Excerpted From: Nathan S.W. Lee, Cultural Zoning as Reparations: Providing Power to Asian American Communities, 27 Asian Pacific American Law Journal 47 (2023) (87 Footnotes) (Full Document)


NoPictureMale.jpegIn 1885 and 1886 alone, at least 168 communities in the western United States forcibly removed their Chinese residents, displacing more than 20,000 individuals from their homes. White vigilantes drove out Chinese residents through “harassment, intimidation, arson, bombing, assault and murder.” In 1885, in Rock Springs, Wyoming, a white mob massacred twenty-eight Chinese miners and set their residences on fire. Shortly after, in Tacoma, Washington, a force of white men displaced the local Chinese population, threatening that “if the Chinese did not leave they were going to cut their throats, kill them and destroy their property.” In 1871, a Los Angeles mob lynched seventeen Chinese residents in the presence of witnesses. The immense racial violence that early Asian migrants faced, even while making crucial contributions to the nation's infrastructure on projects like the Transcontinental Railroad, is often overlooked by historical accounts. Systemic racism and race-based violence against Asian Americans (and other communities of color) have unfortunately continued to the present, as most recently seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

To work towards justice, the United States and its citizens must think seriously about what it owes ethnic minorities. Doing so requires acknowledging the bloody and inequitable history of the nation and the tendrils of injustice that extend from this history into the present. It also requires thinking about effective countermeasures to the pernicious harms brought about by racial discrimination and violence. To this end, Black and Native scholars have done invaluable work leading the conversation on what forms such remedies could take. Building upon this literature, this Article explores one such remedy, reparations, and considers its merit for Asian American communities.

This Article combines three different concepts that have previously been researched into something novel. It starts by exploring how Asian Americans can justifiably claim reparations for over a century of xenophobia and exclusion committed by the American government and society. The Article then considers what form reparations should take, considering cultural zoning and its usage by Asian Americans in cities like San Francisco and New York. Then, it considers the value of minorities being granted power rather than relying only on the assertion of legal rights, incorporating Professor Maggie Blackhawk's writing about Indigenous communities. Crucially, Professor Blackhawk notes that even the most championed civil rights have considerable limitations when it comes to providing minority communities the ability to protect themselves from political and social harm.

Synthesizing these three distinct ideas, the Article then outlines a mechanism to achieve reparations for Asian American communities by granting these communities the power to create cultural zones. Such a mechanism would allow these communities to protect their unique interests and to wield a limited degree of sovereignty over spaces and institutions that have become important to them. After identifying some concerns with this policy proposal, this Article will consider how a cultural zoning power would have been helpful in the recent struggles over development in the Two Bridges neighborhood of New York City.

[. . .]

There is tremendous potential in giving power to Asian American enclaves to advocate for, protect, and grow their communities through zoning. The necessity of granting this power is rooted in present harms to Asian American communities and in the long history of unremedied harm to Asians in the United States. While Asian Americans are no longer violently displaced en masse as they were in the 1800s, communities remain under threat from acts of racial violence, gentrification, and cultural appropriation. This Article provides a preliminary attempt to describe a cultural zoning power and how it should be granted as a form of reparations. Asian American enclaves have been sites of incredible struggle, often formed out of necessity and with the threat of racial violence constantly looming. These communities are also a testament to the resilience and cultural flourishing of Asian Americans despite the multitude of hardships faced. To protect this legacy and empower Asian Americans to build upon it, it will be important to embrace creative and bold applications of law that allow minorities to proactively shape the neighborhoods in which they live.

JD-PhD Candidate, NYU Law and Department of Politics.