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Nearly 100 years ago, a Japanese immigrant named Takao Ozawa stood before the highest court in the United States and asked the nine justices before him to determine something peculiar: Was he white? Ozawa was 40 years old, a father and a salesman for one of Hawaii’s large sugar companies. He had lived in this country since he was 19. Now he wanted to become a citizen.
Ozawa presented a quandary for the jurists. The country’s first naturalization law from 1790 decreed that only “free white” people could become citizens. Later, after the Civil War, those of African descent were added. Ozawa was clearly not from Africa, and the law said nothing of those from Asia.
After some discussion, the Supreme Court came to a decision. On November 13, 1922, Justice George Sutherland wrote in the majority opinion that Ozawa was “well qualified by character and education for citizenship.” But there was no getting around the fact that he was “of a race which is not Caucasian.” His bid for citizenship was rejected. He was not white. He was not Black. He was not an American.
For a brief period, in the early weeks of the pandemic, I began to wonder what it might feel like to be seen for what I am, to be acknowledged in public as an Asian American. The possibility of confronting xenophobia each time I left the house terrified me, but even more, it was the prospect of becoming hyper-visible — after a lifetime spent wandering a society with no clear place for me, a ghost taking on a different hue depending on the light, sometimes “white,” sometimes “a person of color.” At least I’d be called out for what I was: “Chinese,” albeit with the word “virus” attached.
It is hard to know what space to take up when the racial category of “Asian American” eludes simple delineation. Sometimes it is the ignorance of others drawing the boundaries, like the bigots blaming Chinese, Korean, and Hmong alike for the coronavirus. Other times it is we who are marking the outlines, asserting that recently arrived Indian immigrants possess inherent solidarity with Japanese Americans whose families have been here for more than a century. Often we are best described by what we are not. We are not white. We are not Black.
This haziness can feel like insignificance — an invitation to drift along the currents of race in America, hoping that eventually the tides alone will carry us to where we need to go. But just as the events of 2020 have disrupted so many aspects of life, so too have they disturbed the status quo of Asian American identity. A global pandemic originating in China is now associated with us, and the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered a nationwide conversation about race. It is time to look anew at who we are — and for that we must start with why we are here.
For many of us, that story begins not with the building of the railroads out west or the sugar farms of Hawaii but the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, one of the least understood and most influential laws in modern American history. The law transformed the American immigration system by opening its doors to immigrants from outside Europe, allowing many Asian American families to be here. And the story behind it offers us a powerful political and ideological heritage: a roadmap to understanding ourselves and our place in this country.
Never in history have there been nearly this many people from Asia in the United States. Before 1960, no more than one million people of Asian descent had ever been in this country at one time. Now there are more than 20 million, two-thirds of them foreign-born. Between 2000 and 2015, this population grew 72 percent, faster than any other major racial or ethnic group. Together with larger numbers of migrants from Central and South America, the Middle East, and Africa, the number of non-white Americans is projected to surpass the number of white Americans within a century.
This is the extraordinary legacy of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, the law abolished a system of ethnic quotas from the 1920s based on an elaborate white supremacist fiction that Anglo-Saxon Protestants from northern and western Europe were inherently superior to people from eastern and southern Europe, Africa, and Asia. These quotas banned nearly all immigration from Asia, a dramatic expansion of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The lawmakers who implemented the quota system believed they had safely returned America to its true ethnic roots as a nation.
The removal of these quotas, after 40 years of struggle, was a watershed triumph of civil rights — a forceful denunciation of white supremacy in American law. It also set in motion a demographic fate that few anticipated. Because the old quotas were replaced with a reunification clause that prioritized immigration approval for family members of immigrants already in America, chains of extended families began to arrive in this country and set down roots. Unlike the wave of mass immigration that America experienced in the early 20th century, these new citizens were not coming from Europe, but the rest of the world.
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And yet the story behind the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act does not offer a simple moral parable of liberationist triumph over racist oppressors. And it does not fit easily into our existing narratives around civil rights. To the extent that the law has been discussed at all in recent years, it is assumed to have been swept into existence by the undertow of Black activists fighting to dismantle Jim Crow. This is a powerful narrative for young Asian Americans eager to shout their support for Black Lives Matter. This spring, Eileen Huang, an English major at Yale University, wrote an open letter to the Chinese American community to address anti-Black racism among Asians. “It is because of Black Americans, who pushed back against racist naturalization laws, that Asian Americans have gained official citizenship and are officially recognized under the law,” she wrote, later adding that Asian Americans would still be “illegal aliens” if not for Black activism.
While it’s true that the Black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s popularized a moral framework and established political momentum that created a favorable legislative climate for immigration reform advocates, the 1965 act was in fact the culmination of a distinct, decades-long struggle with its own set of players: the descendants of Jewish, Irish Catholic, and Asian immigrants who saw the country’s immigration system as a painful symbol of nativist prejudice. Further complicating the narrative that the law represented a full-throated cry for multiracial pluralism, many supporters of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act never imagined, or even hoped, that it would lead to much non-white migration at all.
The law’s advocates envisioned American immigration continuing as it had always been, largely from Europe. Their fight was predicated on an American past when being Jewish or Italian meant being considered alien and ineligible for membership in the white American elite. The Jews and Italians who came to America at the turn of the 20th century, like the non-European immigrants who are here now, transformed cities like New York. In 1880, only 12,000 foreign-born Italians and 14,000 Russian Jews lived in the city. By 1910, those numbers had soared to 341,000 and 484,000. These immigrants and children found themselves out of place in their new land, caught between preserving the traditions of their family’s cultures and desperate to assimilate in order to enjoy American — white — success.
But by 1965, these Jewish and Italian immigrants and their children were firmly in the American mainstream. And so the ethnic quotas seemed an anathema and an insult. As Robert F. Kennedy, himself the scion of an Irish-Catholic family that had conquered the highest echelons of American society, said on the Senate floor as the 1965 law was headed to a final vote, “We are past the period in the history of the United States when we judge a person by his last name or his place of birth or where his grandfather or grandmother came from.”
When asked about where the law might lead the country, supporters downplayed the possibility that future migration streams would be non-white. A year earlier, when he was still attorney general, Kennedy had testified that the law would scarcely increase the number of immigrants from Asia. He estimated there would be an influx of about 5,000 Asian immigrants in the first year, “after which immigration from that source would virtually disappear.”
Perhaps even more surprising, the very family reunification clause that has enabled so many Asian families to grow here was designed as an explicit tool to help keep America white. During negotiations with President Johnson, nativist lawmakers insisted that giving priority to family ties would help limit the law’s demographic changes. So low were the numbers of immigrants in the country at the time, especially from outside Europe, that family priority would tend to encourage white immigration — or so the thinking went.
To study history is to be continuously re-introduced to the power of contingency. The outcome of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act accentuated a long-standing sense of ambivalence about the presence of Asian Americans and highlighted a project that is not only unfinished but has barely begun: establishing a genuinely multicultural, pluralist society in which the newest arrivals to this country — those who are neither white nor Black — knit themselves into this country’s fabric.
This heritage is as perilous as it is promising. Just as many Jewish and Italian Americans ultimately were accepted into mainstream white society, many Asian Americans today have such a road open to us as well. The 1965 law not only granted favorable status for family members of previous immigrants, but for prospective immigrants with advanced science degrees. The children of many of these well-educated, upper-middle-class Asian immigrants have attended the country’s premier educational institutions themselves and found places within some of America’s most powerful institutions. Even if we do not run the country, we are more likely to be in the rooms where power resides. All of this has led to Asians now having provisional membership in the category known as “people of color.” It is a reason why “Black and brown” does not include East Asians.
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But this success does not present a comprehensive picture of Asian American economic success. For instance, in New York — the city with the country’s largest population of Asian Americans — nearly one in four live in poverty. To celebrate the elite status and wealth in our community — and to make these elements representative of an entire racial group, as the 2017 movie Crazy Rich Asians attempted to do — is to abandon those who are struggling. It also fails to acknowledge what we have been bequeathed through the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
This law allowed many of us to be here by abolishing an explicitly white supremacist legal regime, a system that codified the same racist ideology that justified the oppression of Black and Indigenous Americans for generations. Our presence as Asian Americans, even if not fully intended, is the legacy of this law. And so even if we have traveled very different paths from Black Americans, and faced different challenges, many not nearly as severe, we share a common enemy: a definition of national identity based on race, not ideals — one that would look in the face of a person like Takao Ozawa and tell him he could not be an American.