Historical Snapshots: Asian America Asian American Resource Center

Who are Asian Americans?

Do you like listening to pop music? Do you spend a lot of time on the internet? Bruno Mars is one of the most successful singer-songwriters today. Jerry Young co-founded the internet company, Yahoo. They are both Asian Americans. Today, Asian Americans are recognized in a variety of fields; arts and entertainment, politics, medical, academic, business, and many more. About 21 million Asian Americans have their roots in more than 20 countries in Asia.

Just like there are all kinds of Asian Americans, there is an even wider variety of stories. No two stories are alike but each equally important. As we learn more about our history, more stories appear.

This 3-series program is a snapshot of stories from groups in the three major waves of immigration in Asian American history. Meet different Asian and Asian American groups throughout history and learn their immigration story.

Part 3 is about today's wave of diverse Asian American experiences from the 1980s to the present.

Image Description: Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, its Asian Pacific American Advisory Committee and other special guests gather to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in 2018.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Part 3

Today's Wave (1980s-Present)

Recommended Ages: Middle School. Duration of Session: 1 hour.

The Fight Continues

While the laws and events you learned about in Lesson 2 set the precedent for Asian Americans to advocate for their rights, alongside other minorities and new groups of immigrants, the shared struggle for stability and equal opportunity was far from over. Violence affected the Asian American community in the years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Refugees from Vietnam and the surrounding Indochina region arrived in the midst of war. In 1982, the murder of Vincent Chin caused an uproar, and during the following decade, riots in Los Angeles also reflected racial hostility. More recently, Muslim Americans have suffered from hate crimes and racial profiling, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Asian Americans also face pressures from the Model Minority Myth, which not only pits them against other minority groups but also against each other. While these points of instability and conflict greatly shaped Asian American experiences from the 1980s to the present, today’s generation, like generations before, are coming together in solidarity to reimagine what it means to be Asian American.

Video Source: "The Struggles Of Being An Asian America" by Refinery29, May 31, 2018.

Background Image Description: Asian Americans participate in a protest against police brutality in New York in 2014.

Background Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Refugees from Southeast Asia

The devastating, years-long Vietnam War brought new communities to the country, in the context of terror, destruction and violence. Following the end of the war in 1975, the U.S. sponsored the evacuation of about 125,000 Vietnamese refugees. They mainly came from rural backgrounds. Many of them arrived to the U.S. by boat, reaching the farms of California. In 1975, Camp Pendleton became a "tent city" for these families, in need of a temporary home. In the camp, Vietnamese refugees pondered over the lives they were forced to leave behind and what their futures might look like in a new place.

Over 1.3 million Vietnamese Americans make up one of the largest foreign-born communities in the country. Vietnamese communities were not alone in facing economic hardship and discrimination in their new lives. Their struggle is connected to a long pattern of Asians seeking to improve their livelihoods in the United States. During the turbulent era of the 1970s and 1980s, Vietnamese refugees were joined by others from Southeast Asia, including Cambodians, Laotians and the Hmongs, an ethnic group with its origins in China. Many families settled in California, making contributions to the state's history.

California is still the state with the largest Southeast Asian population, but it is important to note that this diverse community also settled into Texas in great numbers. They were drawn to economic opportunity in coastal areas and cities like Dallas, Houston, and Austin. By 1981, Texas had the second largest number of Vietnamese. Communities such as Seadrift experienced racial prejudice and outright hostility. However, they did not give up on their dreams, nor did they forget their cultural values.

Thousands of Vietnamese refugees settled in Austin, assisted by groups such as Caritas. To learn more about their lives, visit this link, published by the Austin History Center.

Image Description: The first group of Vietnamese refugees reach Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Orange County, California in 1975.

Image Source: Courtesy of Jim Mosby via Flickr.

Racial Violence

As communities around the country settled into a post Civil Right Movement era, several events exposed the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that persisted into the turn of the century. In 1982, the murder of a 27-year-old Chinese American man named Vincent Chin at the hands of two white men sent shockwaves throughout the country. The murderers were autoworkers in Detroit, angered by the shift of jobs from the Motor City to Japan. When they saw Chin, mistaking him to be Japanese, they took out their anger and beat him to death. They did not spend any time in prison, and their light sentencing pushed many Asian Americans to form organizations to defend and advocate for themselves. Helen Zia is a writer and activist who was deeply involved in the Chin case. She used her platform as a journalist to spread the word, bringing people together in demanding justice. She is one of the founders of the American Citizens for Justice, which is just one example of the community activism and mobilization that gained power and national recognition in the 1980s.

Video Source: "Annie Tan and Helen Zia talk about how important Vincent Chin is to Asian Americans" by CAAM Channel, May 11, 2020.

Nearing the end of the 20th century, the city of Los Angeles was torn apart by widespread instability and conflict. The LA Riots of 1992 made it apparent that racial divisions were not resolved during the Civil Rights Movement. The catalyst for the 1992 riots occurred when a 25-year-old Black man named Rodney King was beaten by LAPD police officers after a high speed chase. The violent beating was caught on camera, disturbing the Black Americans and other minorities across LA. After the officers were acquitted the following spring, the riots began. Los Angeles residents set fire to businesses and took to the streets to make their anger known.

Weeks before the acquittal, another instance of violence tore Angelenos apart. Soon Ja Du, a Korean American shop owner, fatally shot a 15-year-old African American girl, Latasha Harlins. Du accused Harlins of trying to steal orange juice. However, it was discovered that she was holding onto the money in her hands, prepared to pay for it, when she was killed. Like Chin's murderers and the officers in the King case, Du did not spend any time in jail. During the 1992 Riots, Harlins’ name was shouted alongside King’s. During the LA Riots of 1992, many Korean American-owned shops in downtown Los Angeles were looted, partially destroyed, or burned down, impacting the Korean-American community in Los Angeles, both financially and emotionally. Asian Americans had complex role in the riots, as both victim and perpetrator. By fostering racial biases and the model minority myth Asian Americans perpetuated Anti –Blackness within the community. To address and mend racial divides, communities have started to work together to understand one another. In response to more recent injustices including the police killing of George Floyd, Asian Americans across the country have stepped up in confronting the racism within their own communities and also standing in solidarity with the Black community.

Learn more about the LA Riots and the complex relationship between Korean and Black Americans by watching this episode of a relevant documentary, starting at 15:20. The full documentary is available on PBS.

Image Description: In the aftermath of the riots in Los Angeles, sparked by police brutality against Rodney King, buildings are somewhat or entirely destroyed in neighborhoods across the city.

Image Source: Courtesy of Mick Taylor via Flickr.

Muslim Americans

Islam has an intricate history in the United States, tracing back several centuries. It is estimated that around 10 to 15 percent of the Africans enslaved and forcibly brought to the U.S. were Muslim. Since that point, Islam has continued to grow in the spotlight of prominent leaders like Muhammad Ali. Muslim Americans represent a large, ethnically diverse community, which thousands of Asian Americans are part of.

Asians Americans vary greatly in their spiritual and religious beliefs, from following non-Abrahamic and Abrahamic faiths to not holding any particular affiliation. While just about 4% of Asian Americans are Muslim, almost 30% of all Muslims Americans come from an Asian background. The majority of these Muslims are U.S. citizens, either by birth or naturalization. Even among those who are foreign-born and immigrated to the country, most are citizens. This means that Muslim Americans have a collective voice that can influence government decisions on national, statewide and local levels, and they can voice their opinions through civic engagement like voting and holding public office. In 2018, U.S. Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar made history as the first Muslim women in Congress.

Image Description: While some may hold the stereotype that most Muslims are Arab or come from the Middle East, it is more than evident that Muslim Americans come from around the world, representing many ethnicities.

Image Source: Pew Research Center

Although Asian American Muslims continue to trailblaze in different fields like comedian Hasan Minhaj, even gaining representation in comics like superhero Kamala Khan, they still experience discrimination. Their freedom to pursue happiness and practice their religion is often threatened. Islamophobia, the widespread fear, hatred of or prejudice against Muslims, is found all over the world, including Central Texas. Last year, a man tried to set fire to a mosque in North Austin. However, organizations such as South Asian Americans Leading Together are working to build a safer, more inclusive future. All Asian Americans, and all Americans, regardless of their faith, can educate themselves and their communities.

Video Source: "American Muslims on what Muhammad Ali meant to them" by Quartz, June 9, 2016.

Image Description: The Islamic Center of America is a mosque located in Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of the largest Muslim American populations in the country.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


Just as Asian Americans come from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, they also vary in their gender identity, self-expression, and sexual orientation. They have participated in the struggle for marriage equality and other freedoms, tracing back to the Gay Rights Movement of the 20th century. This is an ongoing struggle, as those who identify in the LGBTQIA community around the country face violence and prejudice simply for existing as themselves. The fear of social backlash still keeps many from coming out to their families and freely leading their lives.

Several well-known organizations, including AAPI Data and GLSEN, research and collect data about the experiences of LGBTQIA Asian Americans. Their findings shape a broad understanding of the resources needed to improve their quality of life. For example, GLSEN found that at least 2 out of every 5 LGBTQIA Asian American students experience both anti-LGBTQIA and racist harassment at school. In addition to hate crimes and discrimination, other issues confronting this group include access to quality healthcare, economic opportunity and higher education.

Despite the hardships they face, LGBTQAI Asian Americans find ways to share their stories, uplift their own voices and connect with each other and allies. Prominent figures such as comedian Margaret Cho, poet Ocean Vuong and Helen Zia advocate for the community. Programs like the “Queer Check-Ins" exhibition by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center continue to provide a platform for these voices. Last year, the Asian American Resource Center held a photography exhibition entitled “Inter/sected,” which celebrated the intersected identities of Queer Asian Pacific Americans. Explore that exhibit here.

Video Source: “We’re Asians, Gay & Proud: The Story Behind the Photo” by NBC News, June 6, 2018.

Image Description: La’arni is pictured for the “Inter/sected” exhibit at the Asian American Resource Center, which was on display from July 5 to September 22, 2019.

Image Source: Ben Aqua

Undocumented Asians

Finally, another group of Asian Americans that is often overlooked but is increasingly important to highlight is the undocumented. While the common misconception may be that most undocumented people are from Latin American countries, the reality is that 1.7 million Asians represent the fastest growing undocumented racial group in the country. This means that 1 out of every 7 Asian immigrants is undocumented. One of the most high-profiled undocumented individuals in the U.S. is a gay Filipino American and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Jose Vargas. These individuals and their families leave their countries for a variety of reasons, driven by economic opportunity and quality of living.

Most undocumented Asians hail from four countries: India, China, the Philippines and Korea. Much like the rest of the Asian American community, undocumented Asians are ethnically and religiously diverse, and each country has its own set of complex factors leading to this migration. In 2017, AAPI Data found that the states with the highest population of undocumented Asians is California, followed by New York and Texas. Regardless of where they live, their ethnicity, age and gender, they all share a struggle to pursue their dreams.

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an immigration policy that allows undocumented individuals, who were brought to the U.S. as children, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action that allows them to continue to stay in the country for that duration with the potential of obtaining a work permit. Those with DACA are often called “dreamers.” The inspiration for the DREAM Act back in 2001 was an undocumented Asian American student named Tereza Lee. However, despite their contributions and aspirations, there is still no path to citizenship that would enable them to live freely and without fear of deportation. While they contribute to the economy and society in general, they are not given basic legal protections and confront obstacles in obtaining education or employment.

When looking at the issue of undocumented immigrants and how they are treated, there is a longer history at work. As explored in Lessons 1 and 2, immigration has not been an easy process for many. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Immigration Act of 1924, there have been bans or caps on entire populations of people from entering the country. Today, immigrant children are being separated from their families. Asian Americans will continue to have a role in the fight for a more free and just world.

To learn more about undocumented Asians, listen to this podcast.

Image Description: At a rally for DACA in San Francisco, a protester holds a banner representing ASPIRE, the first Pan-Asian undocumented youth group in the country.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

At Home Activity

Letter to Your Future Self

Now that you have learned about where Asian Americans have come from, tracing back to a turbulent and tumultuous history to today, this activity encourages you to think about yourself. No matter what your path has been, think about where you are now, where would like to go, what is most important to you and why. Write a letter to your future self with these questions in mind.

Craft Supplies & Tools

  • Paper
  • Pen/Pencil
  • Envelope
  • OR: Computer/Laptop


  1. Sit down and think about what’s on your mind, specifically in the present moment.
  2. Decide how long into the future you would like to receive this future letter – it can be as short as a month from now, as long as a year from now or longer.
  3. Grab a pen/pencil and paper if you want to handwrite the letter. If you would prefer to type it out, go to https://www.futureme.org/.
  4. Start writing as if you are talking to a friend, but really the letter is addressed to your future self. What would you like them to know, or to remember, about your life experiences?
  5. Write to your heart’s content.
  6. Place your letter in an envelope, or submit it online.

Thank You for Tuning In!

If you'd like to go back and learn more, revisit the series here.

We'd love to hear your feedback!


Created with images by Andy Feliciotti - "Magnolia flowers blooms in Washington D.C." • Kelly Sikkema - "The Lost Art of Writing"