It’s Time to Recommit to Asian American Studies

Formerly among the NESCAC schools with the most resources for Asian American studies (AAS), Amherst College has fallen behind its peers. In the 2017-2018 academic year, Asian American students from Williams College reached out to members of Amherst’s AAS Working Group to learn about our activism and grow their own accordingly. Their photo campaign, “Williams Doesn’t Teach Me,” was modeled after and cited our “Amherst Doesn’t Teach Me” campaign, which highlighted the content missing from the college’s curriculum without AAS. By 2018, Williams students had created their own working group and as of this year have successfully advocated for the hiring of two tenure-track faculty in AAS in addition to the three already at the college.

AAS is an academic discipline that critically examines the histories, experiences, identities, cultures and politics of Asian Americans. Although AAS is often confused with Asian Studies, the two in fact constitute distinct academic fields.

AAS emerged during the civil rights movement as a product of pan-racial advocacy to acknowledge the histories, experiences, identities and cultures of people of color. AAS comprises a critical component of what it means to be American, and for decades, its interdisciplinary nature has drawn students of all backgrounds into the few classes which Amherst offers in this subject. Asian Americans continue to make vital contributions to the rich tapestry of American socio-cultural life. Amherst College’s curriculum must recognize such contributions or risk remaining fundamentally incomplete.

The origins of some of today’s most salient socio-legal issues can be traced to Asian-American history. Specifically, Asian Americans have had a long-standing past of engagement with the judicial system, not infrequently as litigants in some of the Supreme Court’s landmark cases. To name a few examples, in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), an Asian American man was able to establish the recognition of birthright citizenship for all Americans. Furthermore, the court’s contemporary interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits facially race-neutral laws that are discriminatory in practice, was informed by a precedent established in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886) when an Asian American-owned laundry facility sued under the 14th amendment, claiming its equal protection rights had been violated. The court’s contemporary doctrine of subjecting laws that rely on “suspect classifications” such as race to “strict scrutiny” originated in the challenge of a Japanese-American man to wartime incarceration in the now infamous case Korematsu v. United States (1944). Furthermore, contemporary restrictions on immigration based on nationality originated from the Chinese Exclusion Acts (1882-1943), the first act in American history to ban a group of immigrants based on race.

In fact, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was founded in the 19th century for the express purpose of denying entry to Chinese Americans, and debates over its exclusionary practices remain relevant today. Present deportations of undocumented immigrants and refugees bear a striking resemblance to the extrajudicial incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The 20 percent rise in victims of anti-Asian bias from 2016 to 2016 (and a 300 percent rise in anti-Sikh hate crimes between 2016 and 2017, according to the FBI annual report) are reminiscent of the mass-murders and expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans throughout history — including the Chinese Massacre of 1871, the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, the anti-Sikh Bellingham Riots of 1907 and the 1982 lynching of Vincent Chin.

Understanding Asian Americans is crucial to understanding the role of race in the United States. Any study of race should recognize the ways that the state racializes minorities in order to maintain control.

Specifically, Asian Americans have been constructed as the “model minority.” This pernicious myth has prevented coalition between Asian Americans and other minority groups and reasserts the fanciful image of America as a meritocracy where all groups have equal opportunity for socio-economic success.

Encounters with AAS often prove to be formative experiences which encourage students to participate in civil society, engage in public service and pursue careers in academia. Cynthia Alcantar, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, has found that students’ aspirations for public service increased by 15.7 percent after engaging with an ethnic studies program. Jenn Fang, writer and founder of, one of the internet’s oldest blogs on Asian American politics and culture, cites her experience with AAS as a key educational moment which continues to inform both her identity and writing today. She is not alone. Associate Professor of Latin American studies at the University of Connecticut Jason Oliver Chang credits his career in academia to exposure to AAS.

The need for a robust civil society, attentive to contemporary issues, and committed to public service has never been greater. Continuing to neglect AAS would do a disservice both to Amherst students and the larger American public.