The unthinkable happened. Barring a late break in swing state polls, the United States has elected a xenophobic, misogynistic, crude and woefully underprepared demagogue for president.
Trump’s probable win signifies the rise of a Republican party that no longer stands for conservative values, but instead stands for isolationism and racism. Now, more than ever, we must understand the history from which these xenophobic values come from. It’s a history that, improbably, begins with Asian-American immigration.
Given the poisoned political rhetoric this election, which has encompassed everything from building walls to banning entire religions from the United States, it is shameful that we are not often taught that this has happened before. This history began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first instance in which of which truly barred immigration from a group into the United States. A response to fears about immigrants taking away jobs from hard working (white) Americans, the act was on the books until 1943. In the meantime, hostility expanded to other Asian groups, and immigration was restricted from the “Asiatic Barred Zone” as defined in the Immigration Act of 1917.
Curran Nault, a lecturer for the Center of Asian American Studies, mentioned the parallels between the barred immigration of Chinese people into the United States and our present political hostility to Hispanic and Muslim immigrants.
“The Chinese Exclusion Act set in motion a whole series of kind of procedures, forms of representing people, that are very much with us today,” Nault said. “The very idea that there could be something such as ‘illegal immigration’ — it’s a problematic term that comes out of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Chinese immigration and later Asian immigration. The sort of notions of who belongs, who doesn’t belong here, and that being tied to issues of race, and certain countries being undesirable in terms of the people coming from them. We see all of those narratives repeating in our current moment in the ways that people from Muslim nations, from the Middle East are treated.”
As the first major example of immigrants from countries that were not from Western European countries, the experience of early Asian immigrants is telling. The backlash against immigrants — specifically those with brown skin, who speak different languages or who come from “threatening” religious backgrounds — has been an observable part of the American psyche for a long time. Only recognizing that these impulses have always been present, and attempting to understand how they intersect with current fears about terrorism and the economy, can lead us to solutions to these problems.
“I think it’s extremely important, it’s the age-old ‘you need to know history or else you are doomed to repeat it’ idea,” Nault said. “Particularly in our moment, our social media world, where we’re so immersed in the moment that we are increasingly losing sight of these historical connections. These connections are important in terms of not repeating the past but also in terms of learning from our foremothers, forefathers about what did they do about it, how did they fight back, how did they change things, and picking up those legacies rather than re-inventing the wheel.”
As we face a potential four years of white nationalism, anti-immigration and blatant racism, we must now, more than ever, learn from these histories. We need to understand from where we started, and where it went wrong. It’s the only way forward.
Nemawarkar is a Plan II sophomore from Austin. Follow her on Twitter @janhavin97.