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The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

My high school’s U.S. History curriculum uses Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! as its textbook. If you’ve taken a survey U.S. history course at your school, you probably have an idea of what this textbook is like. Each thirty-page chapter sweeps through decades of history: the Revolution, Reconstruction and its downfall, the Gilded Age. It aims not to be a comprehensive reference, but a broad-strokes survey of the forces of the three hundred years that have constructed the nation we live in today. As you might glean from the title, Foner’s survey revolves around the rallying cry of “liberty” in its varying noble and twisted forms.

Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America is like a Foner-esque history textbook, but, as the title suggests, for Asians in America. In seventeen chapters, like Foner’s each about thirty pages in length, Lee tells a story that arcs across the past four centuries and lands forcefully upon today’s Asian America. The story of Asian America, Lee tells us, is in large part one of immigration: movement of Filipinos on Spanish ships to Latin America in the 16th century; of Chinese and South Asian coolies, making indentured voyages to serve as cheap labor and replacements for African slaves on sugar plantations; of the 15,000 Chinese workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad, the Japanese immigrants who built California’s agricultural industry; of the post-1965 wave that makes up most of today’s 70% foreign-born Asian American population. It’s also a story of bitter systemic discrimination and racism: the war and colonial exploitation that drove Asians to emigrate in the first place; of widespread mob violence and lynchings; of organized and legislated denial of rights and exclusion.

If Foner’s telling centered around “liberty,” Lee’s driving point is the categorization of “good” and “bad” Asians. Before WWII, Asians were seen as a homogeneous group to be hated and fought against. The Chinese brought filth, disease, and corrupt morals. The Japanese were the “yellow peril,” the invasion of the Oriental East into Western civilization. All were unassimilable immigrants and foreign threats, with every form of racism and discrimination thrown at them: violence, legislation, complete exclusion. This racialization continued into WWII with the internment of Japanese Americans based solely on their race; but a major shift in the racialization of Asian Americans also took place. China, the Philippines, British India, and other Asian nations were American allies in their war, an association that carried over to their overseas diaspora. This was the creation of the “good Asian,” Lee explains; as anti-Japanese sentiment spiked higher than ever, Chinese, Filipino, and other Asian Americans were seen as hardworking citizens contributing to the American war effort. Post-war saw the creation of the model minority myth, the weaponizing the privilege afforded to Asian Americans as propaganda declaring the success of American democracy and multiculturalism against Soviets in the Cold War, and against black civil rights activists back home.

The immediate value of this book is that, in consistently accessible and clear, yet rigorously researched and expansive writing, it surveys a part of American history that is far too often erased. Many people may know about Japanese internment or that Chinese immigrants worked on the Transcontinental Railroad, but not much more than that. Most Asian Americans likely don’t even know about the 19th and 20th century exclusion laws, of the Asian American movement of the 70s when the label “Asian American” was first coined, or of names like Vincent Chin and Fred Korematsu.

The erasure of Asian American history is an erasure and denial that Asian Americans have faced systemic racism, or that systemic racism even truly exists; under this ignorance, the model minority myth and the racist backbone of American society thrives. While any telling of American history will necessarily touch on manifestations of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy, the true meaning and presence of these forces is usually masked by the distorting lenses of liberalism and eurocentrism: slavery existed because Southerners were twisted, evil people willing to do anything to maintain their cruel system of exploitation; all it took was for Northern abolitionists, the natural force of good, to confront them and prevail. Segregation and oppressive misogyny, likewise — all we need are Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony for us to realize our society’s problems and leave them behind. Liberty and freedom will forever lead this country forwards and upwards, beyond any individual or group prejudices that we call racism and discrimination. With a general understanding of U.S. history, this narrative is compelling. This understanding also makes it legitimately hard to understand the idea of systemic racism, or why race matters at all today. There isn’t any more slavery or explicitly legislated disenfranchisement; surely now we should focus on issues like class inequality, which may even be identified as the only root cause, race something closely associated but ultimately a distraction.

The true value of The Making of Asian America, then, is that it brilliantly fights this widespread ignorance and shatters this surface-level understanding of race in America. The book is not just a telling of some detached, niche “Asian American history"; it is, as much as Foner’s textbook or any other, an expansive survey of unqualified American history, one that reveals the true nature of racism and its deep roots in American history and society. Racism is about more than laws on the books, more than immediate social and material privilege, more than racial slurs and stereotypes. The racializations of different groups of Americans are complex and constantly changing, woven from the strands of colonialism and capitalism, through hundreds of years of history and the world around us today. To fight it, to fight against all injustice, we must strive to recognize and understand racism for what it is. This is what academic work like Critical Race Theory and Ethnic Studies work towards. The power of The Making of Asian America is that you don’t need to know any critical theory, or even very much of history, to follow along and understand it, yet it leaves you with an understanding that makes what are otherwise heavy academic ideas blatantly obvious (readers familiar with CRT will recognize Lee’s idea of racialization based on convenience of the dominant group as CRT’s Interest Convergence Theory, for example; conversely, after reading Lee, the ideas of the scary-sounding Critical Race Theory become perfectly intuitive). To be sure the book isn’t perfect; notably, I find its discussion of present-day Asian America to be lackluster, avoiding diving into questions of racial triangulation and proximity to whiteness. But there’s only so much that a survey book that doesn’t get into critical theory can do, and as a starting point for understanding racism and racialization in America, The Making of Asian America is an incredible resource.

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