Chinese Exclusion Act: racism and resistance

Detail from a flyer lauding the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. PHOTO: British Columbia Archives
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Anyone who thinks the current wave of attacks on Asian Americans began with Donald Trump’s xenophobia has not read U.S. history. PBS’ The Chinese Exclusion Act reveals decades of anti-Chinese racism that led to the act’s passage. From the moment the first Chinese appeared on the West Coast in the early 1800s they were subjected to a swarm of racist laws and regulations to limit their immigration. These culminated in the first national U.S. immigration laws crafted to exclude an entire ethnic group.

The Chinese came in huge numbers once gold was discovered in California. Like others who flocked to the state from every corner of the globe, they came to find work. As the ore petered out, white miners blamed Chinese miners and drove them from the gold fields.

A coast-to-coast assault on the vulnerable. California politicians had long agitated for a nationwide immigration ban. Federal laws limiting Chinese entry began with the Page Act in 1875. It effectively barred Chinese women from U.S. entry seven years before Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Railroad owners recruited Chinese men to build the West Coast half of the transcontinental railroad, to do the dirtiest and most dangerous work that most whites refused. Chinese workers did the unthinkable and staged an eight-day strike that won improved working conditions. But conflict with whites skyrocketed during the economic crash of 1873. Politicians and some labor leaders encouraged unemployed white workers to blame the Chinese for stealing jobs.

In 1871, after a Los Angeles murder was blamed on the Chinese, residents carried out a night of terror. Thirty immigrants, including a child, were lynched. The entire Chinese population of Eureka, California was rounded up and put on ships bound for San Francisco. Similar incidents happened in 300 Western towns and cities.

After the Civil War, plantation owners faced a severe labor shortage. As with railroads, Chinese workers were recruited to provide cheap labor for the project. This paradox was built into the Chinese experience. The capitalists willingly recruited them when their labor was needed and scapegoated them when it wasn’t.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law was supposed to be renewed every ten years, but stayed on the books for sixty years!

Resistance and revolt. The documentary explodes common myths and stereotypes about Chinese immigrants, many of which continue to exist today. One is that Chinese people are docile. Nothing could be further from the truth. During this period, the Chinese were able to take 22 cases to the Supreme Court, and won some of them. After their experience in Eureka, the community pressured officials to open a grand jury. A judge ruled against the immigrants declaring that because they were Chinese, their property had no value.

The Chinese were resourceful and resilient in their struggle for civil rights. At one point, the authorities decided that all Chinese should have an identity card and carry it on them. Refusal could result in deportation. Community leaders advised against participating. In the biggest boycott in American history to date, the majority of Chinese refused to register. The identity card rule was dropped as unenforceable.

In 1898, a California-born cook named Wong Kim Ark was denied re-entry to the U.S. after traveling to China. He took his case to the Supreme Court. The majority ruled that due to the 14th Amendment, anyone born or naturalized in the U.S. was a citizen. This decision has benefitted millions.

The documentary’s message resonates because Chinese-Americans are again being blamed for unemployment and disease, attacked on the streets and faced with old stereotypes. This time around let’s build old-fashioned solidarity in defense of our Asian American sisters and brothers, once and for all.

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