7. The Clash of Civilizations – The Triumph of Racism
Exclusion and Expulsion of Chinese Americans from the Greatest Democracy in the World
What changed everything was the Transcontinental Railroad. Completed in 1869, by the following year California was being flooded by immigrants, many just arrived from Europe. Instead of the pioneers of the earlier era that earned their way to California through a soul testing journey of heroic proportions, now all it took was short train ride of less than a week from the urban centers of the east. California would never be the same again.
The myth of race relations in California has been that there was a unified “White” race that started the anti-Chinese movement. In fact, there have always been two European-American positions on the Chinese questions. One was the “pioneer” position, which generally favored Chinese immigration. In that earlier era, when California was still a small state, these pioneers had first hand knowledge of how much the Chinese had contributed to building the state and developing its resources. Many have identified these pioneers as capitalist, but it included people from across the economic and social spectrum.
The anti-Chinese side was taken by primarily newly arrived immigrants from Ireland, led by Denis Kearny. At that time, there were two kinds of “Whites”, the lower class Whites, that Kearny represented and the higher class Whites represented by the pioneers.
The history of America is one of erasing class distinctions between the different classes of “Whites”. This process is called the “melting pot”. It was a revolutionary process that unleashed immense potentials as old world hatreds were set aside. But there was a cost. To become White, there had to be an antithesis of White, a non-White that would serve as a catalyst or scapegoat. On the east coast the scapegoat were African Americans (“How the Irish Became White”, Ignatiev, 1995). On the west coast, they were the Chinese.
Playing the “race card” brilliantly, Kearny soon had the established pioneers on the run. Not only did he want the Chinese excluded from immigration into America, he wanted them expelled back to China. Kearny organized boycotts against companies using Chinese labor (the union label) and started a campaign to stop the employment of Chinese. In the small towns of California, the anti-Chinese forces organized the “League of Caucasians” and the “Caucasian Order”. Many small town Chinatowns, like Chico, Redding, Williams, Wheatland, and Truckee were torched and Chinese workers killed.
Not only was force used against the Chinese, the anti-Chinese movement also used it against Chinese sympathizers. Soon many of them were intimidated into giving up their ideas and ideals about a free and equal society open to all.
The promise of America has always been of a country that held itself open to all. We were a “land of opportunity” and by working hard, everyone could attain the American dream.
The anti-Chinese movement was a test of those ideals. The issue was monumental. Was America going to close its doors to an immigrant group based on race? Congress confronted this issue by debating the merits of an “exclusion law” that would prevent the Chinese from immigrating to this country.
In 1876, Congress held hearing on this question. Convening a Joint Special Committee of Congress on Chinese Immigration, they called one hundred twenty nine witnesses to testify. The testimony required 1200 pages to report.
An analysis of the witnesses by occupations shows to what extent Chinese immigration had become a question of class and politics. The pro-Chinese witnesses included all the clergymen, diplomats, manufacturers, and men connected with railroads, navigation and foreign trade. The anti-Chinese witnesses included nearly all the officials, journalists, and workingmen…
It appears to be a fair inference from this alignment that the demand for restriction or prohibition came from the working class, through the officials dependent upon their votes and the newspapers that voiced their wishes; and that the pro-Chinese party consisted of the large employing class, the humanitarians, and of those who had been intimately associated with the Chinese either in China or in this country.
– Coolidge, Chinese Immigration, 1909
More than half of the witnesses that testified, testified in favor of the Chinese. Notwithstanding that fact, the majority report, written by three members, all of whom were on record as being against Chinese immigration, came to conclusions that ignored the evidence. Instead they only repeated the arguments of the most rabid racists that testified. Senator Morton, the chairman of the committee, who unfortunately died prior to the publication of the report, reached more reasoned conclusions, based on the facts that were elicited during the hearing. The conclusions of the Special Committee, Senator Morton, and Professor Becker of the University of Virginia have been summarized by Coolidge and set out to the right.
The majority report of the Special Committee of Chinese Immigration was the beginning of the end of free immigration to America. In 1882, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The beacon of hope that the United States represented to all nations of the world had been dimmed. The racists had won an important battle. It would take another 61 years before freedom would ring again for Chinese Americans.