Asian-Americans and the 1964 Civil Rights Act


On the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, let’s remember that it protected not just African-Americans. The legislation, enacted by Congress on July 2 of that year, broadly outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin.

This was altogether fitting and proper, for racial prejudice has extended beyond the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow that African-Americans experienced.

Asian-Americans, for instance, have also suffered.

In the late 19th century, Chinese-Americans in California and elsewhere in the West faced discrimination in the workplace and in schools and the housing market. And they often had to fend off racist attacks.

Japanese and Filipino immigrants endured similar maltreatment upon their arrival.

And during World War II, President Roosevelt incarcerated more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps although they posed no national security threat.

Shortly after 9/11, South Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans became fused together as public enemy number one and faced unprecedented levels of deportation and surveillance, as well as discrimination and violence in the workplace, schools and even their own homes.

Today, Asian-Americans, with a population [in the US]of more than 18 million, still face stereotypes and are under suspicion as national security risks.

And the doors aren’t as open as they used to be.

In the 1960s, Asian-Americans made huge strides in admissions to the University of California, for instance, after they were included in affirmative action plans. While many Asian-Americans can now attend college without the help of affirmative action programs, others cannot. For many African-American, Latino and Southeast Asian students, including Cambodians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Hmong and Laotians, the hope of going to college is more distant than ever.

The job market is also biased. Once hired, Asian-Americans often bump up against the glass ceiling in promotions. Nationally, Asian-Americans have greater educational attainment — including graduate and professional degrees — but lower per capita income and fewer managerial jobs than whites with the same education. Asian-Americans are often stereotyped as hard workers but not leadership material or aggressive enough to be managers and entrepreneurs.

Communities of color have borne the brunt of racial inequalities meted out by our immigration system. The notorious Chinese Exclusion Act is gone, but the Immigration Reform and Control Act bars immigrants from working without authorization.

Today, there are 1 million undocumented Asian-Americans who cannot legally work. A quarter million of the 2 million individuals deported since 2008 were immigrants of Asian descent.

Our civil rights protections provide no remedy for discriminatory immigration laws. We must modernize our civil rights protections to prevent racial discrimination in our immigration system.

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, Asian-Americans, like other minorities, have much to celebrate, but not yet true equal justice under law. All Americans of good will should keep striving for that goal.

Bill Lann Lee is the former assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Justice. Christopher Punongbayan is the executive director of Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. They wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the authors at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; email:; Web site:


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