Yellow Peril Reinfects America

April 7, 1989 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 7, 1989

The House is expected to vote this month on Rep. John Bryant’s Foreign Ownership Disclosure Act, which would require foreign investors with a “significant interest” in any business or property to register with the U.S. government.

The growing support for such legislation, which already has passed the House twice, parallels the growth of Japanese companies as significant buyers of American properties alongside traditional investors from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands. Yet discussion of foreign interest always focuses on Japan, which is only the third‐​largest foreign investor in the U.S., behind Britain and Canada. Could it be that the idea of British and Canadian investors owning American buildings just doesn’t frighten Americans because… well, because they’re white?

It wouldn’t be the first time. Racism directed against Asians and Asian‐​Americans has a long history in this country. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act made the Chinese the first nationality specifically banned from immigrating to this country. It worked. Chinese immigration fell from some 30,000 that year to less than 1,000. Labor leader Samuel Gompers argued, “The superior whites had to exclude the inferior Asiatics, by law, or, if necessary, by force of arms.”

From 1854 to 1874, a California law prevented Chinese from testifying in court against white men. The 1879 California constitution denied suffrage to all “natives of China, idiots, and insane persons.”

Some harassment was more subtle. For instance, as economist Thomas Sowell points out in “Ethnic America”: “License fees in nineteenth‐​century San Francisco were higher for laundries that did not deliver by horse‐​and‐​buggy, and it was made a misdemeanor to carry baskets suspended on a pole across the shoulder‐​the way the Chinese delivered.”

U.S. Hostility Turns to Japan
After the turn of the century, the rising sun of Japan became the focus of American hostility. During World War II, the U.S. engaged in a massive propaganda campaign against Japan. As historian John Dower demonstrates in “War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War,” the enemy in Europe was the madman Hitler, and the enemy in Asia was “the Japs.”

The most egregious example of anti‐​Japanese racism, of course, was Executive Order 9066 by which President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered more than 110,000 of Japanese ancestry interned in 10 camps. Though there was never a single instance of sabotage or disloyalty by a Japanese‐​American, the incarceration was upheld by the Supreme Court and endorsed by such opinion‐​molders as the Los Angeles Times, which editorialized: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is born‐​so a Japanese‐​American, born of Japanese parents, grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.”

After the war such hostilities seemed to fade. Japan became a staunch American ally and trading partner, and Asian‐​Americans prospered here. By 1969, Japanese‐​American and Chinese‐​American family incomes were, respectively, 128% and 109% of the incomes of white families.

Perhaps they prospered too much. By the 1970s there was a revival of anti‐​Asian prejudice touched off by several factors, including the influx of Indochinese refugees after the Vietnam War, the academic success of Vietnamese‐​American students a few years later, and a feeling of U.S. economic decline in the face of the success of the Japanese and Korean economies.

The resurgence of protectionism has often been tinged with racism. In 1980, presidential candidate John Connally warned the Japanese they had “better be prepared to sit on the docks of Yokohama in your little Datsuns and your little Toyotas while you stare at your own little television sets and eat your mandarin oranges, because we’ve had all we’re going to take!” Two years later, Walter Mondale was echoing Connally: “We’ve been running up the white flag, when we should be running up the American flag!… What do we want our kids to do? Sweep up around Japanese computers?” Around the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, former Sen. Howard Baker pointed out “two facts”: “First, we’re still at war with Japan. Second, we’re losing.”

The recent hysteria over foreign investment in the U.S. has an even clearer racist aspect. Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad satirized former President Reagan’s “Morning in America” theme by showing the White House surrounded by skyscrapers topped by Japanese flags. A TV ad for presidential candidate Michael Dukakis about the dangers of foreign investment featured a Japanese flag. Martin and Susan Tolchin’s book “Buying Into America” contains 15 index references to Japanese investment and a total of one to British, Canadian and Dutch investment.

U.S. liberals frequently accuse conservatives of racism or racial insensitivity. Evidence for such a charge might be found in Sen. Jesse Helms’s (R., N.C.) comments during last year’s debate over providing compensation to the Japanese‐​Americans who has been incarcerated in the World War II camps. Mr. Helms suggested such compensation be considered only when the Japanese government compensated the victims of Pearl Harbor‐​clearly implying Japanese‐​Americans bore some sort of racial guilt for the misdeeds of the Japanese government.

But there’s at least as much anti‐​Asian prejudice on the left as on the right: Witness Messrs. Mondale, Dukakis, and Conrad. Writing in the Nation, Gore Vidal warns we are entering an era in which “the long‐​feared Asiatic colossus takes its turn as a world leader” and calls for a U.S.-Soviet alliance in order to have “an opportunity to survive, economically, in a highly centralized Asiatic world.”

Perhaps the most alarming example of the new racism — because of the stature and sobriety of both author and publication — was the late Theodore H. White’s 1985 New York Times Magazine article, “The Danger from Japan.” Mr. White warned that the Japanese were seeking to create another “East Asia Co‐​prosperity Sphere”-this time by their “martial” trade policies, and that they would do well to “remember the course that ran from Pearl Harbor to the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.”

Along with the resurgence of Asian‐​bashing by pundits and politicians has come an increase in reports of physical Asian‐​bashing. The Justice Department says incidents of violence against Asians jumped 62% between 1985 and 1986, accounting for 50% of all racial incidents in Los Angeles and 29% in Boston. Much hostility against Asian entrepreneurs has developed in black communities.

In 1982, two unemployed auto workers followed a young Chinese‐​American man down a Detroit street and beat him to death with a baseball bat‐​because they thought he was Japanese and thus somehow responsible for their unemployment. A judge at the original sentencing, noting the stress that Japanese imports had caused the men, gave them each three years’ probation and a approximate $3,700 fine.

Like anti‐​Semitism, much of the prejudice against Asian‐​Americans is based on resentment of the academic and economic success of the group. Rather than admire or emulate the characteristics — hard work, self‐​discipline, stable families, respect for education — that have made Jews and Asians so successful in America, some Americans convince themselves the alien groups must have somehow “cheated” and deserve to be punished.

This resentment seems to have motivated Patrick Purdy, whose jealousy of the success of Asian immigrants led him to open fire in a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard, killing five Asian‐​American children. It was elucidated in a series of “Doonesbury” cartoons last year, in which neighbors complained to the parents of an Asian‐​American student that teaching her “the value of discipline, hard work, and respect for elders” gave her an unfair advantage.

In Search of a New Enemy
Besides the costs of protectionism and the ugliness of racism, one more aspect of anti‐​Asian prejudice is even more ominous. Various Western leaders have taken to declaring the Cold War over. Should events justify that optimistic prediction, there is a possibility Americans will seek a new national adversary. Why? First, because throughout history people have seemed to need an enemy. And second, because at least some American interest groups — possibly including the federal government itself‐​benefit from the existence of a national enemy. As Thomas Paine wrote in “The Rights of Man,” governments do not raise taxes to fight wars, they fight wars to raise taxes.

Who might be America’s new enemy? Iran, Libya, South Africa, and Nicaragua might all qualify as devil figures, but none poses a plausible threat to the U.S. It seems entirely likely that those who thrive on fighting enemies will conjure up a new Yellow Peril. Already Japan’s eagerness to sell us quality products at good prices is described in military terms: “aggressive” investors, an “invasion” of Toyotas, “an economic Pearl Harbor.” Jack Anderson quotes “some strategists” who “fear World War III is an economic war, which we are losing.”

Home‐​grown racism is bad enough. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into a race war.

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