The Victimization of Asian Americans


Kristine-Gem Estrella[*]


The Asian American population continues to grow at a fast pace, but little is known about crimes against them. Statistics show that this group reports the lowest rate of victimization. However, they have a long history with discrimination and segregation. They have suffered from inequality since the late 1800’s through legal actions that have barred them from marriage, ownership, and citizenship as well as destructive societal reaction. This paper intends to reveal the degree of victimization for Asian Americans in the United States. The reputation for being a model minority has created a burden for this race. This label reflects a perspective where they are an unequal race to the majority, but are not considered disadvantaged enough in the eyes of minorities. A combination of all these factors has contributed to the underreporting and misunderstanding of Asian American victims.



Asians are becoming one of the fastest growing minorities groups in the United States (Espiritu, 2004). Between 1990 and 1999, the Asian and Pacific Islander population grew by forty-five percent. However, the dramatic increase of the Asian population was not always welcomed. When Asian immigrants arrived in the United States, the general public stigmatized them as being “submissive,” “unfair competitors,” “foreigners,” and “fungible” (Kang, 1993, p. 1930). They are one of the most misunderstood races when viewing them as victims for racially biased crimes. In comparison to other racial minorities, Asian Americans suffer a higher rate of hate crime.

In the United States, the extent of Asian victimization can be seen through history. Throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, several laws were passed to restrict and separate Asians from the other races by passing acts such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese Gentlemen Agreement 1908. The general public had their own attitudes and methods to deal with them by reacting with anti-Asian crimes towards individuals, businesses, and specific Asian groups.  The U.S. prides itself for the perceived equal opportunity among individuals to attain money, power, wealth, and move up the social ladder. However, this idea affected the treatment of this minority group by viewing them as cheap labor, but also a possible economic threat. This advancement opportunity was made virtually impossible for Asians to achieve because of the prevailing negative connotations associated with this race.

Anti-Asian Legal Actions

            Inequality between the races is deeply rooted in United States society. Throughout its history, several laws have been passed permitting the discrimination and segregation between the different races. For Asians, one of the first laws that were passed is the Anti-miscegenation law in 1861. This state level law prohibited marriage with Asians, especially with the Chinese/Mongolian race. However, the definition of non-whites was extremely blurred. Due to the broad interpretation of non-white, Asians did not have the same “racial umbrella” as blacks (Sohoni, 2007, p. 599). In the earlier stages of defining non-white Asians, there was a separation between Chinese and Japanese. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S., which facilitated the easy entry for Japanese people into the country to supply the demand of labor. Following this act, they created the Japanese Gentlemen Agreement of 1908. It informally stopped the immigration of Japanese people into the country, which allowed other Asian races to enter the states for cheap labor. The different categories of Asians were grouped together as more cases were brought to court. Eventually, the judges created two categories known as the Malays and Mongolians. Malays are the brown Asians that consist of Indians, Koreans, and Filipinos. Mongolians are the yellow Asians who were known as Chinese and Japanese (Ibid.). Following the anti-miscegenation laws, there were more legal actions withholding Asians from becoming equal citizens of the United States.

Asian Americans were not perceived as an equal race or color when fighting for their liberties. Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1866 established that all persons born in the United States of “every race and color…” (Sohoni, 2007, p. 600) are considered citizens, all of the courts followed the standard set by the Naturalization Act of 1875. The Naturalization Act stated “The provisions of this title shall apply aliens being free white persons, and to aliens of African nativity, and to persons of African descent” (as cited in Sohoni, 2007, p. 601). The direct phrase used in reference for blacks made it easier to exclude Asians from becoming U.S. citizens because Asians were not mentioned in the act.

There are cases that have illustrated their struggles like in In re Ah Yup (1978) where Ah Yup, a Chinese immigrant, filed for citizenship, but was denied because he was not white according to the Blumenbach’s categories of the Caucasian (white race), the Mongolians (yellow race), the Ethiopian or Negro (black race), the American (red race), and the Malays (brown race) (p. 603, 2007). In re Saito (1894) is a case where Saito, a Japanese male, fought for naturalization, but was denied because he was classified as a Mongolian and nor was he white or black. These two cases presented the issue with the term “white” used against them as a means to not grant them citizenship in fear of the potential problems with immigration (Sohoni, 2007). In the case of Ozawa v. United States (1922), Ozawa, a Japanese male, tried to separate himself from the Chinese race by arguing the Japanese skin color is frequently whiter, which makes him white, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected because Judge Sutherland found that Japanese is part of the Mongolian race and they were not of African descent (Ibid, 605). Filipinos encountered the same problem in the ruling of In re Rallos (1917). The court argued that even though they had the “right to declare their intention to apply for citizen” based on the Treaty of Paris 1898, it did not “overrule the prerequisite of whiteness” from the Naturalization Act of 1875 (Ibid). The only group excluded from this discrimination is the Asian Indians group. In United States v. Balsara (1910), Balsara was able to prove he is part of the white race because he was Parsee, which is a social class distinct from the lower class Hindu (Ibid, p. 606), yet the exclusion of the Asian Indian did not last after the February 1917 Act that banned immigration from Asia (Ibid.).   

These are cases where Asians have used their constitutional rights to fight for citizenship and naturalization, but were denied because they lacked a proper definition of Asian and the different types of Asians. Most of the rulings were based off the fear of increase immigration. By 1967, the U.S. Supreme court finally ruled the anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia (Ibid, p. 612). This case marked the end of laws discriminating Asians, but it did not stop nor fully expose the problems inherited with being a descendent.

Labels for Asian Immigrants

          The stereotypes attached to Asians Americans were derived from their ancestors. Asian immigrants were invited from overseas to help build the transcontinental stations during the 1800’s (Petrosino, 1999). Once the construction was over, many people were left jobless, especially those in living in the West. Unlike whites, they survived by picking up subservient jobs to make their ends meet like investing in laundry businesses. At this time, labor leader Denis Kearney persuaded others that the economic problems could be blamed on the Chinese (Ibid, p. 32). The infamous “Yellow Peril” (Ibid, p. 112) also emerged as a negative racial stereotype that viewed all Asians as a political, economic, and military threat to the “White race” (Kawai, 2005). 

          The “Yellow Peril” was propelled by the rumors that Asian immigrants are a great threat to the American identity of whites and western civilization (Kawai, 2005). The white race viewed them as distinctively different based on their culture and physical appearance. They were labeled as Orientals that would surmount the social and economic arena in the country (Fong, 2002). The fear for the potential overtaking by Asians prevented their future immigration and colonization of the pacific islands (i.e. Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and Philippines) (Lee, 1999). Not only were they considered a domestic problem, they were also viewed as an international threat due to the Japanese’s desire to become an imperial power (Kawai, 2005). The terminology of the “Yellow Peril” changed from representing all Asians to exclusively mean Japan (Ibid, 2005).

By the 1960’s, the term model minority was created to describe Asian Americans. This stereotype resulted in both negative and positive reactions by other races. It stirred up resentment from the races that were not considered a model (Kang, 1993; Rim, 2007). It devalued other racial minorities by making them appear as the “‘problem’ minorities” (Kawai, 2005). Also, it served as a hidden political agenda for “supporting a colorblind ideology and dividing racial minority groups” (Ibid, p. 114). The negative attitudes caused by the “Yellow Peril” fear and the juxtapose label of being the model minority made it difficult for Asian Americans to receive equal and fair treatment.

Asians as Victims

          The onset of the Yellow Peril and the stigmatization of the model minority label foreshadowed future problems that Asian Americans inherently face. Like other races, Asian Americans are victims of crimes based on their race. These neglectfully handled cases are found throughout the United States. The degree of their victimization varies from wide scale legally sanctioned discrimination and exclusion to individual cases of violent crimes.

Japanese Internment Camps

The internment is not simply an error of official overzealousness but a tragedy of democracy… Even within the history of the United States, the treatment of the internees pales in comparison with the enslavement of African Americas or the destruction of Native American nations (Robinson, 2001, p. 5).


One of the most historical events is the large scaled relocation of the Japanese during World War II. In a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt enacted the Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942. This executive order gave the military the right to relocate any or all persons who are “possible protection against espionage and against sabotage” to designated relocations camps (Parks, 2004, p. 576). Under the control of General DeWitt, approximately 110,000 Nikkei, people of Japanese descents, were sent to relocation camps. These camps were deemed as Japanese Internment Camps (Harth, 1993; Parks, 2004; Unrau, 1996).  Those who had at least one-eighth Japanese blood were forced to leave their friends, careers, and homes behind (Petrosino, 1999). Surprisingly, two thirds of the Nikkei are American citizens (Harth, 1993). All internees were processed through an assembly center nearby their home city and transferred to a nearby internment camp. Many of them had to supply their own transportation. They were relocated to the following cities: Poston, AZ, Gila River, AZ, Minidoka, ID, Heart Mountain, WY, Granada CO, Topaz, UT, Rohwer, AR, Jerome, AR, Tule Lake, CA, and Manzanar, CA (Parks, 2004, p. 30). The detainees who refused to take the two-part loyalty oath were transferred to the Tule Lake Segregation Center. Of these ten relocation camps, Manzanar was infamous for the incident that took place in late 1942.

Manzanar is the first Japanese internment camp created in 1942.  During its peak, it confined about 10,000 people (Rancourt, 1993). The living conditions in all of the camps were very depressing, oppressive, and extremely harsh. Guards were allowed to shoot on the spot if an internee came close to the fence. The event  that brought this camp into the light is the Manzanar riot. On December 6th 1942, there was a confrontation between an angry crowd and a couple of camp officials over a labor dispute. The lack of trust among the internee population and the confusion between the two groups ended in two evacuees dead, ten injured, and twenty-six “troublemakers” arrested (Harth, 1993; Parks, 2004).

          Some individuals attempted to avoid the internment camps by changing their identity like in Korematsu vs. United States (1942). This is  a significant case where the court upheld a law discriminating on a specific race based on strict scrutiny (Korematsu Day, 2011). In 1942, Fred Korematsu was a 22 year-old Japanese American citizen who refused to go into the internment camps along with his family members because he was an American citizen. He made some attempts to change his identity by changing his name, having minor plastic surgery on his eyes, and claiming he was not Japanese, but he was later arrested and sent to a Utah camp in May 1942 (La Ganga, 2011). In 1944, he appealed his case with the help of Northern California’s ACLU, but the judges argued that the “internment camps were not based on racism and the Army had proof Japanese residents were signaling the ships” (Ibid., p. 3). By 1982, a group of Nisei lawyers reopened Korematsu’s case where the federal judge invalidated his earlier conviction and found “the government’s evidence had “intentional falsehoods” about the security threat” (Korematsu Day, 2011, p. 1).

Japanese internment camps had a detrimental effect on Japanese Americans. First, it can be considered a form of imprisonment against one particular race. Despite the biased argument by the War Relocation Authority’s (WRA) of how it was never meant to be a “place of confinement” (Parks, 2004), the internees living behind the barbed wires became institutionalized because they felt the conditions in the camps were more bearable after the war (Harth, 1993). Within 48 hours after announcing the evacuation, all of these individuals were forcefully uprooted from their hard earned livelihood. These internees had their farmlands taken away from competing neighbors, storage units burglarized, savings liquidated, and their jobs were no longer available (Harth, 1993; Rancourt, 2003). After dismantling the camps in 1945, it was difficult for many Japanese to leave to find employment and affordable housing. Some of them were able to return home and retrieve their belongings, but most found their valuables gone. Secondly, it has been over 50 years and the higher courts have not reversed the ruling that the evacuation was justifiable (). The $20,000 allocated to each individual imprisoned in these camps did not sufficiently compensate the sacrifices they made and the conditions they lived in (Rancourt, 2003).   

Individual Cases of Victimization

Asian Americans individually suffer from victimization similar to other races by both the majority and minority races. The most significant case for this community is the death of Vincent Chen. This case illustrates the “systematic devaluating” of Asian Americans to a “real” American” (Asian Nation, 2012). In June of 1982, Chen was brutally murdered with a baseball bat by two white men outside a bar the night before his wedding day (Kang, 1993; Wu, 2010). The most compelling part about this case is how his identity was mistaken twice for being Asian and assumed to have been Japanese even though he was of Chinese descent (Kang, 1993; Wu, 2010). Also, the legal action taken against these two suspects, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, were relatively minor for this racially motivated crime. The prosecutors for this case did not show up in court to defend the unjustifiable death of Chen and each offender received $3,000 fine and three years of probation (Kang, 1993; Wu, 2010). There are several other cases in the following years revealing the degree of crimes motivated against Asians, especially in circumstances where a perpetrator justifies their actions based on the assumption that “you [Asians] all look alike” (Wu, 2010, p. 20).

There are recent cases that have illustrated the victimization of Asian Americans throughout the United States. In New York, three black teenagers were charged with the robbery of Jin Ton Yuan in an elevator with a pistol at his head in May 2009 (Chen, 2009). Later in June, two of the same teenagers, Cory Azore and Chris Levy, sought out an Asian to steal money. They dragged, choked, and beat to death David Kao in the backseat of his car and dumped his body (Ibid.). In both cases police confirmed they were targeted for their race, but the prosecutor did not want to charge them for a hate crime (Ibid.). In California, the anti-Asian sentiments are still present in the bay area. San Francisco has been having problems with violent offenses in particularly with elderly Asian immigrants (Yu, 2010). In 2010, two young adult black males brutally beat 59-year old Yu and his 27 year-old son while shopping in Oakland. The older Yu died from the beating and the 27 year-old suffered severe injuries. In this case, the prosecutor declined to file hate crime charges against them (KTVU, 2010; Yu, 2010). Asian American adults are not the only ones facing harassment and assault; their children are suffering too. In the Philadelphia school system, Asian American students are subject to name-calling and verbal threats.  It is so common that the “culture of violence against Asian immigrants” (Yu, 2010, p. 1) is an acceptable “part of life.”

Crime Statistics for Asian Americans

After more than a century of discrimination against non-white races, the U.S. government enacted the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 that required the Attorney General to report all hate crimes. It states:

Under the authority of section 534 of title 28, United States Code, the Attorney General shall acquire data, for each calendar year, about crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender and gender identity, [emphasis added] religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, including where appropriate the crimes of murder, non-negligent manslaughter; forcible rape; aggravated assault, simple assault, intimidation; arson; and destruction, damage or vandalism of property (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011a).


This act changed the reporting methods of crimes by defining the difference between hate crimes and other crimes. According to National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), there were approximately 12,135,210 Asians and Pacific Islanders that are twelve years old and older in 2010 (Truman, 2011). The 2010 Uniform Crime Report states Asian and Pacific Islanders comprised of 5.1% of all known racial biased hate crimes committed (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011b). However, they are most likely to underreport crimes compared to other races (Chen, 2009; Kang, 1993). Christina Chen claimed the reasons why these crimes are underrepresented are because victims are not comfortable with reporting their experiences with officers who are not bilingual, they fear problems with their immigration status, mistrust with local police, and the disregard of hate crimes and civil rights protections (2009). The crime rate is also affected by how law enforcement officials measure them. They fail to record hate crimes by misidentifying the crime or not identifying it as a racially motivated crime (2009). A prime example is the classification of Asian women rape victims.

Asian women are subject to victimization because of their Asian descent. Their reputation as an Asian woman to be a sexual object of desire becomes a burden when they are purposely sought out for sex because of their race. Jaemin Kim, a female Korean American journalist, reported “… Asian women in particular remain vulnerable” (Kim, 2009). They are more prone to rape victims based on their race, but reporting it as a hate crime is difficult because police officials fail to recognize that it can be racially motivated. A secretary from an L.A. police department said, “rapes were ‘not a hate crime’” (Ibid, p. 3). This situation in itself should be considered a hate motivated sex crime because the serial rapist specifically sought out for Korean women, but police authorities ignored the possibility (Ibid.).

The  entire Asian American community is affected. Erika Harrell claimed in her NCVS report that most anti-Asian crimes are done by strangers (Harrell, 2009). Interestingly, the offenders are predominantly African American in San Francisco. Similar to the non-Asian population, Asian males and youths between the ages of twelve through nineteen were more prone to victimization than females and those who are older (Yu, 2009). Also, Asian American children are more likely to be victimized by children from a different race than the older generation (Lawson & Henderson, 2009).


Asian Americans have come a long way from a history of discrimination and segregation that other racial minorities have also faced.  They were invited to help build the railroads, but were later seen as a threat against the well-being of the country for economic and political reasons by the government and the general public.  From the late 1800s to the mid 1900’s, several legal actions were created  to exclude Asian Americans from the same rights of whites and blacks. Law enforcement officials failed to  recognize racially motivated crimes until 1990. Even after the passing of the Hate Crime Statistics Act, anti-Asian crimes continue to be inappropriately handled by the lack of a proper definition and differentiation from other offenses.

This model minority category has been misunderstood, and because of this, past and present victimizations have been overlooked. Similarly to African Americans, Asian Americans suffer from discrimination and victimization too. The level of victimization is quite similar, yet most actions against them are disregarded because the focus of racism tends to be  between the black and white races. It is unfortunate that all the other minority races frequently treat Asian Americans differently because they are perceived to have an economic and educational advantage. However, whites are still the most economically advantage. The racial labels, slurs, and fear of being an economic threat still persist in current society. This racial group is wedged between being a contributing member of society and a threat to the well-being of other groups. They will continue to be trapped unless changes are made and the community raises the awareness that Asian Americans can be victims too.



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[*] Kristine-Gem Estrella is a graduate student in the Department of Criminal Justice at UNLV.  This is a revision of a paper she wrote for a graduate class.