United Hate of America

Volume 1: The Chinese Exclusion Act

Inspired by a recent Facebook discussion with a good friend, this on-going Thought Thursday series will focus on various US immigration policies, dating back to the start of the nation in the late 1700’s.* 

San Francisco’s Chinatown

Recent events, like the tragic murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a proposed US/Mexico boarder wall, and a recent presidential election in Mexico, have thrust up, yet again, immigration questions and debates nationwide.

But how do current immigration plans compare to plans in the past? And how has our ethnic and nationality hatred shifted over time? Perhaps, by glimpsing into the past, we can gain a better appreciation for the present, and develop a blueprint for how to deal with immigration issues in the future.

Context Matters

It’s 1848 on the Eastern coast of the United States. You get word, possibly via the newspaper, possibly from a hurried neighbor, that miracles are cropping up on the banks of the American River (1). Gold. Gold, everywhere. Your family packs up their belongings, what little there is, and shoves it into a covered wagon, and sets off for riches unseen. Perhaps this is the second time your family has made a trek like this in their lifetime.

When you arrive, you put up with high crime in mining camps, poor opportunities, and crippling disappointment with the realization that gold was rare and hard to come by (1). And then, later, when you finally accepted your fate, you had to face an overgrown California, struggling to adapt to 300,000 new residents, all looking for work (1).

Eventually, you are able to find work. Perhaps as a farmer or farm-hand, or perhaps in a textile factory (2). It’s the mid-50’s now, and life, perhaps, feels like it’s returning to normal. The 60’s (with the civil war) and 70’s come and go. And now it’s the 80’s.

In the three decades since the height of the gold rush (10 years shy of a lifetime for the people of that day (3)), foreigners have been arriving, and native nations* have been disappearing rapidly (1, 2). Prior to 1938, minimum wages, labor laws, and many worker protections, were non-existent in workplaces across the country (4). As a result, the worker who got the job was the one who could work the most hours at the lowest price.

Immigrants, particularly Chinese immigrants, owed money to the merchants who gave them a way over, and needed to provide for their families back home (2). These immigrants were willing to do whatever it took, at whatever price, to make some amount of money at all, while US workers were not as easily able to compete (2).

Skin Deep

On the surface, we might be able to empathize with these non-Chinese Americans, whose jobs and families were at risk. But there were over 5 million foreign-born immigrants living in the States in the 1880’s, from China, yes, but also Greece, Italy, and Russia (1). Why, in 1882, did the president ban only immigrants from China? To understand that, we have to understand the origin of the now tourist-crazed icons – “Chinatowns”.

As numerous cultural studies have shown, particularly during times of hostility, ethnic groups stick together (2). These neighborhoods, full of odd goods; criminal dealings (both real and imagined); gambling; and gross food (to the European pallet), increased distrust of the already unfavorable Chinese people (2, 3). Not only were these Chinese laborers stealing jobs from hardworking Americans, they were now also raising concerns for a decreased morality of American society, and a supposed determined refusal to assimilate into American culture (2,  4).


The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) was not a random choice for the first of this series. It was the first bill of its kind, and the Chinese people were the first ethnic group officially banned from the States (1).  The act (which you can read here) was two pronged. First, new Chinese laborers were prohibited from coming into the country for an initial period of 10 years (2). The act was later extended for an indefinite period of time (3), until it was officially repealed in 1943 (4). Now, for those of you concerned with Social Justice Warriors, this was not a formality, but an actual repeal. Chinese immigrants could once again enter the country legally, but only 105 of them per year (4). For those of you bad at math, that means a 10 year exclusion actually took on 61 years in real time. This isn’t to say that once these Chinese immigrants were allowed in, they were welcomed with open arms. Rather, they were allowed into the country only, and many faced housing discrimination common of many non-white ethnicities and racial groups of the time.


It’s tempting, particularly with our “America First” diction today, to not sympathize with the American laborers out of work by the Chinese immigrants. On the surface, though I disagree with it (a job is a job; a person is a person), I can understand how a legitimate argument is formed around that idea. What I think is so illuminating, and clearly problematic though, is summed up best from the Congressional hearing we heard from before. The quote can be found in it’s entirety here, but the relevant part is quoted below:

“We admit that Chinese labor has contributed to the more speedy development of our material resources. We acknowledge the advantage it has been to certain industries, and that many individuals have become richer than they would except for the presence of the Chinese. We admit their convenience to us as domestic servants. We do not represent the Chinese as wanting in many of the essentials of good citizens. The burden of our accusation against them is that they come in conflict with our labor interests; that they can never assimilate with us…” (1)

What’s so troubling about this passage is that it directly credits the Chinese laborers with benefiting the American economy. It calls them servants. And then, after these workers have come in, worked hard, and the White majority has fully benefited from their labor, they are banned from the country.

As we explore, in the coming months, what it means to be an American (and, more pointedly, what it means to be a not American) I want you to think about these laborers in the late 1800’s.

I want you to think about people today, around you, who work low-paying jobs in places that may not guarantee them the same protections you benefit from, and I want you to question, openly, the narrative that these people are lazy. I want you to question that these people, who work just as hard, if not harder than you, should not be allowed to work here.

I want us to critically ask ourselves how we have personally or even indirectly, benefited from these individual’s labor, and how we have brushed it aside because it doesn’t fit some “labor interest.”

But most of all, I want you to remember these Chinese laborers, whose biggest crimes were being too good at their jobs.

Notes & References


  • Image “San Francisco’s Chinatown” copyright © 2017 Bryce Van Vleet. All rights reserved.
  • * While the genocide, racism, and prejudice against First Nations (and many other ethnic and cultural groups, for that matter), predates the founding of the US, I would like to focus each volume of this series on a particular ethnic or cultural group after the official start of the US. My intent (which may not equal my impact, of which I am sorry,) is not to sideswipe these gross and inexcusable atrocities, but rather to get to the root of what exactly is American about these attitudes and beliefs.
  • Promotional conversation based off a true event. See our non-fiction disclaimer.

Context Matters

  • * The nature of this series involves some textured prejudice. Each of these segments will focus on a particular subgroup. Again, the intent is not to sideswipe parallel injustices, but rather to give a cohesive narrative to one place in time, and one specific context.
  • References

Skin Deep



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: