EDITORIAL: What? There’s an Asian American history?

This week, The Princetonian, the newspaper of Princeton University, reported that the school has hired its first professor in Asian American history. Class begins in 2015.
The most newsworthy aspect to this story is that until now this Ivy League school didn’t offer Asian American history. Princeton is late to the party, but it is welcome news.

It’s always amazing what people don’t know about their own history. To young people especially, the past seems so long ago. But America’s past is so recent that it’s barely even considered the past yet. Ironically, our earliest history has Asian implications, considering Columbus thought he was in India when he “discovered” the place.

Filipinos arrived in small numbers in the 16th century, but the bulk of our Asian American history begins in the 19th century, when Chinese workers arrived, followed by Japanese. These were not easy times for our ancestors. Now, the U.S. Census Bureau puts Asian Americans as the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, and that group is ready to study its own history.

One benefit of studying the past is the impetus it can bring to put right what was wrong. This week, law students at the University of California, Davis, decided to do that by attempting to persuade the California Supreme Court to grant, posthumously, a license to practice law to one Hong Yeng Chang, an immigrant from China. In 1890, the California Supreme Court turned down Chang’s application, citing the federal Chinese Exclusion Act — which barred Chinese natives from obtaining U.S. citizenship — and a California law prohibiting noncitizens from practicing law.

“Admitting Mr. Chang would be a powerful symbol of our state’s repudiation of laws that singled out Chinese immigrants for discrimination,” said Gabriel “Jack” Chin, a professor at UC Davis School of Law and the student association’s adviser.

At least two other states have granted similar applications. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court admitted George Vashon to the practice of law. The same court denied Vashon’s application in 1847 because he was black. In 2001, the state of Washington Supreme Court admitted Takuji Yamashita after he was denied a license in 1902 because of his Japanese ancestry.

Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943.

According to The Princetonian, students are most interested in questions of identity, community, and sometimes politics. However, the new professor, Beth Lew-Williams, is more interested in teaching them how looking at a minority and often marginalized community offers a unique perspective on U.S. history.

“Adding Asians back into the traditional white-and-black history of America shifts the entire story,” she said. “That’s what I hope they experience.”

Lew-Williams said her course will explore the ways immigration law has shaped race relations in the United States and how Asians’ long history in America continues to influence racial categories and racial stereotypes today. She said students often possess no knowledge of the United States’ role in portraying Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners until they take her classes.

Americans — native born and immigrants — who’ve had to fight against discrimination based on their ethnicity are well served by a deep understanding of their own history. For some reason, immigrants in many cases don’t share enough of their past with their children and grandchildren, especially the hard times. They are focused on providing opportunity for future generations. In turn, once people begin to study the past, they are often amazed by the tribulations they discover that their parents and grandparents suffered through.

Knowledge is power. Studying their own history will equip students not only with a sense of gratitude, but also with the information they need to use their talents for the betterment of society. (end)

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