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A reading list to understand anti-Asian racism in America

Hate crimes against Asian Americans go back centuries. We asked experts which books to read to understand the history.

Activists in Chinatown in Washington, DC, hold up a banner written in Chinese and a sign that reads “Stop Asian hate.”
Activists participate in a vigil in response to the Atlanta spa shootings on March 17, 2021, in the Chinatown area of Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Tuesday, eight people were killed in shootings in Atlanta; six of those eight people were Asian women. While authorities have not yet established an official motive for the shooting, the tragedy fits into a rise of anti-Asian hate crimes across America.

Those hate crimes followed months of xenophobic rhetoric from then-President Donald Trump, who repeatedly and falsely associated the Covid-19 pandemic with Asians and Asian Americans. But the rise in hate crimes is also rooted in a long history of specifically anti-Asian racism in America, going back to the first wave of Asian immigration to the United States in the 1800s.

Americans tend to be bad at talking about racism in general. But Americans tend to be particularly bad at talking about racism toward Asian Americans, with those outside the community leaning on outdated myths like the idea of the “model minority” to argue that Asian Americans don’t face any particular prejudice and have nothing to worry about. And in the process, the history of the way Asian Americans have been deliberately and violently excluded from the United States’ dominant culture gets ignored, overwritten, and erased.

To help place the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in context, Vox reached out to experts in Asian American studies and asked for their help in compiling a reading list focused on the long and unjust arc of anti-Asian racism in America. Here’s the result. These eight books will help you understand the history of anti-Asian racism in the US, how it’s operated in the past, and the effects it’s having now.

The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee

William Gow, a lecturer on Asian American studies at Stanford, calls The Making of Asian America one of “the foundational histories of Asian Americans in the United States.” In this volume, historian Erika Lee tracks waves of Asian immigration to the United States, beginning with Chinese laborers in 1850s California and ending with Hmong refugees in 1980s Minnesota. In between, she looks at all the Asian immigrants who came to the US during the period when the Chinese Exclusion Act made Asians the first group of people explicitly banned from immigrating to the country; they hence became the first undocumented immigrants.

Throughout, Lee’s larger argument tracks the way Asian Americans cycle between getting labeled “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants,” depending on the mood of the political moment. The Making of Asian America, says Gow, “provides needed context for understanding that anti-Asian racism is not something new but rather has been deeply embedded in the history of the United States.”

Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer

Starting in 1848 and continuing into the 20th century, in towns across the American West, Chinese Americans were violently rounded up, driven out of town, or killed in a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing. In Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, Jean Pfaelzer, a professor of American studies at the University of Delaware, chronicles this campaign — and the way the persecuted Chinese Americans fought back, in what would become one of the largest displays of mass civil disobedience to date in the United States.

Driven Out comes recommended both by William Gow and by Janelle Wong, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Maryland. “Too often, media reports today fail to connect the history of anti-Asian violence with a longer, more systemic history of anti-Asian violence in the US,” says Gow. “This work provides context that will help readers make these important connections.”

Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown by Nayan Shah

Trump’s repeated invocation of the false idea that Asian Americans somehow carried Covid-19 into the US has long and racist roots. Early Chinese immigrants to the US in the 19th century were repeatedly demonized as filthy disease carriers by the public health authorities of the era.

To understand this period better, UCLA Asian American studies professor Grace Hong recommends the 2001 study Contagious Divides. In it, USC American studies professor Nayan Shah tracks the ways Chinese Americans were scapegoated, and how Chinese American activists responded by helping to build the public health bureaucracies that would undergird 20th-century America.

Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties by Karen L. Ishizuka

Before the social uproar of the 1960s, white America unfailingly clumped all Asian Americans loosely together in one large group commonly referred to as “Orientals.” In Serve the People, Karen L. Ishizuka, a documentary film producer and museum curator, tells the story of the 1960s social movements that saw activists from Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino communities coming together to forge a common political identity as Asian Americans.

“In discussing anti-Asian violence, it is important to remember that Asian Americans have never been passive victims,” says Gow. “Ishizuka’s text covers this important history and provides a counterweight to narratives of Asian Americans as silent victims.”

Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture by Robert G. Lee

To understand some of the ideas the activists in Serve the People were fighting against, turn to Orientals, the book Grace Hong calls “a classic.” In this study from 1999, Robert G. Lee, a professor of American studies at Brown, tracks the way pop culture has othered Asian Americans from the 19th century into the 20th — and how rarely any of pop culture’s ideas about Asian Americans were actually created by Asian American people.

Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream 1899-1999 edited by Angel Velasco Shaw and Luis H. Francia

“I think it’s important to talk about anti-Asian racism both in the United States and how they are tied to imperial wars in Asia,” says Dean Itsuji Saranillio, a professor of Asian American studies at NYU. Vestiges of War begins its study of the US-Philippine relationship with the little-known 1899 Philippine-American War, and goes on to examine half a century of American colonial occupation.

To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of Korean Adoption by Arissa Oh

At least four of the women killed in the Atlanta shootings were of Korean descent. In To Save the Children of Korea, historian Arissa Oh examines the history of Korean American international adoption, in a book that fellow historian Ellen D. Wu calls “indispensable for understanding how war and US military engagements in the Asia-Pacific region have shaped American’s ideas about Asian women and children.”

International adoption began in the aftermath of the Korean War as an emergency measure with which to evacuate multiracial “GI babies.” But it would soon become a mechanism through which the Korean government could export unwanted children. In To Save the Children of Korea, Oh argues that the US-Korea relationship would serve as the template for future international adoption systems, and that this relationship is fundamentally one of colonialism.

The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority by Ellen D. Wu

Part of why mainstream America finds it so easy to ignore anti-Asian racism is the idea that Asian Americans are a “model minority”: They may not be considered white, but they’re still considered well-assimilated and upwardly mobile. To understand where this idea comes from, and why it’s harmful, Janelle Wong recommends The Color of Success, the first book-length study of the myth of the model minority. Here, historian Ellen D. Wu tracks the origins of the myth, and the way it continues to shape the way Americans think about race and what it means to be an American.

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