How Asian American Groups Joined the 1968 SF State Student Strike (by Dillon Dong)

Title: Why Asian American Students Joined the 1968 SF State Student Strike


From the Common Core, this unit will cover for Grade 11-12 students the following Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies as listed on p 81-82 here:

Standards 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10.

This unit will cover for Grade 11-12 students the following Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies as listed on p 86-89 in the above link:

Standards 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10.


Overview: This lesson is designed to guide 11th/12th grade US history students to an understanding of what motivated Asian American students at San Francisco State University to join in the longest student strike for affirmative action and Ethnic Studies in US history.  Students will learn about the systematic racism faced by Asian American communities at the time, about the strikers’ demands for Ethnic Studies and affirmative action to help address that racism, and about the role of community in motivating students to fight for change.


Framework:  This three day unit is intended as an in depth case study for a high school history class.  It aims to teach students about systematic racism through the context of the often ignored Asian American population, showing one way in which large scale events in history can intersect with individual lived experiences to produce social movements.  It also functions as practice analyzing primary and secondary historical documents showing these individual perspectives.

To accomplish these goals, students will first discuss with each other and the class their understanding of what racism is and how it works.  They will then learn about the subtle systematic manifestations of racism, and interpret a primary source from the strike in that context.

Next, through a combination of lecture, primary and secondary source readings, they will learn about the large scale events in the US relevant to the strike and the student organizations on campus which joined together to drive the strike, including their demands for Ethnic Studies and affirmative action.  They will then dig deeper into the original primary source and reinterpret it in the context of the strikers’ demands.

Finally, students will learn about the role of community in motivating individual student groups to join the strike.  They will reflect on issues related to systematic discrimination faced by communities that they are familiar with, and how they as students can affect change in these communities today.


Essential Understanding:  Asian American student activists joined with other students of color to strike for affirmative action and for the establishment of a department of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University in order to help students like themselves analyze and address the problems that systematic racism caused for their communities.


Essential Questions:

1. In what ways did systematic racism affect the community of Chinatown in 1960s San Francisco?

2. How would affirmative action and a department of Ethnic Studies at SF State work to address systematic racism?

3. Who were the Asian American students that took part in the strike?

4. What motivated these Asian Americans to join with activists of other races and to go on strike?



1. Systematic racism:  A pattern in society where one racial group has widely disproportionate access to power and resources as compared to another racial group.  These patterns are sometimes but not always motivated by negative racial stereotypes, and are often entrenched by institutional policies such as laws.

2. Third World: A term used during the Cold War to refer to (generally poor) countries that did not align themselves with either the US or the Soviet Union. Third World countries often suffered from violence, slavery and other forms of exploitation at the hands of European and American imperialism. In the context of the SF State Strike and 1960s social movements in general, Third World refers to an analogy used by some people of color to associate the oppression they experienced due to racism and the oppression experienced by Third World countries due to imperialism.

In general, any undefined terms should come up in lecture.  Acknowledging the different levels of background knowledge that students might have, the teacher should encourage students to ask questions if the lecture uses a term that the student is not familiar with.


Introduction:  In 1968, San Francisco’s Chinatown, where many of the Chinese American students at San Francisco State University grew up, was as the author of the primary source document L. Ling-chi Wong claimed, a ghetto.  With the new wave of immigration caused by the relaxation of anti-Chinese immigration laws and the lack of enforcement of laws prohibiting white property owners from refusing to sell houses outside of Chinatown to Chinese people based on their race, Chinatown was overcrowded (1).  Due to these cramped conditions and substandard health care, Chinatown had three times the infection rate of tuberculosis as the rest of the city (2).  Gang activity, police brutality, and racketeering occurred there on a regular basis (3).

To address some of the problems facing Chinatown, Chinese students formed the group Intercollegiate Chinese for Student Action (ICSA) in October 1967.  They “worked as volunteers for Chinatown social service agencies including the War on Poverty office, taught immigrant teenagers English language skills, and later solicited money…to expand the tutorial project and to study the Chinatown power structure.” (4)

Other groups of Asian Americans faced similar discrimination, and formed similar community service organizations to help their communities.  The Phillippine American Collegiate Endeavor (PACE) “organized counseling programs, tutorial programs, tutor-training, study centers, high school recruitment drives, newsletters, fundraising dances, ethnic studies curriculum, community outreach, and liaison with student government” (5).  The Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) saw self determination as the way out of the systematic racism that they faced, and declared “We Asian Americans support all oppressed peoples and their struggles for liberation and believe that Third World People must have complete control over the political, economic, and educational institutions within the communities (6).

It was these groups that joined together with the well organized and nationally connected SF State chapter of the Black Student Union and other activists to go on strike for, among other demands, the establishment of affirmative action and a department of Ethnic Studies in San Francisco State.  A closely related strike in UC Berkeley followed suit.   After surviving many efforts on the part of the Reagan governorship and university administrations to stop the strikes and withstanding arrests and beatings by the police these twin strikes lead to the establishment of the first official departments of Ethnic Studies in the US (7).  As evidenced by California Proposition 209, which was voted into law in 1996 and bans affirmative action in California public schools (8) as well as Arizona’s HB 2281 which was passed by the state legislature in 2010 and bans Arizona public schools from teaching Ethnic Studies (9), these issues are still controversial today.  One of the aims of this unit is to explain what Ethnic Studies and affirmative action meant for Asian Americans when they were first established.  The question of if and how they are relevant today is left for you to discuss.



Chinatown and the Chinese by L. Ling-chi Wong

On Strike! by Karen Umemoto.

Introductory Essay on the San Francisco State Student Strike by Helene Whitson.


Day 1:  Focusing on systematic racism

1.  Students will split off into small groups.  They will identify effects of racism that they have experienced, witnessed or heard about, attempt to find patterns in these effects, and discuss what the term “racism” means.  After the groups are done discussing, the teacher will lead a classroom discussion allowing students to share what they have discussed.  The teacher will record If it hasn’t already been brought up, the teacher will introduce the concept of systematic racism, bring up examples of its effects (for example higher incarceration rates and tougher sentencing for illegal drug usage between Blacks and Whites).  Ideally, the teacher will be able to relate the concept of systematic racism to the examples that the class has already come up with.

2.  The teacher will give a lecture, touching on the McCarthy era and the anti Asian sentiment lingering in the 60s.   The lecture will also give an overview of the history of systematic racism faced by Asian Americans in 20th century San Francisco, including immigration laws, Japanese internment, official segregation in the form of “racial covenants”  and unofficial segregation in the trend of homeowners refusing to sell property to Asian Americans.

3.  The primary source document and a summary similar to the Introduction section will be handed out to be read overnight.   The primary source document can be found here.  Students will be asked to write a short few paragraphs response paper on the question: In what ways does “Chinatown and the Chinese” reflect the systematic racism that affected residents of Chinatown in the 1960s?


Day 2:  Focusing on affirmative action and Ethnic Studies

1.  Students will be asked to discuss their response to the writing prompt in a classroom discussion.

2.  The teacher will give a short lecture on the history of the California “Master Plan” including how it was a response to the baby boom as well as a response to the scientific competition between the US and the USSR.  The lecture will touch on the issue of the need for bilingual education for people coming from immigrant families and how this was a problem both with Chicano/Latino immigrants and Asian immigrants to California.

3.  The teacher will hand out and students will read in class the list of demands made by the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front.  Students will talk with their neighbor about patterns in the demands.  The teacher, starting with student participation, will then define “affirmative action” and “Ethnic Studies”.  Students will participate in a classroom discussion starting with the question “how would affirmative action and Ethnic Studies affect Asian American and other minority communities in 1960s San Francisco?”

4.  The students will be asked to write a few more short paragraphs reevaluating the primary source in the context of the question “Why was affirmative action and Ethnic Studies important to students of color at San Francisco State University?”  Students will also be asked to read pages 31 to 38 from the essay “On Strike!” by Karen Umemoto, available online here.


Day 3:  Focusing on the effect of community

1.  Students will break into small groups.  Each small group will be assigned to focus on one of the three groups of Asian American activists from the Umemoto reading, and discuss the questions: “what was the role of community in motivating your group of activists to go on strike?”, “what did Ethnic Studies and affirmative action mean for your group of activists specifically?”, and “what would you have done if you were in their place?”.  After the small group discussions have finished,  the class will as a whole discuss these questions, with students presenting points that their small groups had talked about.

2.   The teacher will follow up with a short lecture about events during the strike, including S.I. Hayakawa’s resistance and police brutality, as well as the conclusion of the strike.  A list of how the student demands were resolved is available at the bottom of this page .

3.  The students will once again break into small groups and discuss how systematic discrimination (whether race based, class based or otherwise) affects their community, the communities of their friends, and the communities of people in the area around their school.  Each group will be asked to reflect on how the issues facing their communities is similar or different from the issues that Asian Americans faced in 1960s San Francisco, on larger scale societal or policy changes that would help alleviate these issues, and on how they can use their theoretical understanding of racism to help address these community issues.  The three day unit will conclude with a class wide discussion where volunteers can share the issues that they discussed, as well as ask the class/teacher any further questions or discuss any further points that they had thought of related to the topics covered in this unit.

Bibliography and Additional Sources:
(1) Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.  p248

(2) Shah, p226.

(3) Louid, Steve, and Omatsu, Glenn.  Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2001. p33

(4) Umemoto, Karen. “‘On Strike!’: San Francisco State College Strike, 1968-69.”  Amerasia 15, no. 1 (1989): 3-41.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Whitson, Helene.  San Francisco State University, “SF State College Strike Collection: Introductory Essay.”

(8) C.A. Const. art. II, § VIII

(9) A.R.S. § 15-112

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