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.