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Massacre of the Model Minority: Racial Triangulation and the Alien Asian

The history of Asian immigration to the United States is a long and complex one, speckled with themes of exclusion, strife, and assimilation. Asian Americans have encountered no shortage of their own unique struggles with racism within the United States, but this is a narrative that has long since been overshadowed by the title of the “model minority” placed upon them, as a result of the success and prosperity that Asian Americans have apparently found as an ethnic group. Such a title diminishes the painful realities that Asian Americans have historically faced; realities that, although systematically erased, do not deserve to be forgotten. A race riot induced by the rising discrimination and growing tensions towards Chinese immigrants living in California, the Chinese Massacre of 1871 is the largest mass lynching in United States history, and serves as a reflection of the uniquely anti-Asian sentiments surrounding Asian immigration into the United States. Due to the dualist racial narrative within the United States, and what that meant for Asian Americans trying to fit into a Black-White binary of race with regards to the way their labor was valued and commodified, Asian Americans are positioned as an intermediary within this existing Black-White racial dichotomy, one that simultaneously places them on the rungs of both the hardworking “model minority” and the unbelonging “perpetual foreigner.”

With the allure of the 1848 California Gold Rush catalyzing the initial waves of Chinese immigration to the United States, the Chinese population in California had rapidly expanded within the span of just a few decades. Although initially drawn to the promise of fortune offered in the form of raw, mineral gold sitting within the earth for the taking, many Chinese immigrants eventually settled down in California as the Gold Rush came to a close. Some made their living in pursuits of washing and domestic service; others engaged in agriculture labor, seeing as labor for the maintenance of crops was in high demand by California ranchers at the time due to them having transcended the pastoral stage. But even with the intentional adaptation of leftover jobs by Chinese immigrants, who were trying to avoid being seen as competition in the job market, negative attitudes towards the Chinese population, especially those perceiving them as an alien group, began brewing regardless. By the late 1960s, The Los Angeles Star and the Los Angeles News only contributed to the growing resentment against the Chinese population in Los Angeles, by running editorials that insinuated the Chinese as inferior beings of poor morality, as well as denouncing Chinese immigration. In conjunction with these shifting attitudes towards the Chinese, racially motivated attacks against Chinese immigrants were on the rise, and on October 24, 1871, the Chinese Massacre of 1871 took place in Chinatown of Los Angeles, California. An estimated 17-20 Chinese immigrants were shot and/or hanged -- ten percent of the Chinese population had perished in the killings.

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Only a handful of men stood trial, and even fewer were convicted; all charges were overturned, no defendants were retried, and anti-Chinese sentiment only continued to grow in the following years. At this time, rampant anti-Chinese legislation was also sweeping through the nation, in the form of discriminatory policies that stripped Chinese immigrants of legal rights and protections. One such policy came in the form of the 1854 Supreme Court Case, People v. Hall, which ruled that the Chinese were disallowed from testifying in court against white citizens. As such, without a means of seeking justice through the legal system, the Chinese population became even more vulnerable to the growing violence and abuse that they faced. These attitudes towards the Chinese were only exacerbated by the fact that the dominant paradigm within the United States at the time was heavily based on dualist Black-White racial relations, leaving little room for the consideration of other racial groups, to which Asians, such as the Chinese, were no exception.

Bearing this particular racial dichotomy of the United States in mind, some might wonder where Asians fall in this realm of race that appears to be cleanly split between Blacks and Whites. Claire J. Kim’s racial triangulation theory presents the idea that Asian Americans do not exist on some side of the “color line” between Blacks and Whites, but rather, are placed in a multidimensional system of racial differentiation. In this system, there are two dimensions -- racial valorization and civic ostracism. Racial valorization is founded upon the idea of cultural and racial superiority, and reflects the sentiment that Asians, although both culturally and racially inferior to Whites, are still deemed superior to Blacks in these contexts. Civic ostracism, on the other hand, relates to the concepts of foreignness and inclusion, and how they are intertwined, within the United States.

Perceived as foreigners and aliens, Asians rank below both Whites and Blacks on the scale of racial belonging, which effectively excludes them from taking part in civic and political society. Thus, Asians are “triangulated” within this sphere of racial differentiation, on the basis of their relative positioning to Whites and Blacks within the two aforementioned dimensions. Where Asians stand on each of these two dimensions, correspond to two familiar stereotypes that Asians are categorized by: the hardworking “model minority” and the unbelonging “perpetual foreigner.” With regards to racial valorization, Asians have experienced a long history of being perceived as being diligent and reliable workers. After the conclusion of the Gold Rush, as Chinese immigrants sought to occupy unfilled labor niches, many found work with building the Central Pacific Railroad. President of the Central Pacific Railroad, Leland Stanford, noted how indispensable the Chinese were to the construction of the railroad, stating that it would be impossible to complete the project without them and the resources they provided in the form of their labor. He described the Chinese as “quiet, peaceable, industrious, economical -- ready and apt to learn…” (Saxton).

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