Madeline Y. Hsu
The global political divides of the Cold War propelled the dismantling of Asian exclusion in ways that provided greater, if conditional, integration for Asian Americans, in a central aspect of the reworking of racial inequality in the United States after World War II. The forging of strategic alliances with Asian nations and peoples in that conflict mandated at least token gestures of greater acceptance and equity, in the form of changes to immigration and citizenship laws that had previously barred Asians as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.”1 During the Cold War, shared politics and economic considerations continued to trump racial difference as the United States sought leadership of the “free” capitalist world and competed with Soviet-led communism for the affiliation and cooperation of emerging, postcolonial Third World nations. U.S. courtship of once-scorned peoples required the end of Jim Crow systems of segregation through the repeal of discriminatory laws, although actual practices and institutions proved far more resistant to change. Politically and ideologically, culture and values came to dominate explanations for categories and inequalities once attributed to differences in biological race. Mainstream media and cultural productions celebrated America’s newfound embrace of its ethnic populations, even as the liberatory aspirations inflamed by World War II set in motion the civil rights movement and increasingly confrontational mobilizations for greater access and equality.
These contestations transformed the character of America as a multiracial democracy, with Asian Americans advancing more than any other racial group to become widely perceived as a “model minority” by the 1980s with the popularization of a racial trope first articulated during the 1960s. Asian American gains were attained in part through the diminishing of barriers in immigration, employment, residence, education, and miscegenation, but also because their successes affirmed U.S. claims regarding its multiracial democracy and because reforms of immigration law admitted growing numbers of Asians who had been screened for family connections, refugee status, and especially their capacity to contribute economically. The 1965 Immigration Act cemented these preferences for educated and skilled Asian workers, with employers assuming great powers as routes to immigration and permanent status. The United States became the chief beneficiary of “brain drain” from Asian countries. Geometric rates of Asian American population growth since 1965, disproportionately screened through this economic preference system, have sharply reduced the ranks of Asian Americans linked to the exclusion era and set them apart from Latino, black, and Native Americans who remain much more entrenched in the systems of inequality rooted in the era of sanctioned racial segregation.
Post-1945 immigration to the United States differed fairly dramatically from America’s earlier 20th- and 19th-century immigration patterns, most notably in the dramatic rise in numbers of immigrants from Asia. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government took steps to bar immigration from Asia. The establishment of the national origins quota system in the 1924 Immigration Act narrowed the entryway for eastern and central Europeans, making western Europe the dominant source of immigrants. These policies shaped the racial and ethnic profile of the American population before 1945. Signs of change began to occur during and after World War II. The recruitment of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico led to an influx of Mexicans, and the repeal of Asian exclusion laws opened the door for Asian immigrants. Responding to complex international politics during the Cold War, the United States also formulated a series of refugee policies, admitting refugees from Europe, the western hemisphere, and later Southeast Asia. The movement of people to the United States increased drastically after 1965, when immigration reform ended the national origins quota system. The intricate and intriguing history of U.S. immigration after 1945 thus demonstrates how the United States related to a fast-changing world, its less restrictive immigration policies increasing the fluidity of the American population, with a substantial impact on American identity and domestic policy.
Racism and xenophobia, but also resilience and community building, characterize the return of thousands of Japanese Americans, or Nikkei, to the West Coast after World War II. Although the specific histories of different regions shaped the resettlement experiences for Japanese Americans, Los Angeles provides an instructive case study. For generations, the City of Angels has been home to one of the nation’s largest and most diverse Nikkei communities and the ways in which Japanese Americans rebuilt their lives and institutions resonate with the resettlement experience elsewhere.
Before World War II, greater Los Angeles was home to a vibrant Japanese American population. First generation immigrants, or Issei, and their American-born children, the Nisei, forged dynamic social, economic, cultural, and spiritual institutions out of various racial exclusions. World War II uprooted the community as Japanese Americans left behind their farms, businesses, and homes. In the best instances, they were able to entrust their property to neighbors or other sympathetic individuals. More often, the uncertainty of their future led Japanese Americans to sell off their property, far below the market price. Upon the war’s end, thousands of Japanese Americans returned to Los Angeles, often to financial ruin.
Upon their arrival in the Los Angeles area, Japanese Americans continued to face deep-seated prejudice, all the more accentuated by an overall dearth of housing. Without a place to live, they sought refuge in communal hostels set up in pre-war institutions that survived the war such as a variety of Christian and Buddhist churches. Meanwhile, others found housing in temporary trailer camps set up by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), and later administered by the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA), in areas such as Burbank, Sun Valley, Hawthorne, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. Although some local religious groups and others welcomed the returnees, white homeowners, who viewed the settlement of Japanese Americans as a threat to their property values, often mobilized to protest the construction of these camps. The last of these camps closed in 1956, demonstrating the hardship some Japanese Americans still faced in integrating back into society. Even when the returnees were able to leave the camps, they still faced racially restrictive housing covenants and, when those practices were ruled unconstitutional, exclusionary lending. Although new suburban enclaves of Japanese Americans eventually developed in areas such as Gardena, West Los Angeles, and Pacoima by the 1960s, the pathway to those destinations was far from easy. Ultimately, the resettlement of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles after their mass incarceration during World War II took place within the intertwined contexts of lingering anti-Japanese racism, Cold War politics, and the suburbanization of Southern California.
Little Saigon is the preferred name of Vietnamese refugee communities throughout the world. This article focuses primarily on the largest such community, in Orange County, California. This suburban ethnic enclave is home to the largest concentration of overseas Vietnamese, nearly 200,000, or 10 percent of the Vietnamese American population. Because of its size, location, and demographics, Little Saigon is also home to some of the most influential intellectuals, entertainers, businesspeople, and politicians in the Vietnamese diaspora, many of whom are invested in constructing Little Saigon as a transnational oppositional party to the government of Vietnam. Unlike traditional immigrant ethnic enclaves, Little Saigon is a refugee community whose formation and development emerged in large part from America’s efforts to atone for its epic defeat in Vietnam by at least sparing some of its wartime allies a life under communism. Much of Little Saigon’s cultural politics revolve around this narrative of rescue, although the number guilt-ridden Americans grows smaller and more conservative, while the loyalists of the pre-1975 Saigon regime struggle to instill in the younger generation of Vietnamese an appreciation of their refugee roots.