Most American history books pay scant attention to several notorious Congressional Acts that discriminated against Asians from China and set a course for race to determine which immigrants would receive asylum in America. The worst two acts, one the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884 and the second, the Immigration Act of 1924, established race-based quotas that limited the number of non-Northern European whites allowed entry into the United States.
After the Gold rush of 1849, thousands of individuals flocked to California, a territory won from Mexico in 1846 and adopted into the Union in 1850, with hopes of striking it rich. The gold rush made the Pacific Coast an attractive port of entry for immigrants from East Asia, particularly China, seeking similar wealth.
As the gold rush subsided and more normal enterprises took root Asian immigrants, like other settlers, began seeking employment in the railroad, mining, and logging industries, among others. By 1882, the Chinese population in California was 375,000–90% of which were male. While these individuals lived in hovels similar to those on the east coast imhabited by European immigrants, unlike those groups, the Chinese had a more difficult time assimilating into the mainstream white culture because of their different customs and appearance.
During the early 1880s, when the first of what would become known as “Jim Crow” laws were being designed in the South, Blacks in California– barely a decade and a half removed from enslavement–had the 14th and 15th Amendments to provide them with Equal Protection as well as the right to the franchise–at least on paper. Chinese immigrants, however, were afforded no such protection since they were not naturalized citizens. As de facto discrimination against the Chinese increased, the seeds for de jure discrimination were soon implemented by the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
The 1882 Act read in pertinent part:
“Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore, Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled…the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States.”
The timing of the Act was curious when considering that the nation, only two decades removed from the Civil War, had made significant progress in the areas of racial equality–at least on the surface. During this era known as Reconstruction, recently freed Blacks built thriving businesses in addition to colleges and universities that still exist, and held high political office. Louisiana had a Black governor, PBS Pinchback, and Mississippi was represented by two Black Senators, Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce. Toward this end, scores of Blacks began serving as political leaders on the state and local levels across America. It would seem, then, that with such a record of achievement, that the original concept of white racial superiority that had long festered would have been eradicated by the almost seamless transition of those Blacks heretofore in bondage who, when provided an opportunity to succeed, did so. In that vein, one would think that America, having its tradition of white racial superiority obliterated by newly freed Blacks, would not impute the same notions of superiority on the Chinese?
Indeed, the very passage of the Exclusion Act only five years after Reconstruction ended due to the Compromise of 1877, one that awarded the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes (over Samuel Tilden) in exchange for Hayes’ promise to remove federal troops from the South, was a harbinger of the national mood shift that would witness white backlash against Blacks, Asians, and other physically distinguishable ethnic groups.
For Blacks, the gains of Reconstruction were replaced by “Black Codes,” informally known as Jim Crow laws, ones that were similar to the old slave codes. For Chinese immigrants, the Exclusion Act during this same period codified legal discrimination and sounded the death knell for any new Chinese arrivals until the middle of the 20th Century.
Undaunted by the Exclusion Act, in 1892, Congress enacted the Geary Act. This Act required Chinese immigrants and natural born Americans of Chinese descent “to register, be photographed or face deportation.” Individuals arrested under this act were compelled to prove that they were rightfully living in the United States and those “without papers” were not afforded procedural due process rights like bail.
In this respect, the antipathy for Black rights was synonymous with the backlash against the Chinese, a fact that was prevalent in the seminal United States Supreme Court case of the era, Plessy vs. Ferguson. The Plessy decision is infamous because the majority agreed that the states could implement “separate but equal” doctrines that established legal segregation based on race.
Plessy was also famous for the dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan, a man who disagreed with discrimination against Blacks, but wrote the following about discrimination against the Chinese:
“There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the Black race in Louisiana … are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by citizens of the white race.”
Not to be outdone, by the 1920’s, the concept of immigration “quotas” was extended to thwart the arrival of Eastern and Southern Europeans, ones who tended to be darker than Northern European whites, and Blacks from Sub-Sahara Africa. In fact, the 1924 Immigration Act led to the specific exclusion of ALL Blacks from Sub-Sahara or “Black Africa.”
I share these facts to counter the fiction that I read time and again last week that “Asians haven’t had it bad in America” in the wake of six Asian women being killed by a 21-year old white supremacist near Atlanta, Georgia. Indeed Asians have had it bad–by law and custom–due to the same white supremacy that enslaved and terrorized Blacks, killed and rieved land from Native Americans, and discriminated against both Blacks and Asians due to Jim Crow laws, immigration exclusion laws, and white supremacist terrorism throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th Century. Terrorism that also included the infamous placement of Japanese American citizens in detention camps by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
Lest we forget!