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Educating the Next Generation

California’s public schools didn’t teach Asian American history to a young Dr. Beth Lew-Williams. Neither did college.

So, for those powerful stories she heard as a child from her first-generation immigrant grandfather — who entered the U.S. in the 1930s, amid federal Chinese exclusion efforts and prejudice — she couldn’t fully grasp them.

“The stories I got within my family didn’t fit in the U.S. history classes that I was taking,” Lew-Williams says. “When I started to develop a further interest in history, I continued to not find the histories that I wanted, the histories that would’ve helped me to understand my own family.”

Dr. Beth Lew-WilliamsDr. Beth Lew-WilliamsThis gave rise to a lifelong interest, which in turn resulted in an academic career that focuses on matters of race, migration, and Asian American history. Holding several degrees in history, including a Ph.D. from Stanford University, she now teaches the kind of information that she always wanted to learn.

Over the past decade, Lew-Williams has worked her way up the ranks of Princeton University’s history department. She is currently a tenured professor of history and the director of Asian American studies there.

Lew-Williams’s specialization and scholarly work are on 19th century history, she says, particularly about Chinese immigration to the U.S. West coast in the late 1800s. She’s the author of The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America.

“I wrote it because I was interested originally in a period of anti-Chinese violence that occurred in the mid-1880s,” Lew-Williams tells Diverse. “There was this moment in 1885-86, when dozens – eventually I found more than 165 communities in the West Coast – attempted to expel Chinese residents from their towns and cities. I started that project trying to understand this phenomenon, which appeared to be contagious anti-Chinese violence in this period.”

The book covers the nation’s history of trying to keep Chinese immigrants and laborers out – per the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and subsequent legislation – and how it ties back to the racial violence historically brought onto these communities on a national scale.

Lew-Williams has received several awards throughout her career for her scholarly work, including the Vincent P. DeSantis Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age & Progressive Era in 2019; the Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians also in 2019; and a fellowship with the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2020.

Anti-Asian American hate reports and incidents rose during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-Asian reported incidents jumped from 279 in 2020 to 746 in 2021, according to FBI statistics. And according to the group Stop AAPI Hate in 2023, there have been more than 11,000 reported acts of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since March 2020.

Much has occurred since the anti-Asian sentiments and policies of the 1880s, and there are no easy connections to be drawn between then and the hate seen now, notes Lew-Williams. But she does think that some modern-day views on Chinese people in America are related to how the population was viewed and treated in the 19th century.

“By being banned from immigrating, prohibited from naturalizing, they existed in the 19th century as this legally perpetual alien or non-citizen,” Lew-Williams explains. “That refusal of Chinese belonging in America, setting them apart in this way both legally and culturally, helped inscribe the idea of Chinese as forever foreign and to make them more ready scapegoats when things go wrong.

“So, I think that what we see in the COVID-19 pandemic was a backlash against the Chinese community that was made easier because people still see the Chinese and Asian American community as somehow separate from American mainstream writ large.”

Her upcoming book, John Doe China Man, is set to come out in Fall 2025, this time giving readers a look at the racial laws that were used to police and regulate Chinese Americans and residents already in the U.S. from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

Lew-Williams’s lecture course on Asian American history is one of the largest courses in Princeton’s history department, says Dr. Margot Canaday, the Dodge Professor of History at Princeton. She calls Lew-Williams a “brilliant historian” and “gifted teacher” who has had a significant impact across campus.

“Part of this is a commitment to making this university reach for its best self, part of this is incredible institutional savvy combined with an extraordinary emotional intelligence,” says Canaday. “I expect her to continue to be a leader here at Princeton, as well as in the discipline as a whole, and really in higher education more broadly.”

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