by Roberta L. Chew
The 1882 Foundation, Alexandria’s Black History Museum and the City of Alexandria came together for a unique collaboration exploring the impact of and synergy between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and landmark legislation passed in 1965 – notably, the Immigration and Nationality Act. This law in particular – over the 50 years since its passage, has transformed the American landscape demographically, bringing more Asians and Latinos into the country and reshaping interactions among all population groups including white and black.
Opening the week of events, University of Maryland Professor Janelle Wong set the tone with her September 26 opening remarks in which she described the history of anti-Chinese sentiment in America – a despised class of laborers subject to violence, expulsion, discrimination and hatred in the west. Anti-Chinese agitation led to the first piece of U.S. legislation against any group of immigrants – the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Renewed by subsequent laws, Chinese exclusion persisted until World War II when China became a U.S. ally. However, it was not until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was passed which lifted national origin quotas and allowed in more immigrants from around the globe, that the number of Asian immigrants began to dramatically increase. Along with it came a changing perspective on the Asian immigrant from “despised scourge to hardworking students and examples of economic success.”
Professor Wong argued that the Asian “Model Minority” myth grew out of the selective recruitment process brought about by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which favored two categories: 1) high-skilled workers, and 2) family reunification. After the act’s passage, the U.S. began to recruit high-skilled immigrants from Asia. Today, 72 percent of all high-skilled visas go to Asians, as well as 60 percent of student visas. If hard work and smarts alone were responsible for Asian success in the U.S., then why isn’t the high percentage of Asian college educated in the U.S. reflected in the percentage of college degree holders in China, Korea or Japan? In the U.S., 70% of Korean and Japanese immigrants have a college degree. In Korea and Japan, only 25% have college degrees. In the U.S. more than 50% of Chinese immigrants have college degrees, in China itself, only 5%.
This matters because the Model Minority myth serves to set Asians in America apart from other minorities. It ignores the brutal history endured by Asians in America because of their seeming success. Wong says, “We must not let our history be distorted to undermine the fight for equality and the fight for black lives…(or) undermine efforts to create educational equality through…affirmative action…(or) undermine the fight for dignity and respect for today’s undocumented immigrants.” She concludes, “let us not forget how U.S. laws, past and present, create new racial categories and shape all of our experience as interconnected, racialized peoples. That is the legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act.”