The Malleable Yet Undying Nature of the Yellow Peril
Racial stereotypes don't die; they don't even fade away. Though Asian Americans today have "achieved" model minority status in the eyes of the white majority in America by "pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps" through our supposedly quiet, dignified demeanor and gritty, "overachieving" work ethic, the terms of the racial discrimination we face remain the same today as they have since the first Asians began settling en masse in the United States more than a century and a half ago. At the root of this discrimination is the idea of a "Yellow Peril," which, in the words of John Dower is "the core imagery of apes, lesser men, primitives, children, madmen, and beings who possessed special powers" amidst a fear of invasion from the sleeping giant of Asia. Since its inception in the late 19th century, the idea of the Yellow Peril has colored the discourse regarding Asian Americans and has changed back and forth from overt, "racist hate," to endearing terms of what Frank Chin describes as "racist love." In times of war, competition or economic strife, Asian Americans are the evil enemy; in times of ease, Asian Americans are the model minority able to assimilate into American society. What remains the same is that the discrimination, whether overt or not, is always there.
The Yellow Peril first became a major issue in the United States in California in the 1870s when white working-class laborers, fearful of losing their jobs amidst an economic decline, discriminated against the "filthy yellow hordes" from Asia, leading to the national Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which not only prohibited immigration from China but forbade legal residents from becoming citizens. According to the famed orator of the time, Horace Greeley, "The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order."
This idea of an "Asian menace" was later applied to the Japanese, particularly after Japan's victory over a Western power, Russia, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 after it had faced more than a half-century of Western imperialism. According to John Dower, "the vision of the menace from the East was always more racial rather than national. It derived not from concern with any one country or people in particular, but from a vague and ominous sense of the vast, faceless, nameless yellow horde: the rising tide, indeed, of color." This feeling of impending doom from the East led to the 1917 Immigration Restriction Act and the National Origins Act of 1924-two acts that prevented nearly all Asian immigrants from legally entering the United States and prohibited immigrants already in the United States from attaining citizenship.
The height of a fear of the Yellow Peril happened immediately after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, leading...