This illustrates how White European immigrants had assimilated into American society and culture and were viewed as an American. Whereas Asians, especially Japanese citizens were often viewed as foreigners and not "real" Americans.

As we remember the history of our fellow Asians, we look to the future in how we can live peaceably in a nation which considers itself an exception to rules followed by others. The recent Baltimore unrest erupted after Freddie Gray died on April 19, 2015 from injuries following his arrest by the police. Much of the violence occurred where Korean Americans have owned and operated businesses for many years. More than 42 Korean American-owned businesses were looted, burned or damaged during the unrest in Baltimore. Many of these owners have no insurance or are underinsured. The damage done against the livelihood of Korean Americans is grave.

We need to remember our past filled with exclusion and discrimination so we can peaceably move forward. Korean Americans are Americans just like the Europeans, and all who have come to this country. They deserve the same police protection and financial protection, especially since their presence may be the one thing which prevents some neighborhoods from being totally without services for food and merchandise. As AAPI community remember our history, and our painful past, we try to move forward to build a just society where love, peace, and hope prevail for all people.

For further discussion read my chapter "Asian American Liberative Theologies," in Ethics: A Liberative Approach, edited by Miguel De La Torre (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015)