PBS has this new documentary about Asian Americans. It’s a 5 hour long documentary. The first 2 hours just details the rise of the early Asian Americans starting from why Asians immigrated (some would say enslaved/indentured) to work as cheap labor on the gold mining and then rail roads; the difficulties these early Asians facing societal racism and stereotypes; the suffering faced from general exclusion laws/property rights/civil liberties; and ultimately the question of American loyalty.
There’s so much to unpack in this first 2 hours of the documentary too. Everyone can learn much from the difficulties of trying to get break out of the ethnocentric American viewpoint… or really just how racist Americans were and still are today. Ironically though, racism in American isn’t just confined to non-whites. When Italians immigrated due to poverty and Irish immigrated due to famine, many of the Americans who already lived in America also thought of these immigrants as low classed, dirty and the dregs of society (hey doesn’t that sound familiar?) Have we not learned anything? Interestingly enough, the difference between these groups of people and the current crisis… about 50-75 years and the color of the skin. Nowadays, whether or not you have Irish or Italian ancestry is irrelevant because of you’re white skin. If I put it in a pessimistic way, if you don’t look like 80% of the US Congress, then you realistically aren’t going to be treated equally even under laws of the US Constitution.
The following 2 hours talks about the stereotype of the “good Asian american”, continued immigration struggles, cultural and political awakenings, the “Asian” identity in times of war (Korean War/Vietnam War), and Asian American movement. What I didn’t know was this “Chinese Confession Program” where fear of Communism spurred investigations into illegal Chinese immigrants. Illegal because they paid for fake paperwork in order to post as a citizen’s son… similar to what you might here today regarding Green Card Marriages. What I also didn’t know is the immigration flow of Asians really started in 1965 after many of the illegal racist exclusion laws were repealed. Known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, one key aspect of the law allowed new immigrants to enter and gain citizenship via the “specialized skills” and allowing those who have citizenship to sponsor relatives for immigration. I think the unintended consequence (it’s a fascinating quick read but it is left leaning) of the law was the massive migration from Hispanic and Asian countries into the US. This literally changes the demographics of America. Have you heard of the term “Minority Majority“? It’s basically a term where no ethnic group will represent US as a majority sometime around 2050.
The last hour starts out with the race relations surrounding the LA riots, transitioning into the future of immigration and ending in some sort of positive note. Regarding the riots, I remember seeing TV footage of the riots as well as clips of the Rodney King trial as a kid. I didn’t know what was happening but I remember that a lot of Asian parents where I was growing up were closely monitoring the situation. Growing up, I always thought the riots in Koreatown were related to the Rodney King verdict. It never really occurred to me that race relations between Blacks and Korean Americans were so tense at the time. This documentary revealed one of the sparks of the tension to stem from the killing of Latasha Harlins. In a dramatic shift from race relation into immigration, the last half hour of the show discusses some of the recent immigration issues such as DACA. Apparently DACA was first proposed back in 2001 as the DREAM Act. That’s 19 years ago. And now we are in 2020.
If viewers achieve any insight after watching this documentary, I would hope that being a student of history is as important as being a student of morality. Watching the documentary, I was struck how “fear” drove people to act irrationally: losing jobs to immigrants; losing the cultural identity to foreign cultures; and distrusting those that don’t look like yourself. Yes this last one also applies to immigrants too. But recognizing fear is just a first step to healing and educating those who are afraid. We need more people who have the courage to stand up and become the voice of reason. Or at the very least, a voice that forces people to stop and think.