The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anti-Asian bigotry is behind a Texas land bill

A bill banning Chinese citizens from owning land may be framed as a security measure, but it’s rooted in a long history of Asian hate

Demonstrators hold a protest in Houston on Feb. 11, 2023, against a bill that would prohibit Chinese nationals from buying properties in Texas. (Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images)
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An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that data collection for the Stop AAPI Hate report referenced began four days after the March 2021 mass killing in suburban Atlanta. In reality, the data was collected from March 19, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2021 and therefore began long before the Atlanta shooting.

Friction between China and the United States has placed U.S. officials in a quandary. On the one hand, they must address the very real security challenges arising from great power competition in the Pacific. But whenever U.S. officials vilify China, they risk fanning the flames of anti-Asian racism at home. As a result, policymakers worried about China’s rise need to frame their words and actions carefully.

Unfortunately, a growing number of state legislators and members of Congress are offering a master class in how not to confront China by supporting indiscriminate crackdowns on Chinese citizens and companies seeking to purchase U.S. land. The most divisive proposal has come from Texas, where top Republican officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have rallied around the ham-handed Senate Bill 147.

As written, SB 147 would prohibit all Chinese citizens — including dual citizens, visa holders, asylum seekers and lawful permanent residents of the United States — from buying land in Texas. The bill is not exclusively anti-Chinese. It also targets citizens of Iran, North Korea and Russia. Despite that, Republican leaders like state agriculture commissioner Sid Miller have cast Chinese landowners in an especially threatening light, urging the state legislature to “prevent China from buying the land that feeds our cities, houses our national defenses, and is our American birthright.”

Bills like SB 147 evoke a long and painful history. In the past, the desire to ensure U.S. national security has often been expressed in ways that excused or justified hatred against Asians. In turn, racist anxieties about people of Asian descent have played a key role in shaping the development of national security policy. Revisiting the long history of anti-Asian behavior in the United States makes clear the inherent dangers of today’s assaults.

Asian hate first emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the United States during the mid-19th century, as laborers from China and elsewhere in Asia crossed the Pacific in search of economic opportunity. People of Asian descent who settled on the West Coast soon became targets of a powerful anti-immigrant backlash that enshrined itself in a body of racist law. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first in a series of federal measures to restrict Asian immigration. The federal government also denied Chinese immigrants a path to naturalized citizenship.

Some states went further, foreshadowing SB 147’s preoccupation with land ownership. Oregon’s state constitution, adopted in 1859, expressly forbade land purchases by people of Chinese descent. California and Washington achieved similar results by subtler means. The former stripped Asian noncitizens of their right to own land, while the latter limited the rights of all noncitizens — a category which necessarily included immigrants from Asia, who were ineligible for naturalization.

By the end of the 19th century, nativists and xenophobes were accustomed to cloaking their hostility to Asian immigrants in the language of security. Employing a familiar combination of xenophobic tropes, they characterized mass immigration from Asia as an insidious “unarmed invasion.” Nevertheless, U.S. leaders did not initially assign a specific source to the supposed Asian threat. That changed, however, after two dramatic shifts in the global order altered the context in which both U.S. power and Asian hate developed.

First, at the end of the 1890s, the United States seized control of Hawaii and the Philippines, incorporating both into a growing U.S. empire in the Pacific. Racist language furnished an important justification for imperial expansion, infantilizing people of Asian descent and recasting White minority rule as a form of benevolence. But the ugly reality of colonization soon channeled Asian hate in a different, more violent direction. This was especially true in the Philippines, where U.S. troops fought a brutal war of conquest that normalized the use of torture against Filipino insurgents.

As the war in the Philippines drew to a close, the United States began building an elaborate transpacific security state, a repressive system of military and intelligence institutions designed to spy on and police Asian subjects of U.S. empire. These new institutions gave Asian hate a permanent home inside the U.S. security establishment. As historian Moon-Ho Jung has shown, the networks of knowledge that they created lent credence to the belief that an amorphous pan-Asian “menace” lurked behind perceived threats to U.S. power in the Pacific.

One threat in particular loomed large in the minds of U.S. policymakers during the early 1900s. Its source was Japan, a rising Asian great power. After emerging from a period of rapid industrialization and political change at the end of the 19th century, Japan surprised foreign observers by decisively defeating Russia, an established European power, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904—1905. U.S. officials came to regard the growing Japanese empire as a key rival.

Asian hate gave U.S. officials and public opinionmakers the language to describe their fear of Japan. Turn-of-the-century thought leaders such as naval affairs expert (and Democratic congressman) Richmond P. Hobson popularized the notion that U.S.-Japanese enmity was really a kind of “race antagonism,” a supposedly inevitable byproduct of contact between White Anglo-Saxons and Asian “others” locked in a Darwinian struggle for global supremacy.

Such racist delusions were doubly dangerous. Not only did they oversimplify transpacific rivalry; they also mis-located its source. Asian hate convinced U.S. officials that unique Asian racial traits — traits supposedly expressed not only by Japanese leaders but by millions of ordinary Japanese people — were responsible for directing Japan’s foreign policy against the United States. And if Japanese people were the enemy, then all people of Japanese descent, regardless of their official status or avowed political loyalties, had to be treated like potential threat vectors.

Against this backdrop, anti-Asian legislation continued its rapid advance all over the United States. California enacted a blanket ban on foreign land ownership in 1913. Less than a decade later, Texas followed suit in a move that overtly targeted Japanese immigrants, inspiring similar bans throughout the South and Southwest. Meanwhile, the federal government put the finishing touches on its system of exclusionary immigration laws. In 1924, a new Immigration Act banned virtually all immigration from Asia. Exclusion had reached its zenith.

State and federal laws played a crucial role in perpetuating Asian hate. So, too, did the increasingly frenetic activities of the transpacific security state, which intensified as U.S.-Japanese relations deteriorated. Most notoriously, during World War II, the U.S. military forcibly interned over 100,000 civilians of Japanese descent, most of whom were U.S. citizens. Internment followed a logic laid down in contemporary policy documents, which described Japanese Americans as “a large, unassimilated, tightly knit racial group, bound to an enemy nation by strong ties of race, culture, custom and religion.” U.S. officials also alleged, without evidence, that people of Japanese descent deliberately settled near strategically important sites to carry out acts of sabotage.

Citing assumptions like these, Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy questioned internment’s constitutionality in 1944. Sadly, a majority of his colleagues pronounced the policy legitimate — a ruling the court formally repudiated in 2018.

The federal government gradually dismantled its exclusionary immigration and naturalization statutes during the 1950s and 1960s. It also invalidated state-level anti-Asian land laws like California’s, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1952.

But Asian hate, the wellspring of discrimination and a perpetual source of violence, continues to haunt the United States. Last year, Stop AAPI Hate released a report documenting nearly 11,000 episodes of anti-Asian harassment between March 19, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021.

Grim statistics like these cast dark shadows over the inflammatory language of supporters of SB 147. They also invite a reexamination of U.S. history. A century ago, U.S. leaders confronting unprecedented challenges in the Pacific chose to act in ways that reinforced a narrow, bigoted sense American national identity. Today, confronted by equally unprecedented challenges, we need to make better choices.