a backlash against chinese immigrants -- 6/13/16

Today's selection -- from Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell. Immigrants to America have long been a target for derision and exclusion:

"When [Chester Alan] Arthur became president, there were approximately 250,000 Chinese living in the United States, with the over­whelming majority in California. Few were citizens, and the Naturalization Act of 1870 made it impossible for them (or anyone else who wasn't either white or of African descent) to obtain citizenship. Chinese laborers, first brought to the United States as 'coolies' whose legal status was in a netherworld between indentured servants and slaves, had built the railroads and then harvested crops. They were domestic servants and laborers in cities from Stockton to Sacramento. They were grudgingly admired for their fortitude, discipline, and work ethic, and for the same reasons, they were feared and reviled. They were, in short, too good at what they did. They did what others could do, but they worked harder and were paid less. Soon enough, in the divide-and-conquer logic of nativist politi­cians, they became the target of riots, and lynchings, and then, finally, of laws meant to prevent them from competing for the expanding pie of economic rewards.

"The United States may be a country of immigrants, but rarely has a generation gone by without some furor over immigration. The uproar over the Chinese in the 1880s was simply the anti-immigration issue du jour. When New England attracted non-Puritan settlers in the later part of the seven­teenth century, worried villagers passed laws to keep them out.

"When 1.5 million Irish Catholics fled from famine to Boston and New York in the 1840s and early 1850s, they were the object of derision, prejudice, and hatred. They were carica­tured as agents of the pope, as unwashed and unschooled, and as an unwelcome foreign presence whose major contributions to American life were loose morals and liquor. In time, these prejudices faded, and the Irish established themselves as civic leaders and powerful voting blocs. The Irish experience sug­gests that while the animus against the Chinese in the West had a strong racial component, racism alone wasn't the cause of the backlash. The United States may have been seen as a land of opportunity and possibility, but few Americans at any given time felt secure. Each wave of immigration was seen by some as a clear and present threat. In an already competitive economy, new immigrants meant new workers who would do whatever needed doing and for less money.

"The harsh economy of the 1870s also stoked resentment. A quarter to half of the U.S. labor force was looking for work. Unemployed men gathered in taverns and public squares. They wanted jobs, and they wanted explanations for why they didn't have them. Many politicians obliged. It was easy to put the blame on strange foreigners who could not vote and who were at the mercy of the law. Anti-Chinese sentiment became a proxy for class war. Chinese immigration was the product of the insatiable demand of railroad companies, such as the Cen­tral Pacific, for cheap labor that could be forced to work and even to die without arousing the ire of do-good reformers. Ironically, some of the most virulent opponents of Chinese immigration were the Irish, who had only recently gained a measure of acceptance in mainstream America. Dennis Kear­ney of San Francisco made his political career rallying out-of­-work laborers around the slogan 'The Chinese must go.' There was a logic to his animosity. One of the best ways to deflect attention is to find a common adversary, and by shifting blame to Chinese immigrants, Kearney was able to make common cause with people who might otherwise have targeted him. Kearney was hardly the first or last American politician to adopt such tactics.

"In 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment in the West reached a fever pitch. John Miller, a Republican senator from California, called for a law to exclude Chinese immigrants for the next twenty years. The measure had widespread, bipartisan support not just in California but throughout the country. Labor groups in the Northeast treated all new immigrants as a danger to stable wages, and anti-immigration bills had been a good way to stir up voters. If it wasn't the Irish in the 1840s, it was the Chinese in the 1880s. The bill, called the Anti-Chinese Immigration Bill and later dubbed the Chinese Exclusion Act, swiftly made its way through Congress and in early spring was deposited on Chester Arthur's desk for his signature. To the astonishment and outrage of many in Congress, the president vetoed it. [But later signed one when the exclusion period was reduced to ten years]."


Zachary Karabell


Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents Series: The 21st President, 1881-1885


Times Books


Copyright 2004 by Zachary Karabell


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