"Color" in America operated within an economic context. Asian immigrants came here [United States] to meet demands for labor—plantation workers, railroad crews, miners, factory operatives, cannery workers, and farm laborers. Employers developed a dual-wage system to pay Asian laborers less than white workers and pitted the groups against each other in order to depress wages for both. "Ethnic antagonism"—to use Edna Bonacich’s phrase—led white laborers to demand the restriction of Asian workers already here in a segregated labor market of low-wage jobs and the exclusion of future Asian immigrants. Thus the class interests of white capital as well as white labor needed Asians as "strangers."

Pushed out of competition for employment by racial discrimination and white working-class hostility, many Asian immigrants became shopkeepers, merchants, and small businessmen. “There wasn’t any other opportunity open to the Chinese,” explained the son of a Chinese storekeeper. “Probably opening a store was one of the few things that they could do other than opening a laundry.” Self-employment was not an Asian “cultural trait” or an occupation peculiar to “strangers” but a means of survival, a response to racial discrimination and exclusion in the labor market. The early Chinese and Japanese immigrants had been peasants in their home countries. Excluded from employment in the general economy, they became shopkeepers and ethnic enterprisers. They also developed their own separate commercial enclaves, which served as an economic basis for ethnic solidarity, and their business and cultural separateness in turn reinforced both their image of condition as “strangers.”

From: “The Centrality of Racism in Asian American History” by Ronald Takaki [Major Problems in Asian American History edited by Lon Kurashige and Alice Yang Murray]

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