The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States

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The following excerpt is taken from Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States by Lon Kurashige

The 1882 act excluding Chinese laborers from the United States for ten years did more than displace the egalitarian spirit of the Burlingame and Angell Treaties; it placed an increasingly anti-Chinese Congress in the driver’s seat to set immigration policy. The result was a series of acts, each building onto the exclusion of Chinese laborers an increasingly discriminatory system of restriction, regulation, and surveillance. In 1884 Congress broadened the definition of excluded laborers by denying entry to them on the basis of race, even if they were not citizens of China, and making more burdensome the registration system required of all Chinese immigrants in America under the 1882 act. In response, Qing officials negotiated a new U.S.-China treaty in which China agreed to self-imposed immigration restrictions. Self-restriction was seen as a way to establish a treaty basis for exclusion that would limit Congress’s freedom to further tighten the screws.

Negotiations of the Bayard-Zhang Treaty in 1888 revealed a newly assertive Chinese diplomatic corps, which, after establishing a legation in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco consulate, became actively engaged in immigration politics. This was welcomed by the merchants of the Six Companies, who until then had shouldered the burden of defending overseas Chinese. While the merchants embraced the principle of self-restriction, they objected to the proposed treaty’s length of exclusion (twenty years), causing an uproar against it from egalitarians in the United States and southern China that led the Qing government to back away from ratification. The treaty’s failure pushed Congress, with President Grover Cleveland’s blessing, to deny Chinese laborers already in the United States reentry into the country after traveling abroad to visit family in China. Four years later Congress renewed the 1882 act as well as all supplements to it for another ten years. The renewal act, known by its California sponsor, Thomas Geary, also included the dreaded “dog tag law” requiring all Chinese immigrants to carry a certificate testifying to their legal right of residence, without which they risked being thrown in jail and subsequently deported.

These were gloomy days for egalitarians within and outside of Chinatown. During the 1880s Chinese immigrants in the Pacific Northwest faced racist pogroms in nearly two hundred towns. In 1885 mobs of angry whites killed forty Chinese and caused half a million dollars in property damage in separate attacks in Seattle and in Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory. A year and a half later Congress agreed to pay $148,000 to the relatives of Rock Springs victims in lieu of an official apology or punishment of the murderers. The Six Companies, now backed by the Chinese legation and consulate, continued to rely on paid white American employees such as Colonel Frederick Bee, now consul general of San Francisco, to sway public opinion. But as lobbyists they found few allies on Capitol Hill as the once-dominant Burlingame constituency had all but evaporated. While Senator George Hoar continued to stand against exclusionists until he died in 1904, the New England congressional delegation no longer put up much of a fight as it shrank in size and became increasingly Democratic.

Ironically, it was a Democratic president who offered a silver lining for the downtrodden egalitarians. After Chinese immigrants boycotted the Geary Act’s “dog tag” regulations, President Cleveland calmed U.S.-China tensions by halting the implementation of this type of surveillance. His action prevented the arrest and deportation of tens of thousands who were encouraged by China’s foreign ministry and the Six Companies to violate the registration law. Cleveland also earned praise from egalitarians (and the wrath of exclusionists) by being party to the rejuvenation of the failed Bayard-Zhang Treaty. The new treaty, approved in 1894 by Secretary of State Walter Gresham and China’s foreign minister Yang-ju, established the principle of China’s self-restriction while finally placing exclusion on a treaty basis. In a party-line vote, Democrats in the Senate approved the Gresham-Yang Treaty, while the Republican minority opposed it along with all but one western senator.

The branch of government that gave egalitarians the most hope was the judicial branch because exclusion laws did not restrict the right to a fair trial. Those barred from entering the United States received legal consul from some of the best white attorneys in San Francisco, such as Thomas Riordan, who was retained by the San Francisco consulate. As one historian notes, “By far, Chinese immigrants’ most valuable resource during the exclusion era was an organized network of immigration lawyers who facilitated Chinese entry and reentry by keeping track of necessary paperwork and lobbying on behalf of clients, tasks that would have been extremely difficult for Chinese to accomplish on their own.”

Such attorneys also launched test cases challenging the constitutionality of anti-Chinese laws and ordinances, including Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a San Francisco measure imposed against Chinese laundries that violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. In another precedent-setting decision, the Court in 1898 granted an American-born Chinese the right to reenter the United States. Exclusionists had argued that the children of Chinese immigrants were not automatically granted U.S. citizenship because their parents themselves lacked the right of naturalization. Yet the Wong Kim Ark decision rejected this claim in favor of a broad interpretation of birthright citizenship (jus soli).

As the exclusionist campaign picked up steam after 1882, it also broadened to target European immigrants. Congress led the way in 1884 when it excluded contract laborers from Europe in legislation sponsored by Martin Foran, the first congressman to openly identify with organized labor. Samuel Gompers’s testimony against German imported labor—addressed at the start of this chapter—was in support of Foran’s bill. But the main focus of the legislation was southern and eastern Europeans, as well as French Canadians. As with the Chinese, exclusionists saw these newcomers as tools of big business who lowered the standard of living for union workers. These new immigrants were considered nonwhite because they were not Protestant and lacked prized Anglo-Saxon racial traits. Congressman Foran decried the character of Italian and Hungarian immigrants: “They know nothing of our institutions, our customs, or of the habits and characteristics of our people.… They are brought here precisely in the same manner as the Chinese were brought here.… Very many of them have no conception of freedom.… They seldom sleep in beds.… They do not know to purchase any of the luxuries which tend to elevate and enlighten people.… Being low in the scale of intelligence, they are willing slaves.”

Lon Kurashige is professor of history at the University of Southern California.