April 30, 2024

A Reissue of The Wall Street Journal Article Titled

Some Friendly Advice for Vietnam Refugees

Transcription by Sharon Chan

The following is an article written by William Gee Wong which was first published in The Wall Street Journal on May 13, 1975.

William Wong has given us permission to reuse this article. It is used here for noncommercial educational purposes.


Some Friendly Advice for Vietnam Refugees

By William Wong

Once again, America is showing signs of schizophrenia, it can’t seem to decide what kind of country it wants to be. On the one hand, it desperately wants to be humanitarian – because legend has it that America has always welcomed, throughout its history, people of various colors and religions from all over the world. Isn’t this the country, after all, that has beseeched other nations in “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . “?

On the other hand, it can’t seem to help itself from being mean and nasty. The latest sign of America’s mean streak is the racial hatred that has surfaced against the incoming Vietnamese refugees.

A California Congressman reports that some of his constituents are complaining that “Damn it, we have too many Orientals already.” A sign in Arkansas greets refugees, “Gooks, go home,” and there was even talk there of killing the first refugee off the plane. Other elected representatives and their staffs in Washington, D.C., reportedly joke about Vietnamese refugees “making food bookends, because they’re so small.” A California group has filed suit in San Francisco Federal Court, seeking to block the refugees from entering the U.S. until “an environmental impact statement“ is filed.

There are indications that saner and more sensitive forces in America are trying to drown out the racist outbursts. But such ugliness doesn’t disappear the way a headache might after taking a couple of aspirins. Indeed, racism continues to be a malignant tumor that refuses to be excised from the American body-politic.

To many Asian-Americans, who have more reason than other Americans to shudder at the “too many Orientals” type of statements, the racism against the Vietnamese refugees isn’t all that surprising—and was even predictable. That’s because Asian-Americans especially remember that American battle forces in Vietnam were led by such giants as Gen. William Westmoreland, who oncedeclared that the Oriental “doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.” The general continued “Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient . . . life is not important.”

Asian-Americans also know how their ancestors and elders were treated when they first came to this country up to seven generations’ ago. They also know that, simply because of skin color and physiognomy, they’re never really free from race prejudice of other Americans. They know too that many other American’s still don’t consider them “Americans” – as though the term were synonymous with “white.”

The history of the treatment of Asians in America has been fraught with hatred, racism, violence, ugliness. From almost the very beginning when sizable numbers of Chinese came to America in the 1850’s they were vilified and despised. White mobs rioted against them, killing scores at a time. Restrictive legislation such as the foreign miners’ tax was aimed almost exclusively at the Chinese. Indeed, today’s Chinatowns have their roots in the rampant racism of the past, as Chinese were driven into the cities where they found refuge and companionship among their own. Anti-Chinese hostility culminated in the first national law restricting immigration by race. It, too was aimed exclusively at the Chinese. That was 1882.

Other anti-Chinese laws, particularly at the local and state levels, restricted their freedom and violated their civil rights – laws prohibiting them from testifying against whites, laws barring them from marrying whites, laws unfairly taxing their businesses, laws making it impossible for them to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Happily, most of these laws have been repealed, but the racism that germinated such laws hasn’t yet been eradicated.

The Japanese-American experience hasn’t been much prettier. The most startling episode, of course, was the “relocation” of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast during World War II. Not only were their civil rights violated, they were also stripped of their assets and have never been fully compensated for their losses. The anti-Japanese hatred in California following World War II drove out many law-abiding Japanese-Americans to other parts of the U.S. – or to Japan. “I left California with bad memories,” Gary Sone, chief bacteriologist of an Ohio hospital, once told me. “There are a lot of Niseis (second-generation Japanese-Americans) like me, who don’t want to go back there, whose children don’t want to go back there.” Mr. Sone was born in California – and he fought for America during World War II.

Many Japanese-Americans also wonder why there were never any “relocation” camps for German-Americans or Italian-Americans during this period. It’s not suggested here, of course, that such camps should have been established. But the fact that there were Japanese-American camps and no others have struck many Asian-Americans as a peculiarly racist act against Asian-Americans.

The physically violent manifestations of racism against Asian-Americans are largely a thing of the past. Immigration laws have been greatly liberalized to do away with inherently discriminatory aspects, so that in the past decade, thousands of Asians have settled in this country. Asian-Americans have worked their way into many different occupational fields, some achieving distinction. Their relatively high educational attainments, on the whole, are a testimony to their determination – and to America’s increased tolerance. Times indeed are better, but subtle forms of anti-Asian feelings still persist – the sum of which gives man Asian-Americans the feeling that they are still looked on as foreigners.

The competition for jobs has been an historic justification for anti-Asian sentiments in America. For example, organizedall-white labor, fearing competition form the Chinese for their jobs, was an influential force in getting the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law passed. The purpose of a number of California and San Francisco laws was to drive the Chinese out of occupations in which whites feared competition.

Today, the fear of job competition is once again shouted in connection with the incoming Vietnamese refugees. No doubt, in this recessionary period, many who are unemployed are jittery, fearful, and depressed. But many Asian-Americans suspect that such fears may be a check for racist sentiment. As David Ushie, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League says, “So often this nation justifies racist actions by the state of the economy.”

Hopefully, public anti-refugee statements will subside. But I would caution these newest immigrants to be wary and skeptical. Anti-Asian racism is as American, as, well apple pie – and chop suey.

Mr. Wong is a member of the Journal’s San Francisco bureau.