Asian American Struggles for Civil, Political, Economic, and Social Rights

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Editor's Note: This essay is revised from a keynote address given by the author on June 8, 2001 in San Francisco, at a dinner commemorating the thirty-second anniversary of the civil rights organization Chinese for Affirmative Action.

In the last century and a half, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans who have fought for various rights in the United States have sometimes succeeded and at other times failed in their efforts. The history of their struggles can be divided into four periods: (1) the 1860s to the 1880s, (2) the 1890s to the 1920s, (3) the 1940s to the 1970s, and (4) the late 1970s to the present. In the first period, Chinese immigrants acquired important civil rights. In the second period, aspiring Asian immigrants lost the legal battles they waged against laws that barred them from immigrating to the United States, while those who had managed to enter before exclusion went into effect failed to gain the right to become naturalized citizens and to own, or even lease, agricultural land. In the third period, they gained political rights in the 1940s and 1950s and economic rights in the 1960s and 1970s. In the present, fourth period, the results of their attempts to win social rights have been mixed. To understand why there has b een a vacillation between advances and retrenchments, we must examine the larger historical contexts in which those successes and failures have occurred. We must also recognize the differences among civil, political, economic, and social rights.

THE 1860S TO THE 1880S

During the first period, Reconstruction dominated American national life. (1) Between 1865, when the Civil War ended, and 1877, when Reconstruction was formally terminated, the federal government tried to ensure that the recently freed Black people would be accorded certain basic rights. However, these efforts ended when a political deal was struck. In the Compromise of 1877, Northern Republicans agreed to withdraw the federal troops that had been sent to occupy the South if Southern Democrats would let Rutherford P Hayes, the Republican presidential candidate in the closely contested elections of 1876, take office. Troops had been used to enforce the changes that the North tried to impose on the South because the South, though defeated, resisted efforts to give African Americans the freedom they had been promised during the Civil War.

Despite the fact it was short-lived, Reconstruction did leave an enduring legacy in the form of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and several laws that provided the doctrinal basis on which African Americans, Asian immigrants, and other minorities have legally challenged the discrimination against them. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude, thereby codifying the Emancipation Proclamation within the amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment declared that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." This endowed persons of African ancestry born on American soil with birthright citizenship, (2) thereby nullifying the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott case, which had stated that Black people, whether enslaved or free, "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect" a nd were not and could not become U.S. citizens. (3) The 1870 Naturalization Act extended the right of naturalization to persons of African nativity or descent. (4) Up to that point, only "free, white persons" could become naturalized citizens. During the debates over the bill, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a great advocate of equal rights for all human beings regardless of their skin color, had argued vigorously that the word "white" should be deleted from the text. However, he failed in his efforts. …