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. Unfortunately, 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. While these points of instability and conflict greatly shaped Asian American experiences from the 1980s to the present, there is also an ongoing movement for change that connects communities beyond their age, ethnicity, gender identity, and class background.

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. Eventually, more families from the Indochina region, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, came to the United States as refugees. These numbers doubled every decade between the 1980s and 2000s. Over 1.3 million Vietnamese Americans now make up one of the largest foreign-born communities in the country.

While representing a majority of the refugees arriving in this time period, 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 moved beyond the fervor and energy of the Civil Rights Movement, 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.

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. In many ways, non-white communities experienced inequality across society and the economy. Often times, they were viewed as threats to the status quo of the country. The riots can be traced back to 1991, when a 25-year-old African American man named Rodney King got involved in a high-speed chase with the police. When King was stopped, the LAPD officers ordered him out of the car and beat him repeatedly while cops stood by. The violence was caught on camera, disturbing African Americans and other minorities across LA. After the officers were acquitted the following spring, the riots began. 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 named 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. Asian Americans became targets during the riots. Many Korean American-owned shops were looted, partially destroyed or burned down. At the same time, Asian Americans considered their complex role in the riots, as both victim and perpetrator. By holding prejudiced, racist beliefs about African Americans, they took part in shaping a context of violence. To begin to address and mend racial divides, communities need to work together to understand one another. In response to more recent injustices including the police killing of Michael Brown, Asian Americans have a major role to play in confronting the racism within their own communities and also standing in solidarity with others.

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

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 African slaves 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 in their spiritual and religious beliefs.

  • https://www.pewforum.org/2012/07/19/asian-americans-a-mosaic-of-faiths-overview/
  • https://www.pewforum.org/2017/07/26/demographic-portrait-of-muslim-americans/
  • http://inter.ifyc.org/asian-americans-unite-against-islamophobia
  • https://saalt.org/
  • Islamophobia in Central Texas

Islamophobia, or the widespread fear, hatred of or prejudice against Muslims, has impacted Muslims around the world.

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


  • History of oppression
  • Recent campaigns for justice
  • Include Smithsonian Learning Lab about Inter/sected: https://learninglab.si.edu/collections/inter-sected-lgbtq-asian-pacific-americans/CwNGBxML3THz3Tc7

Undocumented Asians

  • Lack of visibility in discussions about the undocumented
  • Movements for inclusion

Craft Activity

Letter to Your Future Self

Image Description: A poster displays two hands raised up to showcase solidarity, along with a slogan encouraging peaceful protest.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Craft Supplies & Tools

  • White paper
  • Construction paper
  • Crayons or markers
  • Glue
  • Scissors
  • Optional miscellaneous craft material - string, ribbons, glitter, etc.


  1. Think about what peace means to you. What do you imagine? Do any symbols come to mind?
  2. Pick a symbol for peace and draw it on a piece of paper, using crayons or markers.
  3. Add words that you associate with peace. Try to come up with a short slogan to include with your drawing.

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 Mathys Caouette - "untitled image" • Tristan Billet - "I randomly ended up at the Pride and it was amazing. A chance I had my camera! It was the first time I attended an event like this and the atmosphere was so joyful and festive. So much smiles on people’s faces in times where it is still harder to find some. Pride reminds us to show our true colours, to be true to ourselves and to others." • Katie Moum - "untitled image"