Many Asians traveled to America during the California gold rush.

Asian-Americans have a long history in the United States, notes the Asia Society, but it has often been marred by discrimination, whether through government action or from the people Asian-Americans lived alongside in their day-to-day lives. This is particularly true of the periods when the country has been under extreme pressure, such as during the years between the Great Depression and World War II.


Like all Americans, Asian-Americans experienced employment difficulties in the poverty-stricken years of the Great Depression. Outside Chinatowns in major cities, Asian-Americans typically worked in low-paid, low-level jobs, but faced increasing pressure for these positions from white Americans laid off elsewhere. In some areas, white farmers actively campaigned against the employment of Asians, as in 1933 when whites in Wapato, Wash., called for local farmers to stop hiring Filipino farm workers.


Asian-American numbers were highest in the Pacific states, particularly in California. Filipinos, Japanese and Chinese came to work in various industries and on Californian farms. In large cities, entire areas became associated with specific immigrant groups, like San Francisco’s Chinatown which was home to many of the city’s 16,300-strong Chinese population in 1930.


Asian-Americans faced outright discrimination in the 1920s and 1930s. They were subject to strict immigration laws, including the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which prevented immigration by anyone born in a defined “Asiatic Barred Zone,” and the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which introduced a quota, meaning just 50 Filipinos could emigrate to the United States per year. During the Great Depression, many jobs and employment programs were only open to U.S. citizens. As Asian-Americans were barred from gaining U.S. citizenship, they were excluded from these opportunities.


The outbreak of World War II was a disaster for many Asian-Americans, particularly those who lived in the newly designated military areas of California, Washington and Oregon. Those of Japanese ancestry were deemed untrustworthy and forced to relocate to large internment camps. Typically located in isolated, inhospitable desert areas and ringed by barbed wire and armed guards, the camps were home to around 120,000 Japanese-Americans for more than four years. Although President Roosevelt rescinded his internment order in 1944, the final camp did not close until 1946.