Justice  /  Q&A

A New Theory of Race in America

How white-dominated racial power produces inter-ethnic group conflict.
Claire Jean Kim

RF: The legal case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins figures prominently in your discussion of how Asians came to be used as a wedge against Black advancement in the U.S. I’m not sure this is a case that many people are familiar with.

CJK: Yick Wo v. Hopkins 118 U.S. 356 (1886) is well known to constitutional-law students, but perhaps only to them. In this case, which addressed San Francisco’s legal persecution of Chinese immigrant laundrymen, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially neutral laws that are applied in a racially discriminatory way violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This was an important case for various reasons. It asserted a limit to what municipalities like San Francisco could do in their efforts to persecute and drive out Chinese immigrants. It also extended the protection of the Equal Protection Clause, originally conceived to extend legal equality to freed slaves, to a not-Black group, in this case the Chinese. And it initiated an important and enduring historical dynamic: There’s an overlooked passage in the majority opinion that shows Asian Americans being weaponized against Black people as early as 1886.

RF: In recent years, some mainstream critics like Jay Caspian Kang have questioned whether the category of “Asian American” — which, he points out, “includes everyone from well-educated Brahmin doctors from India to impoverished Hmong refugees” — has lost its conceptual coherence. You are careful in your book to distinguish between different groups of Asian Americans. For instance, the second part of your book looks at how Japanese immigrants, during World War II, “were intent first and foremost upon differentiating themselves from the Chinese … they imagined the latter as a buffer between themselves and Blackness, a means of dramatizing their own distance from the bottom.” Do you want to comment on the utility of “Asian American” as a broad conceptual category?

CJK: The scholars who inaugurated Asian American studies posed this question back in the 1960s. Given the diversity of peoples squeezed under it, the “Asian American” rubric has always been, and will always be, questionable. Most critical scholarship emphasizes the ways in which the rubric flattens and distorts the experiences of various Asian groups. Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World leans in the other direction, arguing that the category “Asian American” merits our continued attention precisely because it structures how society, the state, and the law perceive and treat persons of Asian descent, regardless of national origin, class, sexuality, gender, and more. As long as the Asian American category continues to figure in the imagination of the state and prominent social actors — and it does — then we need to understand how this category functions, and with what consequences.