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The Chinese Exclusion Act: A Black Legacy


Passed in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was a climax to more than thirty years of progressive racism. Anti-Chinese sentiment had existed ever since the great migration from China during the gold rush, where white miners and prospectors imposed taxes and laws to inhibit the Chinese from success. Racial tensions increased as more and more Chinese emigrated, occupied jobs, and created competition on the job market. By 1882 the Chinese were hated enough to be banned from immigrating; the Chinese Exclusion Act, initially only a ten year policy, was extended indefinitely, and made permanent in 1902. The Chinese resented the idea that they were being discriminated against, but for the most part they remained quiet. In 1943, China was an important ally of the United States against Japan, so the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed; however, a lasting impact remained. The act was both cause and effect: it came from decades of Chinese discrimination, and initiated decades of Chinese exclusion.

The Chinese flocked to America in search of opportunities; most fled from their collapsing empire for economic reasons. The Gold Rush happened during a period of poverty in China, which both pushed and pulled the Chinese to emigrate. In California, the Chinese newcomers soon became an exploited work force, especially since they were predominantly male, but the wages they received in the burgeoning 1850's economy were still "considerably higher than they could earn at home" (Daniels 15). Many Chinese became miners, and some developed the laundry business (highly lucrative in overpopulated San Francisco).

But opposition in California was both immediate and strong. During the Gold Rush, thousands of Americans from the East, where they had opposed European immigration, frequently came with nativist attitudes. And non-American whites (Irish, Russian), who had suffered from Eastern nativism, saw that in attacking the Chinese, they elevated their own (shaky) status. Thus, Chinese immigrants faced discrimination from many different groups, including American miners, who felt that the hard-working and low-paid Chinese were reducing their wages.

It is the duty of the miners to take the matter into their own hands and erect such barriers as shall be sufficient to check this asiatic inundation The Capitalists who are encouraging or engaged in the importation of these burlesques on humanity would crown their ships with the long tailed, horned and cloven-hoofed inhabitants of the infernal regions if they could make a profit on it. (McLeod, qtd. in Daniels, 34)

Thus, during the financially unstable 1870's, the Chinese became an ideal scapegoat: they were strangers, wore queues, kept to their own kind, and were very productive (conditions not inspiring great love, especially among the American laboring class). Legislation, including immigration taxes, and laundry-operation fees, passed in order to limit the success of the Chinese workers. Cartoons and other propaganda reinforced the view that the Chinese "worked cheap and smelled bad" (Daniels 52); demonstrators marched with anti-Chinese slogans.







"A Statue for Our Harbor"

(click on picture for an enhanced view of the head)

Courtesy of: Choy, Philip. Dong, Lorraine. Hom, Marlon. The Coming Man. University of Washington Press: Seattle and London, 1994. Page:136

Racial tensions finally snapped in 1882, and Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring immigration for ten years; the Geary Act extended the act for another ten years in 1892, and by the Extension Act of1904, the act was made permanent.

"The Last Load"

Courtesy of:Choy, Philip. Dong, Lorraine. Hom, Marlon. The Coming Man. University of Washington Press: Seattle and London, 1994. Page:157



But immigration still went on, however, as the exclusion laws were frequently bypassed. After the earthquake fires destroyed all family records in 1906, Chinese immigrants effectively donned false names and identities, and came to their "relatives" already in the US as paper sons and daughters. In response to this continuing Chinese influx, the city of San Francisco created a prison-like detention center for incoming immigrants at Angel Island in 1910, where officials screened and deported dubious incomers.

Americans justified their actions with two main claims. First, the Americans claimed that jobs were scarce, and the Chinese were stealing the only jobs that there were because of there willingness to work for smaller wages. Americans also claimed that the Chinese were sending too much gold back to China-they believed that the wealth should remain within the United States (Knoll 24). Anti-sentiments against the Chinese were high in the United States, however, Chinese continued to immigrate to the United States. Not only was the majority of Chinese excluded from immigrating, however, the few Chinese that did immigrate were treated inhumanely. Many of their customs and traditions were violated, they were insulted, they were imprisoned, beat and in some cases killed.

Why did we have to depart from our parents and loved ones and come to stay in a place far away from our homes? It is for no reason but to make a living. In order to make a living here, we have to endure all year around drudgery and all kinds of hardship. We are in a state of seeking shelter under another person's face, at the threat of being driven away at any moment. We have to swallow down the insults hurled at us. (Knoll, 28)

The Chinese resented the fact that they were being discriminated against, yet they continued to immigrate to the United States because they felt their opportunities in the United States were still better than in China.

For sixty-one years, the Chinese were excluded from entering the United States and becoming natural citizens when on December 17, 1943, the United States Congress pass the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act, which allowed Chinese to enter the United States legally once again.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed mainly for political reasons rather than for human rights reasons. The main political reason was that the Chinese became an ally of the United States extremely fast when World War II broke out. Since the Chinese were viewed as allies now, the American government wanted to keep sentiments between the two countries high, so the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, and Angel Island no longer remained a detainment center for Chinese immigrants. This was a victory for people from China and Chinese-Americans; however, the American reputation remains tainted by its inhumane and racist exclusion policies towards the Chinese in the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.




Choy, Philip. Dong, Lorraine. Hom, Marlon. The Coming Man. University of

Washington Press: Seattle and London, 1994.

Daniels, Roger. Asian America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration. The University of Chicago Press:

Chicago, 1960.

Knoll, Tricia. Becoming Americans. Coast to Coast Books: Portland, 1982.






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