In the middle of the 19th century, European and North American newspapers began playing heavily on the theme of the ‘yellow terror,’ the supposed hordes from Asia that were preparing to descend upon ‘civilised society’ and destroy it at any minute. They used cartoonish illustrations and tales intended to evoke deep fear to create alienation, a massive divide that played on racial differences and made it clear that some people were not welcome.
There were a lot of reasons for this, beyond the obvious racism and the desire to firmly draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This era marked a time of very rapid change and shifts in culture, something that can contribute to racism as people struggle to adapt to the new times; reactive racism and the desire to find someone to blame is, unfortunately, very common. It was also an era of considerable immigration from Asia, particularly in North America, where people came seeking new lives. They were depicted as alien and terrifying, deeply unscrutable; the Fu Manchu series, for example, which was later converted into film, captured the essence of the stereotype, moustache and all.
This shifted to ‘the yellow peril’ in the late 19th century, an attitude that critically informed the way white people thought about Asians in their communities, as well as nations in Asia. This had a huge impact on everything from foreign policy to local legislation; across the United States, for example, protests in periods of depression demanded that ‘the Chinese must go!,’ referencing the idea that Chinese labourers were stealing American jobs, and must be responsible for the nation’s economic woes.
While this term became less popularised around the time of the First World War, it left a profound impact behind. People were less likely to use it seriously, but the ideas behind it were no less present in society; in the United States, for example, numerous laws limited property, marriage, and immigration rights for members of the Asian community. These laws were informed in no small part by the ‘yellow peril’ scaremongers of the late 19th and early 20th century. Few pushes were made to recall these laws, and when they were, they enjoyed limited support, because there was so much hatred for the Asian community.
These social attitudes also explained why few people protested when Canada and the United States began incarcerating Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans in the Second World War. They were viewed as a natural security threat, because of course they would turn on their host nations and be loyal to Japan—even if they had no connections with Japan, even if they had built up lives in North America, even if they were eager to join the armed forces to fight for their homelands in North America, some of which had hosted them for generations.
Racism against Asian-Americans has always been present as an undercurrent in society, shifting with the times, and it has always in some sense involved the yellow peril stereotype. Today, Asian-Americans are stereotyped as being unemotional and inscrutable, mysterious and wise, all throwbacks to the cartoons of the ‘yellow peril’ days; people of Asian descent, regardless of actual origins, who practice martial arts or who have an interest in traditional sports and other activities are said to be ‘tapping in to ancient Chinese secrets,’ for example.
Likewise, the idea of an Asian-American ‘takeover’ still looms large in the minds of some, although the form it takes has changed. Instead of claiming that jobs ‘rightfully’ belonging to white people will be ‘stolen’ by Asian-Americans, the rhetoric has shifted to, among other things, screaming about affirmative action policies at US colleges.
These policies were enacted by colleges and universities in response to concerns about the diversity of their attendees, which did not accurately reflect the demographics of the general population. Researchers noted that race and class barriers, as well as gender, played a significant role in the applications and admissions process. They recommended weighting for these, to offer more chances at true equality in the admissions process. White ‘activists’ were quick to frame this as some sort of discrimination against white people, dredging up the old ‘reverse racism’ argument to defend their claims. In some states, backlash campaigns succeeded in limiting affirmative action and reversing attempts at equalizing college and university admissions.
Several recent legal cases have highlighted the battle over affirmative action, and with a conservative Supreme Court, chances seem high that a significant and potentially dangerous precedent could be set with a court ruling. All because of the yellow peril, and the firm, unshaken belief that people of Asian descent are secretly out to take down the entirety of European society.
At the same time the US maintains a bootstrapping myth, suggesting that people who try hard will succeed, people who comply with the myth are punished for it; people of colour who work extremely hard and fight to get into college are told they didn’t get there on their own merits, but rather as a result of affirmative action policies. Their accomplishments are treated with disdain, while they’re called ‘invaders’ who are taking away spaces from white students. While these attitudes are common for nonwhite people and people of colour in college and university to encounter, they take on an extra sting when looking at Asian-Americans, because behind it, there is this whiff of ‘yellow peril’ adapted for the modern age.
It’s implied that students of Asian descent have magical study secrets and special discipline they apply to getting into the colleges and universities of their choice; the old ‘ancient Chinese secret.’ That they are members of secretive and aggressive organisations bent on destroying the fabric of white academic, one admissions letter at a time. And the courts are reinforcing this by ruling that affirmative action is no longer necessary, or is discriminatory, just as courts ruled in support of historic racist laws brought about by ‘yellow peril’ rhetoric in service of ‘protecting’ the white population.