Chinese immigrants were targeted by racist agitators who mobilized the white majority by appealing to their economic, demographic and cultural anxieties.
One of the most tragic chapters in American history—the spasms of white mob violence against Chinese immigrants followed by round-ups and expulsions that continued for more than half a century—forms almost no part of popular historical memory in the United States. Unlike the rolling genocide against Native American tribes, the brutality of African slavery and Jim Crow segregation, and the Second World War internment of Japanese Americans, the anti-Chinese pogroms in California, Oregon and Washington are largely missing from our collective memory. That is unfortunate because echoes of the savage, officially sanctioned racism motivating those outrages against the Chinese can be heard today in the populist agitation against Hispanic immigrants and in the jingoist drumbeat against China as an economic power. University of Delaware English and East Asian Studies professor Jean Pfaelzer’s Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans traces this tragic passage in a book that should appeal to both academic and popular audiences.
As Pfaelzer explains, the Chinese were first drawn to California in the 1850s by the same prospect of easy riches from gold mining that attracted tens of thousands of others from distant parts, especially New England, Canada, Eire, Mexico and Chile. The Chinese differed, however, in arriving burdened with labor contract debts. Although not slaves, in keeping with California’s status as a free state under the Compromise of 1850, most Chinese immigrants arrived indebted to the Chinese Six Companies in San Francisco, which had paid their passage, found them employment and organized ground transport. In the ugly inter-ethnic scrum for the gold fields, white miners forced out most of the Mexicans and Chileans by 1852 and then turned on the growing numbers of Chinese. Effective indenture under debt obligations provided the argument that competition from Chinese miners was unfair. One of the most effective weapons in driving the Chinese from the gold fields was California’s Foreign Miners Tax Law of 1852, which levied a punishing monthly tax on foreigners for the right to mine. “Between 1852 and 1870, years in which one billion dollars’ worth of untaxed gold was mined in California, Chinese miners paid a staggering fifty-eight million dollars to the state, ranging from one fourth to one half of California’s revenue” (pg. 31). Empowered to seize the mining claims, tools and other goods of Chinese miners, local tax collectors adopted the thuggish means of the tax farmer to extract payments that were shared between the state and local governments.
After low-capital gold mining was exhausted in the early 1860s, white agitation against the Chinese shifted to the opportunities in lumbering, fishing and orchard farming. Isolated in small-town Chinatowns and lacking most of the legal rights of citizens, Chinese immigrants were targeted by racist agitators who mobilized the white majority by appealing to their economic, demographic and cultural anxieties. White economic boycotts, mob violence, and mass round-ups abetted by local officials purged Chinese from many of California’s small towns, often driving them toward the relative safety of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The expulsion of more than 300 Chinese from the lumber town of Eureka in 1885 took place amid attempted lynchings and the looting of Chinese homes and businesses before they were burned (pp. 121-128).
Pfaelzer’s Driven Out makes very timely reading not only because of the familiarity of the successful xenophobic agitation that begins locally and later emerges as a national issue, but also because of what it tells us about the limits of ethnic organization and resistance. Chinese immigrants and a handful of sympathetic whites were able to wage an uneven struggle by organizing Chinatown fire companies and Chinese unions, filing habeas corpus actions in federal courts, and organizing mass civil disobedience. Chinese across the United States unified after the passage of the Geary Act in 1892. Conceived by Congressman Thomas Geary, a Sonoma County Democrat, that legislation repeated the disability of Chinese becoming American citizens, extended the Exclusion Act banning further Chinese immigration for another decade, and made undocumented immigration a crime punishable by one year’s imprisonment at hard labor. What most enraged opponents, however, was that it required every Chinese to carry an identification card with photographs. The Chinese Six Companies in San Francisco, the largest ethnic Chinese organization at the time, responded by calling on all Chinese in the United States to refuse to register. Initially successful—only 3,169 of some 110,000 complied—the civil disobedience ended in 1894 at the urging of the Chinese government, which was pressured by the cost of U.S. trade sanctions. Chinese immigrants began registering and the pace of arrests and deportations for illegal immigration increased. “From 1890 to 1900, the total number of Chinese people in the United States dropped from about 107,000 to 90,000, a loss of 16 percent. In California, the drop was even more precipitous. In 1890, California had 72,000 Chinese residents; by 1900 that number had dropped by more than half, to 31,000” (pg. 330).
The lesson in all this is that anti-immigrant agitation is more than a device for politicians to win votes. Whether it is the bug-eyed anti-Hispanic posturing of Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo or less hysterical versions of the same message from other Republican politicians, agitation against immigrants may do more than persuade working Americans to vote against their own interests. Basic human rights may be trampled as a consequence, and the United States left with a shameful legacy.
John Hickman is associate professor of comparative politics at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. His published work on electoral politics, media, and international affairs has appeared in Asian Perspective, American Politics Research, Comparative State Politics, Contemporary South Asia, Contemporary Strategy, Current Politics and Economics of Asia, East European Quarterly, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Jouvert, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Science, Review of Religious Research, Women & Politics, and Yamanashigakuin Law Review. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.