The Asian American Movement: Purpose & Effects

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The generation that grew-up post-World War II found many things to protest about, as they reshaped their place in American society. In this lesson, we'll examine the origins of the Asian American movement, and see how it fit within the protests of the era.

The Asian American Movement

To people in the United States today, there's nothing that unusual about the concept of Asian American identity. Someone who identifies as Asian American feels a sense of belonging to the American nation and has ancestry from Asia. It's not a radical idea. However, even within living memory this wasn't always true.

By the end of World War II, the United States did not recognize any category of Asian American identity. The closest thing that existed was a label of ethnically Asian peoples as ''Orientals.'' It wasn't exactly a polite term. Calling someone Oriental carried racist connotations, assumptions, and exoticism. However, by the end of the 1970s, that term was quickly fading from use. For the first time, a sense of Asian American identity was growing, and doing so in a way that would fundamentally challenge American ideas about Asian ancestry.

Origins and Influences

The Asian American movement was a post-World War II political and social movement aimed at increasing political, economic, and social equality for Asian Americans. However, before the movement began, there was practically no sense of pre-existing Asian American identity. Asian American communities often lived in isolated, cultural enclaves, within major cities, especially on the West Coast. Chinese Americans lived in Chinatowns, Japanese Americans lived in Japanese neighborhoods, etc. They did not generally share a unified sense of place within the American nation.

So, what changed? World War II brought with it a number of paradigm-shifting adjustments to Asian American issues. For one, the United States finally repealed its 60-year old ban on Chinese immigration, (the Chinese Exclusion Act), as a symbol of solidarity with China as an Allied power. In 1946, the USA officially recognized the independence of the Philippines, reversing almost 50 years of occupation.

Japanese internment was a defining feature of America in WWII

Perhaps, most significantly, however, was the fact that Japanese Americans had been forcibly interned during WWll. Japanese-American Internment was a result of anti-Japanese paranoia following the attack on Pearl Harbor, as Japanese-American families were gathered and relocated to camps across the West. Many Japanese-Americans tried to demonstrate their American pride by enlisting and fighting in World War II, but internment continued until the war ended. The injustice of the internment and failure to recognize many Japanese-American soldiers as heroes, alongside white counterparts, led to a growing dissatisfaction among youth.

Events of the 1950s and 1960s built upon this and helped turn discontent into mobilized political protesting. In the 1950s, the African American Civil Rights Movement kicked off, laying the groundwork for other groups to protest the inequality they felt in American society. One of these groups was Chicanos and Mexican-Americans, many of whom had actually protested alongside Japanese-Americans during World War II. The Chicano Rights Movement began in the early 1960s and was most defined by an agricultural boycott based in California, which included Filipino farm workers.

African American and Chicano movements, especially those on the West Coast, were instrumental in establishing a politically motivated Asian American sentiment. The final factor that pushed this movement into being, however, was continued American warfare. By the late 1960s, the United States was engaged in a very controversial conflict in Vietnam.

Asian American youth were uniquely positioned to protest American aggression in Asia, and in 1968 two activists named Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee founded the Asian American Political Alliance. It was originally designed to unite Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino youths into a politically active movement for equality and rights, but was quickly expanded to include Korean, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander Americans as well.

Goals and Impact

The Asian American Political Alliance was the first major organization of the Asian American movement, but it wasn't the last. The movement quickly grew, particularly among college-aged Asian Americans on the West Coast. So, what did they hope to accomplish?

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